The Rice Owls are hosting the East Carolina Pirates this weekend, and if the Owls had any bounty left, then the Pirates would be plundering it. But this season being this season, the Owls have already had their treasure looted by just about every opponent they've faced, including last week when Tulane stole victory in the closing minutes of the game.
The Owls find themselves in a familiar situation this weekend: the situation of coming off a loss. The situation of a loss that resulted from their own errors -- this time four first-half turnovers that contributed to 17 first-half points. The situation of having to face one of the best teams in C-USA, a team stacked with offensive talent that can seemingly score at will on anybody.
Then there's this: the 2-8 Owls are playing for pride. The 6-4 Pirates are playing for first place in C-USA East, the rights to host the C-USA title game, and a spot in the Liberty Bowl. So yeah, when it comes to playing for something, it's pretty obvious that the Pirates care about more than just pillaging the Owls.
"We need to play as well as we can against East Carolina," Rice head coach David Bailiff said on Monday. "If we do that, we'll have an opportunity to win that one. They're scoring 38 points a game. They've struggled on defense."
The Pirates have struggled on defense. They surrender an average of 41.4 points per game and they give up an average of 465.7 yards a game. Their rush defense is the worst in C-USA, giving up 212.1 yards per game on the ground, and their pass defense isn't much better, surrendering 253.6 yards per game. So for one of the few times this season, the Owls are playing a team that has a defense worse than theirs.
But here's the thing: as the Houston Cougars and Tulsa Golden Hurricane have proven in seasons past, defense doesn't matter in C-USA if a team can put up the points. And the Pirates can put up the points. They've got the best pass offense in the conference; they're behind only Houston and Tulsa in the conference when it comes to points per game and total offense. In short, it doesn't matter what the Rice offense is able to do against the Pirates defense if the Rice defense can't stop the Pirates offense.
Thus comes the mantra that's been uttered so often around the Rice athletic facilities this season: the Owls must not let themselves beat themselves.
"We just have to continue to stick together," Bailiff said. "We've got to learn to rely on technique and fundamentals. Even in the hard times of games. And that's some of the things we're doing. We abandon our technique too early. We've got to learn depend and trust that."
And there is much truth to those statements. Rice lost 54-49 to Tulane last week. Seventeen of those Tulane points came off turnovers. If the turnovers don't happen, then Rice probably wins the game pretty easily. Then again, after playing an outstanding second half of defense against Tulane, the Owl defense let up at just the wrong moment, giving up a bomb with time running out in the game.
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"It was really, this halftime, they knew it was just what we had done to ourselves," Bailiff said of last week's second-half comeback against Tulane. "And the mistakes we made. And if we eliminated mistakes and played hard, we could be in that one. I think it was 38-21 at half, with four turnovers. Tulane never stopped us. We stopped ourselves."
For the most part, all of the Rice losses this season have followed this same pattern. The Owls have self-destructed at some point during the game, and that self-destruction has brought about a complete implosion of the team. The Owls were able to survive this implosion against North Texas and Houston because the implosion came after the Owls had jumped off to big leagues. But they haven't been so lucky the rest of the season.
The Owls have only two more chances to get it right this season. And this weekend against East Carolina is going to be a difficult way to get it right. Who knows? Maybe if Rice doesn't commit mistakes, keeps the turnovers to the minimum, stresses the fundamentals, and rely on their techniques, then maybe, just maybe, things will work out. But if not, look for the Pirates of East Carolina to chew up Rice Stadium like Johnny Depp chewing up the scenery as Jack Sparrow.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS GAME NOTES: This is the fourth time these two teams have met, and East Carolina has won two of the three games, including 49-13 last season....Punter Kyle Martens leads C-USA with a 46.91 yard average, and he is ranked third nationally. He is also one of the ten punters who has been named a semifinalist for the Ray Guy Award....Despite their inability to win games, the Owls have been able to score a touchdown in 74 straight games....The game kickoffs from Rice Stadium at noon. For those who won't be able to attend, the game will be televised on CSS, and the radio broadcast can be found on 97.5 FM.