If you ask the Rice Owls, they'll tell you that they're doing just about everything right. That they're one or two plays from turning around the season. They'll tell you about the improvement they're seeing in this year's team when compared to last year's team.
There's a truth to what they're saying. This year's football team is better than last year's Rice Owls football team.
But as the 1-4 Owls head into this weekend's conference match-up against the 4-1 UTEP Miners, none of that really matters. The Owls have still lost three straight games. They've still made bad plays, made mistakes at just those times that mistakes can't be made.
The story, however, has changed a bit this week. The theme of this week isn't the little things that have been killing the team -- though that is still a problem. The theme of this week is finishing. Finishing the block. Finishing the tackle. Finishing the catch or run or pass. The little things happen because players fail to finish. The big plays fail to happen because the players fail to finish the play. The touchdowns don't happen because the offense fails to finish the drive.
"We've got to finish better...," head coach David Bailiff said on Monday. "We've got to make plays. Those guys are right where they need to be. We've got to work on our finish."
Bailiff says that his team is fundamentally sound, and that they're doing most things right. And he claims the team has the players capable of finishing, of making the big plays. So if the team gets the finish down pat, then good things will happen.
"Fundamentally, you look at those big plays and we're there," he said. "We're fundamentally sound. We've just got to finish. We need to become famous around here for how we finish....we've got the opportunities to do it, and those young men are there. We've got to work some finishing drills. We have the ability. We have them there. We've got to make plays."
One of those players capable of making the big play is running back Sam McGuffie. McGuffie has, through the season, shown flashes of brilliance. Last week's game against SMU was his easily his best, most consistent game of the season. But the problem is, maybe it's not McGuffie who isn't finishing, it's the coaching staff, as Bailiff admitted once again that the staff is still struggling to fit McGuffie into the offense.
They've played him at running back. They've put him in the slot as a receiver. Against SMU the Owls unveiled a wildcat offensive package with the hope of taking better advantage of McGuffie's skills.
"We're going to continue to grow [the wildcat]," Bailiff said. "What's amazing is when it doesn't work and you get back on Saturday and say you know we should've have done that a lot more. We just missed a key block at the point of attack that we had an angle on. But you'll see more of that with Sam there."
Of course, working the wildcat into the offense could pose problems with an offense that is already having trouble finding its rhythm in games. The Owls have been going with a no-huddle for most of the season, but just because it's a no-huddle doesn't mean that it is an up-tempo offense, especially for those used to watching a team like the Houston Cougars run a high-speed offense. But the thing is, the Owls have been most effective this season, offensively, when they've actually gone into the hurry-up, up-tempo, two-minute offense.
The team getting the chance to stop the Owls this week is the UTEP Miners. The Miners are 4-1 on the season, having lost only to the Cougars, but they're a hard team to get a read on, primarily because they're wins have come against the likes of Memphis, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, New Mexico, and New Mexico State. And their leading rusher from last season, Donald Buckram, has played in just one game due to a bruised knee.
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But what concerns Bailiff is what both he and Cougar coach Kevin Sumlin considered to be UTEP's most improved piece this season, the defense.
"We're they're really much improved this year is defensively," Bailiff said. "They're not making the mistakes they have in the past. But they're not blitzing extensively...we're they're going to master something and be good at it. They're tackling a lot better in space. That's really were much of the improvement has come from this year."
So the Owls are going to try and finish their plays this week with the hopes that, by finishing, they make the big plays necessary to win the game. Tune in at 8:05 on Saturday to find out if the Owls can successfully mine for a victory.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS GAME NOTES: The Owls lead the series against UTEP 8-5. UTEP has lost the four match-ups, but the teams have split the last six games that have been played in El Paso, where this week's game is to be played....UTEP is hoping that Buckram will be available to play this week, but that might be a game time decision....Rice has a 69-game streak in which they've scored a touchdown, and they have not been shut out since a 37-0 loss to TCU in 2000, a span of 114 games.