The Rice Owls (2-6) didn't play football last weekend. They rested up, got some players back from injury, and got back to stressing that need to work on the fundamentals. And they watched this week's opponent go into South Bend and defeat Notre Dame on national television. (Sure, beating Notre Dame's not really a major accomplishment anymore, and it's doubtful that the Irish could even be a double-digit favorite to defeat a school like North Texas.)
But the Rice players and staff aren't really thinking about that. Sure the Tulsa Golden Hurricane (5-3) beat a former national power on national television. That matters nothing because they feel that they can win any of their remaining four games this season.
"We've got four conference games left," head coach David Bailiff said Monday. "I really think getting everyone back, and this open week came at the right time, we'll be ready to roll. There's not a team out there we can't beat....It's amazing what a little time off does for this football team, the coaching staff, and we're ready to roll."
Left unspoken is this: outside of defeating the Houston Cougars, there is perhaps no one team that the Owl faithful want to see go down in defeat more than Tulsa. And it's not really because of a hatred of Tulsa, the state of Oklahoma, or a team with a name like Golden Hurricane. It's because Tulsa is coached by a man The M.O.B. once memorably labeled as The Douchebag of the Year.
That man is Todd Graham, and before Graham took over at Tulsa, he was the head coach at Rice. Normally, Graham would be, and should be, seen as a bit of a hero to the Rice faithful because it was Graham, in his one year as head coach, who led the Owls out of the wilderness and to a bowl game for the first time in 45 years. But Graham, after leading the team to the bowl, and after extorting a raise and contract extension out of his bosses, decided to suddenly split for the job with Tulsa.
Graham has turned Tulsa into an offensive powerhouse that has accumulated 500-plus yards of total offense 29 times during Graham's coaching tenure, including four times this season. The team has scored 40-plus points 20 times while Graham's been with this team, and they've done it four times this season, even eclipsing the 50-point mark in a game against Tulane several weeks ago.
"Their quarterback [G.J. Kinne] really makes them go," Bailiff said. "He's a great player, runs the ball effectively, throws it effectively. They've got nice team speed. It's one of those where they throw really enough option at you that you have to be very disciplined in your assignments, defensively, to slow them down. They use a lot of misdirection, a lot of counters. You really have to have great eye focus on what your keys are telling you to do. If you don't have that, they roll up a lot of yards on you."
So Tulsa kills a team by way of the rush, and by way of the pass which means the pressure will once again be on the Rice defense to stem the damage. Rice's rush defense, for the most part, has been good, but if Tulsa goes with the pass options, then Rice could be in trouble in that Rice has one of the worst pass defenses in C-USA.
The key for the Owls will be, according to the team, just focusing on Rice. Not making mistakes. Executing the offense and making the tackles on defense. Getting the little things right.
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"Bottom line, we just need to continue to worry about Rice and take care of what we can take care of," Bailiff said.
Rice has shown that if it limits the mistakes and focuses on the little things that it can a win football game, as they did against the Houston Cougars. But unlike the Cougars, who were struggling to regroup as a squad following the loss of Case Keenum for the season, Tulsa is at full operating strength.
A victory this weekend over Tulsa won't fix all of the things that have gone wrong for the Owls this season. But a win would mean they finish with a better record than last season. A win would bring a touch more respectability to the program. And the win would probably destroy Tulsa's hopes of making the C-USA title game, and could damage Tulsa's bowl hopes. And for the Rice faithful, dashing the hopes of Todd Graham just might make the whole rest of the season worth it.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES: Rice is getting some key offensive players back this week. Tyler Smith, Brent Hotard, Eric Ball, Taylor McHargue, Donte Moore, and Pierre Beasley have all been cleared to return to play this week. But one of Rice's key players, offensive lineman Scott Mitchell, is out for the season....The series record is 7-7-1, but Tulsa has won the last three games and six of the last seven....kick-off is at 1:00 and it will be aired on 97.5 KFNC. There is no television coverage for this game.