Camaraderie Counts

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One lasting memory I will take with me from my years covering this football program is the scene outside the visitor's locker room at the Sun Bowl on Nov. 1, 2008, an environment rife with euphoria after the Owls clinched a .500 season and ostensibly a postseason bowl berth.

The Owls had just completed their third consecutive game where they scored 40-plus points, and were in the midst of a string of offensive explosions that yielded at least five touchdowns over seven consecutive games. The Chase Clement-led offense produced 543 yards, did not commit a turnover despite taking 84 snaps, and possessed the ball five minutes longer than the UTEP Miners. Despite such an awesome display of offensive brilliance, the Owls required a James Casey onside kick recovery to seal the 49-44 victory, their sixth of a fantastic season.

Afterward Clement was asked, almost cavalierly, about the strain put on the offense to score every possession. The defense was injury-riddled, sieve-like and seemingly incapable of producing a timely stop that would enable the offense to merely exhale. It must have been maddening, right Chase? Frustration was surely boiling over with a unit not pulling its weight?

Clement felt no such animosity. In fact, he spoke of his obligation to not only lead the offense into the end zone every possession, but to pick up his fallen comrades on defense. There was no division on that team, no internal bickering over who was doing their job and who wasn't. Clement spoke of playing on one team, not one unit, and that moment was truly inspirational. 

Fast forward to Monday afternoon and Owls senior free safety Andrew Sendejo. He had assumed the leadership mantle from Brian Raines as a junior, but Sendejo cemented his position of hierarchy when he expressed his opinions on the Owls' scuffling offense. Like the defense early last season, this offense is injury-marred and confidence-starved. The line is young, the quarterbacks inexperienced and the skill players largely untested, and the offense hit a low point last Saturday against Vanderbilt, struggling to even budge the football while the defense fought valiantly against the Commodores. It took Vanderbilt 73 plays before scoring a second touchdown, at which point the battle was lost. The defense could hang on no longer.

So, the question I posed to Sendejo was this: What can an experienced defensive unit do to bolster the spirits of a strained offense, one hurting like the defense did most of last season?

"One thing is to not point any fingers, don't play the blame game," Sendejo said. "I don't think that's happening and that's not going to happen. Just get them to come along and to start making plays, and a lot of that has to go with us getting turnovers and getting them the ball.

"We're going to keep doing our job and try to improve every week, and getting the turnovers and three-and-outs is going to help the offense get the ball in good field position."

Did you notice what Sendejo did there? He turned the responsibility back on the defense. He relayed a need to force more turnovers and record more three-and-outs. He assumed the challenge of giving the offense the ball in prime field position, realizing that multiple scoring opportunities will lead to touchdowns that embolden the spirit. Like sophomore KAT Travis Bradshaw on Saturday night following the 36-17 loss, Sendejo made the offense's issues his. He revealed the unity that exist within this team, a bond that won't be easily broken by duress.

And that's why this team will pull it together, why it will rise from the ashes like a fiery phoenix. Who knows when Nick Fanuzzi, Jake Hicks or Tyler Smith will be back in the lineup, but even if they don't return against Tulsa the offense won't be chastised for any shortcomings. The defense will bow its collective neck and attempt to extend its dominance into the fourth quarter. Sendejo and his charges will simply give more than they did against the Commodores, which was more than they delivered against Oklahoma State the weekend before, which was more than they produced against Texas Tech the Saturday before that. Sendejo can control two things, his effort and his attitude, and best believe that he has relayed that message to his defensive mates. They will be there for the offense no matter how long it struggles because the offense was there for the defense in the exact same situation last year.

David Bailiff must find such talk invigorating. It shows that he has developed a team, a group of men that will fight with fists instead of pointing with fingers. It removes any worry he has about division and allows him to focus on rebuilding the swagger of an ego-bruised offense.

"We have to maintain our confidence, we have to maintain our belief that we can win, we have to keep our expectations high," Bailiff said. "And we'll get it done.

"We have talent, and we've got to get those guys prepared to where they hit the field confident. We need to get a lucky stone in our pocket on some of those injuries and continue to aim high and not let this football team fall short. We are talented. We've got to get them to show the growth this team has had, and get them to play fast and confident. We can do that."

Bailiff then spoke to the leadership he has seen develop from unexpected sources, the commitment to drawing a line in the sand in this moment of adversity. There were concerns over where the Owls would generate leadership after losing two dozen seniors from last season, but leadership has been cultivated. This is not the same losing program that existed when I arrived in 2004. These failures seem temporary by comparison to what transpired in 2005, and if the posture of a senior safety is to be believed, the Owls will turn the corner soon.

"If we will stay (together) as an offensive unit we'll be fine," Bailiff said. "We have talented young men, and we've got to get them on the same page."

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Great piece, MK.

At Ease: Thanks. I felt inspired by what Sendejo said. Hard to be discouraged with that sort of attitude coming for a senior leader. - MK

Nice piece MK. Gives a glimpse of what Bailiff has been talking about out with this team and the young men he has on it. He said that no matter what, you are going to be a first round draft pick when you leave Rice. Well, with an attitude like that, it's hard not to succeed now and into the future.

Great piece about the team, just don't get my hopes up for this season, it almost sounds like you think we can have a winning season. I'm normally one of the optimists, but it just doesn't look like this year will be the year, which is sad for Sendejo.

But next year, look out.

mikeb!: I wouldn't go as far as to say the Owls will win seven of their last eight games, but I do think you'll see the pieces start to fall into place in the immediate future. - MK

I hope you are right.

Gothic R: Me, too. A 2-10 season is fun for no one. - MK

Great piece. I'm glad they're leaving it to us fans to point fingers (me included). They definitely have the right perspective, realizing they win and lose as a unit.

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