If the Rice Owls only played football in November at home and against non-BCS conference schools, they'd be an unstoppable force. Like on Saturday when they played their most complete of the season in defeating UTEP 41-37.
Unfortunately for the Owls (3-6, 2-4 in conference), they also have to play football games in September and October. Unfortunately they have to play games on the road. And unfortunately for the Owls, next week they travel to Illinois to take on a BCS conference school, Northwestern, which went into Nebraska and defeated the Cornhuskers on Saturday.
But let's forget about this upcoming weekend for the moment and look back at the Saturday just past. A Saturday where the Owls put up 671 yards of offense on a UTEP (4-5) squad inching toward bowl eligibility. The 671 yards were the third-most yards compiled by an Owls offense in school history. And they compiled those yards by rush and by the pass, by using their conventional offense, and by employing the "Wild Owl" wildcat offense that coaching staff has called ineffective throughout most of the season.
UTEP took the early 7-0 lead on Rice, and they went on top following the script of the Houston Cougars -- going deep on man coverage and beating corner Bryce Callahan for a 74-yard bomb on the third play of the game. But the Miners aren't as good a team as the Cougars. Their quarterback's not as good and their receivers aren't as fast, and though the Miners tried going deep on Callahan several other times during the game, it was UTEP that suffered as Callahan played great coverage and came down with two interceptions.
"You just have to shake it off and keep playing," Callahan said of the plays aimed at him. "It's difficult. It's always in the back of your mind. It is important that you focus on the 'next' play because that is the most important play."
The Owls followed the same pattern they did against the Cougars. They went out to the 17-7 second quarter lead using the wildcat offense and with Turner Petersen and Tyler Smith stacking up big run after big. Then they went back to the conventional offense and struggled for most of the second quarter. But senior QB Nick Fanuzzi had one of those special games in the second half, completing 15 of 21 passes for 253 yards and three touchdowns in the third and fourth quarters.
"We got into a rhythm today that we could do pretty much whatever we wanted," Fanuzzi said. "We were running the ball successfully, going inside, outside. We were throwing the ball down the field. Getting a lot of man coverage allows you to do that. It was very evenly mixed-up today. Today I felt like we were throwing a lot, and that we could keep on doing it over and over again. This game was different than any other game I've had here."
Still, the win wasn't easy for the Owls. Up 41-31 late in the fourth quarter, they had to withstand a late UTEP TD (the Miners missed the extra point) then needed tight end Vance McDonald to come up huge once again as he recovered the onside kick with 42 seconds remaining.
With the win, the Owls have now won their last eight November home games, and with one home game remaining this month, against Tulane on November 19, the Owls should be 9-0. And as hard as it is to believe, having watched the Owls this season, but their bowl hopes, though nearly non-existent, are still there. They just have to win their remaining three games this season. But now they go on the road, and they go on the road to play Northwestern this week.
"We usually don't play BCS schools in November," head coach David Bailiff said. "I don't know what I am against BCS...you're schedule traditionally is a little different."
But for now, the Owls are coming off a victory, a 41-37 win over the UTEP Miners, a conference rival itself struggling to reach bowl eligibility.
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HOUSTON COUGAR NEWS: The Cougars went to Birmingham, Alabama on Saturday night, and in a game that most of the country didn't know was even being played because of the Alabama-LSU game being played at about the same time, delivered a big time win 56-13 win over UAB that will, once again, have uninformed critics whining about the Cougars running up the score.
But as television analyst, and former West Virginia and Michigan head coach, Rich Rodriguez said late during the game, it's not the win that counts for a team like the Cougars. For teams like the Cougars playing in a mediocre non-AQ BCS conference, the style points that come with the win count as much the win, thus the bigger the score, the more spectacular the scoring plays, the better the Cougars do in the polls -- witness the Cougars continuing to move upwards in the polls.
As has been the case with road games this season, the Cougars got off to a slow start. UAB had the early 7-0 lead, and the game was tied 7-7 after the first with the Coogs being up only 21-10 at the half. But the Cougars started dictating the flow of the game in the second quarter, and UAB didn't stand a chance after that. Especially with QB Case Keenum closing in on the NCAA all-time career passing yardage record. A record which Keenum grabbed in the third quarter to go with the other NCAA records he's grabbed in the past several weeks: career TD passes, career total offensive yards, and career points accounted for.
The Cougars (9-0) will return to action on Thursday night when they travel to the Superdome to play Tulane.