Owls-Blazers: Five Things To Watch

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BIRMINGHAM - Different locale, same production. Stick with what works.

Labeling season openers 'must-win games' might seem cliche, but take a gander at the Owls' last three openers and note how each performance set the tone for the rest of that season:

2006: UH 31, Rice 30. No one knew what to expect from Todd Graham, the spread offense or the stack defense. And though the Owls lost the Bayou Bucket, their frenetic play and inspiring resilience that memorable evening at The Stadium ultimately became their hallmark, especially down the stretch of the season when they won out to clinch a postseason berth.

2007: $0.05 State 16, Rice 14. Everything that could go wrong did against the Colonels. A lightning delay stymied a potential scoring drive, Chase Clement played arguably the worst game of his career, and David Bailiff took precious few risks in his coaching debut. The Owls traded out of a contest against Oklahoma State to face a beatable FCS team only to stub their toe at home, a harbinger of things to come as the Owls stumbled through the schedule. Clement was erratic, the offense overly conservative, and some were declaring that Bailiff was in over his head on South Main. It took a full calendar year for Bailiff to live down that debacle.

2008: Rice 56, SMU 27. Everyone figured the senior-dominated offense would be good, but who knew it would be that good? The passing attack was awesome, with Clement setting the stage for a phenomenal campaign with his shredding of the Ponies. The defense, while porous, was aggressive, and that subsequently resulted in a season-saving plus-15 turnover margin. When SMU scored, the Owls scored more, and that was a reoccurring theme in 2008.

So, now do you understand how critical Saturday will be? And, to further that argument, the Owls will fly home Saturday night knowing that, starting with Texas Tech on Sept. 12, they'll face six consecutive opponents that participated in the postseason in 2008. Could the Owls take a six-game skid into their C-USA home tilt against UCF on Oct. 24? While improbable it is possible, so a victory over the Blazers would go a long way toward buffering a brutal stretch.

1. Who's Gonna Take the Reps? Both John Thomas Shepherd and Nick Fanuzzi will get snaps at quarterback, but who will take the most? How will the alternation be handled? Will game situations dictate the rotation, or will performance? And, if one quarterback clearly outplays the other, with the competition be settled even with Tech and Okie State up next?

2. Who's Gonna Take the Reps, Part II? If Bailiff wants to make life easy on whomever leads the offense, he'd be wise to ratchet up the rushing attack. How he does that with five tailbacks in the mix will be interesting, especially considering the fact each has a specific skill set. Perhaps Charles Ross and Shane Turner see most of their action returning kicks, but Marcus Knox is by far the best blocker, Jeramy Goodson the best receiver, and starter Tyler Smith the most consistent. And leaving Ross, the lone home-run threat, on the bench would be criminal.

3. Throwing Kitchens At the Blazers. Third-year sophomore safety Randy Kitchens will make his return after sitting out the 2008 season following hip surgery, and the staff isn't easing him back in. Not only is Kitchens the backup to KAT Travis Bradshaw, he serves as the sixth defensive back when the Owls go to their dime package. That's a ton of responsibility for a player who earned precious few snaps as a true freshman making a position switch two years ago. Kitchens has a world of potential, and it seems he'll get a chance to fulfill it in Game 1.

4. Is Scott Solomon the Next John Randle? After opening fall camp getting a noticeable number of reps at defensive tackle, Solomon, an end his first two seasons on campus, moved back to tackle recently. Now, the logic is sound: get the best four linemen on the field in order to keep UAB quarterback Joe Webb corralled. But how many snaps at tackle is too many for Solomon? He is arguably the strongest player on the team, and his fanatical style makes him a candidate to succeed anywhere. But can he be as influential at tackle as he is at end?

5. The Ghost of Bernard Morris Past. Ask the defensive staff who Webb reminds them of among the Owls' most recent opponents, and former Marshall quarterback Bernard Morris is recalled. If Webb tortures the Owls the way Morris did on Oct. 27, 2007, the Owls are in deep trouble. Morris rushed for 120 yards and two touchdowns and passed for 227 yards to lead the Herd to its first victory of that season. Webb is better than Morris, so if the Owls don't want to get steamrolled, they'd better find a way to keep him contained and make him into a passer.

Thoughts? Questions? Concerns?     

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It will be interesting to see how Kitchens responds to being tossed into action after such limited action since his arrival at Rice. He could be a tremendous force.

Webb is being protected in part by a 240 lb. true freshman on the OL. I've got to think that gives the Rice DL a huge advantage. But if it only serves to flush Webb out of the pocket making him a rushing threat it won't give the defense much of an advantage.

Hey MK, I was wondering if you were going to give us your prediction on the team's record for this season.

I do agree that this is a pretty important game. This team is going to have some tough sledding after this week and getting off on the right foot will at least give them some precious momentum before going into this brutal stretch.

d1owls4life: And to think, I thought no one would notice my avoiding that limb. Well, I count three sure losses (Tech, Okie State, East Carolina), two more that I don't feel good about (UH, Navy), two difficult games that the Owls could win if things break well (Vanderbilt, Tulsa) and five others they could/should win (UAB, UCF, SMU, Tulane, UTEP). So, 6-6 is the best-case scenario, but 5-7 is my pick. - MK

How serious is Boswell's injury and when did he suffer it? I recall him walking off the field somewhat gingerly after the blocked FG attempt in the second scrimmage.

Interesting on Kitchens. He displayed good quickness for such a long, lanky guy when he played significantly in the 2007 game v. UH. He's put on a lot of good bulk since then, he could be a force in the Dime if his man coverage skills hold up.

I agree on Ross, if you're not going to redshirt him then be sure to put his talents to use. He could wow on kick returns, but I'd also like to see him get some touches out of the offense. Haven't heard much about his receiving skills through camp, but he was a great "natural" pass catcher in HS, and I assume those skills persist. So maybe throw a couple his way too?

Can't wait to see Sendejo/Bradshaw blow Joe Webb up on Saturday!

Talon: Boswell could be back next week. He didn't look that hindered as I watched him work on the side along with Skinner on Thursday. Ross' pass catching is fine, but Goodson has looked the best of the tailbacks to me in that regard. - MK

I disagree that Ross is the only home run threat among the RBs. Two or three of the others have that potential also.

Lol, well, I wanted to hear your opinion. I know we all value it.

I was thinking something similar. I think 6-6 is the best we can do this year and it would be an amazing coaching job by Bailiff. I've wavered back and forth between 4-8 and 5-7. I'll be a little more pessimistic and say 4-8, but I hope I'm wrong.

Actually MK, by your breakdown the "best case scenario" would be 7-5.

I share a similar outlook at this early point with really nothing to go on. I'll put a range of 5-7 to 7-5 on it.

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