Long Return Trip For Rice Owls Made Harder by Harvey

Defensive end Brian Womac (44) leads out linebacker Nick Uretsky (21) and the rest of the Rice Owls before the game against Stanford played Saturday in Sydney.
Defensive end Brian Womac (44) leads out linebacker Nick Uretsky (21) and the rest of the Rice Owls before the game against Stanford played Saturday in Sydney. Thomas LaVergne/Rice Athletics

UPDATE: The Rice Owls arrived at LAX and made it through customs. The team learned it will fly to Dallas, where it was expected to arrive at about 2:00.
The Rice Owls football team is on an airplane somewhere over the Pacific Ocean between Sydney and Los Angeles. When they will actually return to Houston, where Tropical Storm Harvey continues to cancel flights and cause historic flooding, no one knows.

This was supposed to be a story about a college football team from Houston playing a football game in Australia. It was going to recap the game against Stanford, which the No. 14 Cardinals won easily, 62-7.

But this is a story of uncertainty and worry about what comes next, about fear for friends and loved ones. All that Rice knows for sure is that upon the team’s arrival in California, it will receive an update about Houston and it will evaluate travel options.

This was supposed to be a dream trip — they Owls would get to travel to Australia and play tourist in Sydney, one of the world’s most beautiful cities. Then there was a game against Stanford on ESPN before a national audience. The odds of defeating Stanford were slight, of course, but a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play football overseas was something that would be talked about for many, many years.

That probably won’t the case now. Now it’s the story of trying to return home to a catastrophic situation that has devastated the city they call home.

“Family members back home, we’re praying for you each and every day,” linebacker Emmanuel Ellerbee said. “Stay safe. Those weather conditions can be very dangerous.”

“Don’t try to be hero or something,” said running back Sam Stewart. “Just make sure that you’re safe and everyone around you is safe. We’ll get through this.”

It’s hard to know how much Harvey hitting Houston impacted the team during the actual game. Stanford is a really good team that is often one of the better squads in the Pac-12. Stanford is one of those teams that, for Rice to have really chance of winning the game, it had to play a perfect game. And Rice came nowhere close to playing a perfect game.

Stanford scored on six of its seven first half drives, including its first four. The Cardinals played about as close to a perfect game as could be played in taking a 38-0 halftime lead over. The Owls didn’t help things by making a series of careless mistakes in the first half, but fans who watched the game undoubtedly saw the huge difference in size, talent, and skill between the two programs.

The Rice offense showed an occasional spark, especially when it went into a hurry-up style of play. But even then, the Owls still made too many devastating errors that likely cost the team the chance to score some points. Stanford out-gained Rice in yards, 656 to 241. Stanford averaged nine yards a play and freely substituted bench players throughout the game, not because of injury, but to give the subs playing experience.

Head coach David Bailiff joked before the team left for Australia that Rice would be making both the longest road trip of the college season in going to Sydney and the shortest in going to UH to play the Cougars in week three. But now there is really no idea just how long this Sydney road trip will be, or when it will even come to an end. The Owls play UTEP in El Paso in two weeks. The original plan had been to let the players relax a bit, reset their internal clocks and to get back into classwork. But now that’s all out the window.

For now it’s not about school work or sightseeing or readjusting to the correct timezones. Now it’s about finding a way to get back to family and friends. Now it’s about helping an university and a city to recover.

“We want to let everyone in Houston and Texas know we’re with them,” Bailiff said after Saturday night’s game.

Now all he and his team have to do is to find a way to get back here.
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John Royal is a native Houstonian who graduated from the University of Houston and South Texas College of Law. In his day job he is a complex litigation attorney. In his night job he writes about Houston sports for the Houston Press.
Contact: John Royal