Saturday was a tale of two halves. The Rice Owls dominated the first, playing easily their best half of football this year. The Houston Cougars came out and took over most of the second half. But for the Cougars, winning the second half wasn't enough as they lost their second game in a row 34-31 to fall to 3-3 on the season while the Owls improved to 2-5.
The Owls took the early lead when a pass from UH quarterback David Piland bounced off of his receiver, Justin Johnson, and into the hands of Owls defender Justin Hill who returned the ball to the Cougar five-yard line. Four plays later, on fourth and goal, and just inches from the goal line, Rice running back Jeremy Eddington took the snap out of the Wildcat formation, dropped back to pass, and finding no open receivers, ran to his right and just snuck into the end zone at the corner to put Rice up 6-0 (the extra point attempt failed).
The Cougars offense did nothing on their second possession. The Owls then drove the ball 56 yards in seven plays to take the 13-0 lead after Owls QB Nick Fanuzzi found tight end Luke Willson open over the middle for a 29-yard TD. The Cougars responded on the next drive, with Piland's 10-yard TD pass to Patrick Edwards -- the first of three for that duo -- ending an 80-yard drive that made it 13-7.
The rest of the first half belonged to Rice as they reeled off two more long drives, taking a 27-7 lead. Piland was able to hit Edwards for a 38-yard TD late in the second to make it 27-14, but the Cougars could get no closer.
"And as I said post-game on the radio, very few people are good enough to play a half against anybody and win the game," UH head coach Kevin Sumlin said after the game. "Certainly we're not there yet. You can't flop around for a half and come out and play for a half and beat -- and win games."
Yet the Cougars gave it their best shot, and behind Piland and running back Bryce Beall, the Cougars dominated the third period. They scored twice, to take the 28-27 lead going into the fourth.
"It was a different team that came out [in the second half]," Beall said. "We came out inspired. We came out and played fast and played hard like we're supposed to. We've got to do it for two halves though. This first half stuff's just not acceptable, just doing it for one half. That'll get us beat every time."
With the Cougars holding onto a 31-27 lead, the Owls offense returned to first-half form and drove 57 yards in 11 plays to take the 34-31 lead with 4:31 left. The drive ended when Fanuzzi hit Vance McDonald on a crossing route for a 13-yard TD. A play that came about, like many on the day for the Owls, because the players were all on the same page.
"We got out there today and made some key throws...." Fanuzzi said. "We had great timing today. I think me and the receivers were all on the same page. The line did a great job of getting time. We executed all of our plays to the best of our ability for the most part. It was just a great win for us today."
The Cougars attempted to respond, but with 1:37 on the clock and facing a fourth-and-one at the Rice 37, Piland fumbled the snap. The Cougars recovered the fumble for a loss of four yards, and turned the ball over on downs, effectively ending the game.
"I thought the first half, the game plan of trying to shorten the game and keep the ball out of their hands was really executed flawlessly," Owls coach David Bailiff said. "I thought the defense, while we got beat deep, did a much better job of putting pressure on the quarterback and making some plays."
The Cougars were proud of their comeback attempt. But several players, notably Beall, were upset at unnamed teammates who put the team in a position it shouldn't have been.
"We've got too many people on here along for the ride, and not stepping up, and waiting for other people to make plays," Beall said. "Everybody's got to be there."
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Perhaps Beall saw the Cougars playing like the Owls have most of the season, unfocused and sloppy, while the Owls played like the Cougars did last season, together as a team and executing plays to perfection.
"You know we're really proud of this football team first and foremost for hanging together through the tough times because you've got to hang together to win one like this," Bailiff said.
The tough times aren't over for the Owls. They're off to Orlando to take on UCF Saturday afternoon, but this time, they'll be trying to start a winning streak instead of stopping a losing streak. And the Cougars tough times might just be starting as they travel to Dallas to play SMU on Saturday.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS GAME NOTES: The Owls wore helmets with a pink "R" logo in support of breast cancer awareness. They will wear these helmets against UCF....Cougar defensive back Loyce Means wore pink shoelaces and socks in honor of his mother who died of breast cancer last year....Bryce Beall did his job, gaining 109 yards on 24 carries while Rice's primary running back, Sam McGuffie, gained 71 yards on 19 carries....UH receiver Patrick Edwards moved past 2,000 receiving yards on Saturday, making him only the ninth receiver in UH history do so....Rice receiver Randy Kitchen's 59-yard first half TD reception was the longest reception of his Rice career.