The most entertaining football team in Houston is not the Houston Cougars. The most professional football team in Houston is not the Texans. The best prepared, and easily the most motivated, football team in Houston is the one that plays in Rice Stadium, the Rice Owls.
Most of Houston ignores the Owls, judging by the attendance figures at Rice Stadium. The Owls don't get high ratings and generally play games at awful times. Nobody talks about the team on the radio (well, aside from N.D. Kalu). And when the Owls do get prime time games, they have to go on the road to places like South Bend and College Station because the big-boy schools refuse to travel for the likes of Rice.
The Owls won their fourth straight game on Saturday afternoon, defeating the North Texas Mean Green (2-6) by a 41-21 score to improve their record to 4-3. The Owls scored on the first play from scrimmage when quarterback Driphus Jackson hit a wide open Jordan Taylor on a nice pass over the middle then watched as Taylor sprinted the rest of the way for the
82-yard *88-yard touchdown.
It was a fun play to watch unfold in realtime. But after the game, learning that Rice had figured out earlier in the week what the North Texas defense was going to do, and then learning that Jackson and the offense were ready to run the play once they hit the field, just made it that much better.
"When we went out there, we wanted to make sure we had the look," Jackson said. "When we got it, it was just a matter of timing."
That used to be how the Cougars operated, a well-prepared team that came out with a plan to start the game and found a way to execute that plan. Now the Cougars are an offensive unit that often stumbles around for most of the first half, trying to figure out what the opposing team is doing so they can make halftime adjustments and work from there. The Cougars have become a team willing to sit on the ball at the end of a half rather than make a quick strike for the end zone while the Owls are always seemingly looking for any chance to strike.
The Owls can run the ball with two backs who can pull off the power game and who can run away when getting past the line and into open space. Jackson's a former wildcat quarterback who can run the ball, pull off the option, and who can throw the ball deep. He's got receivers like Taylor who can hold onto just about anything that comes into his direction, and he's also got speedy guys who can run the ball a long way if they get the ball in space. Then there's the defensive unit which struggled at the start of the season as they played bigger, physical schools like Notre Dame and Texas A&M. The unit was injured, with young guys playing out of position. The unit's healthy now, and it's shutting down teams -- North Texas was held to 26 rushing yards on 33 carries, and gained only a total of 45 yards in the second half (getting just eight yards in the fourth quarter). The Owls forced a fumble on the second half kickoff, getting a field goal, and on the next drive defensive back Ryan Pollard picked a pass and took it back 60 yards for the touchdown that put Rice in the lead for good.
"I said guys, this is how I want to start the third quarter, this half," Baliff said. "We've got to get a turnover. We've got to score quick. It was one of those where we went, wow they did everything we asked. I should ask more often."
The Texans are a train wreck of a team assembled by an incompetent boob and coached by a guy whose reputation was built on the arm and brains of Tom Brady. The Texans seemingly find new and inventive ways to lose games time after time, and each week force the Ryan Fitzpatrick experience on an unwilling public still recovering from the Matt Schaub Pick Six thrill ride.
Meanwhile, the Cougars offer up an offense that makes the Texans' offense look competent. It's an offense that ruins talented quarterback after talented quarterback and that has abandoned the uptempo pass-happy style for a slow, run-heavy offense for which most of the players seem ill-suited. The UH offensive game plan seems based on the defense forcing turnovers and putting the team in scoring position, hoping that new quarterback Greg Ward, Jr. will make something happen on supposedly designed scrambles, or that a drive can be extended thanks to a defensive penalty.
The Owls are the real deal. A complete team that's getting better by the week. Sure it's Rice, and sure the Owls probably couldn't compete on a weekly basis in one of the power conferences. But the Owls are fun to watch, they put up points, and they're winning games. It's time to stop rewarding the mediocrity of the Texans and the rest of football in Houston. The city needs to start turning out at Rice Stadium to see something not offered up by the Texans or Cougars: a competent football team that executes its game plan, is always prepared, and is entertaining.
Correction, 10/28/14: Taylor ran a 88-yard TD pass, not 82 yards as we initially reported. The Houston Press regrets the error.