The Rice Owls (2-5) aren't going to out-physical most football teams. They usually don't have the talent of other teams. So for the Rice Owls to win football games, they need outstanding game plans, solid execution, and they need to eliminate mistakes.
The Owls put those three things together last week and pulled off the upset of their cross-town rivals, the Houston Cougars. But beating the Cougars, who are attempting to prevent heading into a freefall is one thing. This week, they've got to battle the UCF Knights (4-2), who just happen to possess one of the country's top defenses.
Then again, the Owls are coming off a victory, and when a team is coming off of a victory, just about anything is possible. Or say the Owls. Even if that win was against the Cougars.
"That's where you get your confidence back, your swagger back," said Owls head coach David Bailiff. "You have the belief now that you can go on the road and win, you can win at home. That was a big win for this football program, because Houston is a good football team."
The Owls' win over the Cougars was keyed by fantastic special teams that constantly pinned the Cougars deep in their own territory, forcing to them play a long field on possession after possession. The win was also keyed by an offense that not only made long drive after long drive, but unlike in other Rice games this season, scored touchdowns once it got into the red zone. And most importantly, the Owls eliminated the mistakes that have killed them in past weeks.
"The game plan offensively, we thought we had to keep the ball out of their hands as much as we could, and time of possession is important if you're scoring [on those] drives," Bailiff said. 'To hold the ball for 12 minutes in the second quarter, to have the 10-minute time of possession at the end of the game, and with the points, that was really what we needed to keep it out of their hands. We had no turnovers for the second week, and that was really key. And we only had one penalty offensively. It was good."
The Owls will need to do this on Saturday to go to 3-5 on the season because UCF is another team capable of putting up points. But unlike the Cougars, UCF is one of those teams that puts up points by holding onto the football and eating up the clock -- UCF had the ball for 40:09 in last week's 35-14 win over Marshall. So if Rice's offense can play like it did against Houston, long drives, no mistakes, converting in the red zone, then the Owls should be okay despite UCF's so-called top-ranked defense (UCF has defeated South Dakota, Buffalo, UAB, and Marshall, teams not exactly known for top-flight offenses).
The key for the Owls offense will continue to be the presence of tight end Vance McDonald who has become QB Nick Fanuzzi's favorite downfield target. McDonald has battled injuries most of the season, but the offense has clicked when he's been on the field because of his size, ability to run, and willingness to block.
"[Vance] not only helps Nick, [he] helps the coaches," Bailiff says. "It puts you in some schematic situations where you can create some mismatches. He is one of Nick's favorite targets, and part of it is he's open.....And he's also -- we're inches away from springing Sam [McGuffie] and Tyler [Smith] on big runs because of the way he blocks downfield. It's a big man on people down there that's moving people -- he moves people when he starts blocking people downfield."
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The key for the Owls defensively will be shutting down the UCF running game, which is the second-best in C-USA. And the best thing for the Owls defense will be if the Owls offense continues to scores points off of long drives, because if the UCF offense isn't on the field, or doesn't have much time on the clock and it has to go into catch-up mode, then UCF could be in trouble.
"Now that they've got their swagger, they'll be ready to go," Bailiff said.
And while it's good that Rice has its swagger back, it'll be better if they just continue scoring points and eliminating mistakes. Because swagger is nice, but swagger doesn't football games. At least not for Rice.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES: The C-USA Special Teams Player of the Week was Rice punter Kyle Martens, who continuously pinned the Cougars deep on their end of the field last week. Martens was also just named a first team midseason All-American by Collegefootballnews.com and SI.com. Martens leads C-USA, and is second nationally, with an average of 47.92 yards on 36 punts. Martens credits his season to his snapper Brandon Long, who he calls the best in the country, and Chris Jones and Philip Gaines, the outside guys in the punt formation, for the season he's having. Martens is also a candidate for the Ray Guy Award, which is awarded annually to the nation's top punter....This week's game with UCF is in Orlando, and starts at 2:30 p.m. Houston time. It will be on 97.5 and Comcast Sports South Houston....Bailiff promised that the Bayou Bucket will make its way about the Rice campus throughout the season so that all of the Rice students, faculty, staff, fans, etc. can see it.