The Rice Owls (7-3) stomped the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (4-6) on Saturday night. Demolished them by a score of 52-14. The Owls were up 24-0 at the half, but showed no mercy, going for the kill like few Rice teams have done in recent years.
But it was a maddening win, one of those wins that leaves everyone wondering why Rice doesn't do this more often. Why it doesn't put together dominating games destroying opponents while playing in Conference USA, where Rice has the ability to be a monster program.
It's been a long break for Rice since their last game, a disappointing 28-16 loss at North Texas on Halloween night that, while not destroying the team's chances for a spot in the C-USA title game, certainly cast a huge spell of doom on the chances. That was a game the Owls should've, could've won. A game like so many of their other games over the past several years, and games which, weeks earlier, the Owls had appeared to cast aside forever.
The Owls biggest obstacle over the past several years has been Rice. Sloppy play at inopportune moments. Stupid penalties, lack of execution, missed tackles, questionable decision making. The Owls had appeared to put that all aside, only to see the Owls that started last season 1-5 show up and harm the team against the Mean Green.
"We played five football games in the month of October," head coach David Bailiff said of the loss to North Texas and the interlude before Saturday's game. "We won four of them. What we really did this week, was we had a good time and rested. We didn't stay out there [practicing] really long...Our number one goal was to get people healthy."
Once again the Owls didn't play perfect football -- despite the score. The offense was sloppy at times and the biggest offense sequence on one series early in the first half came about when Rice fumbled on a third down, Louisiana Tech recovered, tried to advance the ball, then fumbled the ball back to Rice, giving the Owls a first down despite the loss of yardage. Yet when the Owls were on their game, they were really on their game. Charles Ross rushed for 215 yards -- 114 alone in the first half -- and the offense seemed to dictate any and all action when they went straight ahead with the run. But they ran into problems when trying trickeration or getting away from the run, not that it really mattered, not with the game Ross was having. (He finished a school record five rushing TDs, and now has over 1,000 rushing yards in just eight games -- he missed Rice's other two games with injuries.)
"Charles has really matured as a running back this season," Bailiff said. "You can tell he's really patient at times, waiting on some soft spots or seams to develop or really hugging the wall that the o-line's creating. A lot of that is just Charles' hard work to become an every down back."
The Bulldogs had the occasional moments of success on offense. Their first drive of the night was a thing of beauty, with their running gashing holes on the Owls line and gaining big yards. But it quickly turned to a nightmare as they pulled a play from the old Rice-beating-Rice playbook and fumbled on a first and goal -- the Owls then moved down the field and scored a touchdown and the game was never close after that.
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So with this, their second impressive, dominating win in the last three games, the Owls sit atop C-USA West tied, with North Texas, both teams 7-3 on the season, and both 5-1 in conference play. Rice's hopes of playing for the C-USA title are still alive, but the Owls will need help. The Owls will need to keep winning their games -- they have a seemingly easy win upcoming on Thursday night when they face a pathetic 2-8 UAB team in Birmingham, then close out the season against the surprising Tulane Green Wave (6-4) -- while hoping that either UTSA or Tulsa, both schools Rice easily handled, can defeat North Texas.
"You talk to these seniors," Bailiff said. "They've set some lofty goals. They're still intact. We're bowl eligible. We've already won seven games this season. We're still chasing some goals and chasing some dreams."
Complaints aside, the Rice Owls looked damn impressive. Playing their no doubt about it best game of the season. But there's no time for celebrating, not with another game in just four days.
********************** And condolences to David Bailiff and his family who are dealing with the sudden, unexpected death of Bailiff's father last week.