Owls-Commodores: Five Things To Watch

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The upside to opening the season with three consecutive road games? Eight of the last nine contests are within Texas' borders including six at Historic Rice Stadium, where the Owls finished 6-0 last season. How's that for an optimistically heaping dose of sunshine and roses?

It'd be nice to quote Jemaine Clement and announce that 'conditions are perfect' for an upset in the home opener, but they aren't. Consecutive body bag games have cost the Owls three starters on offense - QB Nick Fanuzzi, RB Tyler Smith and RG Jake Hicks - and have compromised the depth on defense - SS Willie Garley (knee) is out while SS Chris Jones (knee) and LB Justin Hill (concussion) are hobbled. Rice was down five defensive starters last season against Vanderbilt, and the rematch finds the Owls in a similar pickle. Can they defeat the Commodores and snap their ignominious losing streak against BCS schools (17 and counting)? Yes. Were the Owls better in 2008, and didn't they lose to Vanderbilt then? Uh-huh.

So, what must be done to break the hex and record the first victory on the season? The defense should play with enthusiasm and passion and embrace the challenge of Vanderbilt trying to control the clock with its running game. The offense must keep charging despite the injury losses, with John Thomas Shepherd delivering the game of his career and the stable of tailbacks producing their finest effort to date. Special teams gaffes and turnovers cost the Owls dearly a year ago in Nashville, so it goes without saying that those must be eliminated.

Those are some general talking points. Here is a specific rundown of the keys to Victory No. 1:

1. Hello, Stewart! Remember that tall, lanky and swift Vanderbilt defensive end who spent most of last season's game harassing Owls quarterback Chase Clement? Well, his name was Broderick Stewart and, by gosh, he's back and looking for a pound of Shepherd's flesh. This is not to disparage the Commodores' defense - Bobby Johnson has done a fabulous job of developing a program with some defensive bite - but Stewart is the focal point of that unit. The Owls must find a means to neutralize Stewart in order to take their passing attack to the air.

2. Introducing ... Ryan Lewis! The two-sport Baton Rouge native deserves a proper introduction, for his fourth-quarter insertion for mop-up duty against Texas Tech didn't do the outfielder/quarterback justice. Lewis held his own against the Red Raiders (7-for-15 for 66 yards), but the situation will be completely different against Vanderbilt. The odds are good Lewis will earn playing time while the game is still hotly contested, so it would behoove you to get to know the lefty a little better. He likes sunsets and long walks through (Reckling) Park ...

3. The Bradley Vierling Proclamation. When your defense ranks 113th nationally in yards surrendered, opponents often feel emboldened. Exhibit 1: Vanderbilt center Bradley Vierling, who practically guaranteed that the Commodores will run the ball down the Owls' throat just like they did last season (43 rushing attempts for 273 yards and five touchdowns). It doesn't matter that Vanderbilt is no offensive juggernaut (No. 88 with 329.0 yards/game) or that its passing attack is so feeble that the Owls could stuff nine defenders in the box with impunity. The Owls have been irrefutably sorry on defense, and the onus is on them to prove otherwise.

4. The White Courtesy Phone. Feel free to pick it up, Corbin Smiter. If Smiter hadn't practiced a lick over the past few weeks, there would be no reason to develop expectations relative to his contributions. But Smiter practices every day, ostensibly putting his mid-summer hernia surgery further behind in the process. Yet he has managed zilch in the production category this season. His reputation is what it is, but Smiter is too talented - and far too important - to remain silent much longer. The Owls desperately need his experience. The phone is ringing ...

5. The Young And The Old. Freshman nose guard Alex Lowry has drawn raves from David Bailiff, and his fourth college game offers a grand opportunity to take another step toward stardom. Senior defensive tackle Chance Talbert has participated but been limited by an ankle injury. The Owls need his production, but they long for his authoritative presence even more. If Lowry and Talbert can plug the middle against Vanderbilt, the Owls' shot at winning increases.

Thoughts? Questions? Concerns?

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Well it will really be up to the D to win this game. If the D can hold Vandy to under three scores I still like our chances. Somehow, some way, Scott Solomon needs to have his presence felt.

As you noted the special teams can't be anything less than special. No more 10 point swings given up and Martens needs to be even more consistent (and good) than he was last week. Speaking of legs when will we get to see the new one on KO's? It's getting to the point where maybe a redshirt year is the best thing for Boswell.

And oh yes, the O. I'm a bit nervous too as it will be necessary to stretch the Vandy D a bit. Perhaps the Ryan Lewis thread on the Parliament will come to pass and I'm not so sure that it shouldn't. Again unless the O is just rolling, any meaningful time Ryan can get at QB helps us down the line and gives the coaches some insight into next year when we really will have a QB decision. Only as a final last resort in order to win the game am I for pulling the redshirt off McHargue.

I sense that Vandy is a bit overly optimistic but playing on the road and against a team that isn't worried about Ike and is coming off its best effort will make the difference in how Vandy feels on the plane ride back.

It's time for the defense to shine. They showed some real grit against OSU last week. Now they're facing a team with far less offensive firepower and they need to start dictating the action.

After 3 games I'm hoping Coach Z has a better idea of how to get his charges matriculating down the field. Let's see it tonight. We know there's talent on that side of the ball. I'd like to see the vaunted Vandy defense a step slower as they guess what the Rice offense is going to do next.

It's the home opener Owls! Let's get a win!

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