Owls-Red Raiders: The Audacity of Hope

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There will be plenty of space devoted to David Bailiff and his admirable moment of testicular fortitude early in the second half on Saturday at Jones AT&T Stadium, but first an observation.

Anyone see the movie Apocalypto? Remember the procession in the sacrifice scene? Well, that's what watching the Owls-Red Raiders game drew to mind. The Owls fought valiantly throughout the first half and one series into the second, but their fate seemed inevitable. Texas Tech quarterback Taylor Potts was the Mayan wielding the dagger, the Red Raiders' defense the Mayan handling the decapitation, and Tech coach Mike Leach the ruler watching with an amused expression. The 48,000 fans at Jones AT&T Stadium? They were the bloodthirsty lot applauding as heads rolled down the stairs, impatiently waiting for another to tumble to earth.

The Owls were brave and noble but hopelessly overwhelmed. How many were leveled by Tech defenders Saturday evening, ferocious blows that verified the athletic chasm that exists between the two programs? Off the top of my head I recall John Thomas Shepherd, Patrick Randolph and Roddy Maginot having their momentum abruptly stopped first by a tackler and then by the artificial surface below. The Owls were slower and smaller, and while they swung like a boxer with a puncher's chance to win they knew heads would roll. And it would be theirs.

Bailiff noticed this too, and that explains why he did what he did at the Tech 47. The Owls trailed 14-3 at the time, and had they played it safe and punted on fourth-and-one, perhaps they could have pinned the Raiders deep and summoned another defensive stop. Instead, Bailiff sent the right message, one of reckless abandon in the face of dire circumstances. The Owls were not going to win that game, not with the way the Raiders were dominating the line of scrimmage, and not with they way Potts was carving up the Rice secondary. Why not roll the dice and show your players you believe in them? Bailiff did, and the result was immaterial.

Nick Fanuzzi had his pass to Luke Willson disrupted by Tech end Brandon Sharpe, and the bottom fell out soon thereafter. Tech, which covered fewer than 60 yards on its two first-half scoring drives, breezed 53 yards for a score following the turnover on downs. Fanuzzi fumbled on the ensuing possession, giving Tech the ball at the Rice 24. Touchdown. The Owls moved backwards 18 yards on their third drive of the third quarter, Kyle Martens produced a measly 31-yard punt, and Tech regained control at the Rice 33. Touchdown, game, set and match.

"I really felt like we had a lot of momentum going into that third quarter," Bailiff said. "And we did have a lot of momentum. When I went for it on fourth-and-one and we didn't make it, at that point it just didn't look like we were the same football team after that."

A conversion would have been symbolic of the Owls' pluck, but ultimately it would have been only that - symbolism. The young offensive line was whipped from start to finish, putting Fanuzzi in panic mode from the opening possession. Credit Shepherd for making lemonade out of lemons and leading the Owls on two scoring drives, but without adequate protection, things weren't going to get any better. The downfield coverage that was so exceptional in the second quarter evaporated in the third and fourth as corners Jarrett Ben and Chris Jammer were twirled in circles more often that a teenage girl at a hoedown. The safeties were (again) a step too slow, and the pressure up front was nonexistent. Credit Leach for making the necessary halftime adjustments, for the second half was as lopsided as the score indicated.

So what now? Bailiff bristled at the suggestion that his defense went from defiant to demoralized in the second half after being routinely asked to guard a short field, but there did appear to be a moment of acquiescence as Tech scored touchdowns on six consecutive possessions. What silver lining can be stripped from yet another dark cloud defensively?

"Nobody at Rice is ever going to quit," Bailiff said. "This team sees it's got talent. This team knows that it's going to improve every week. That's what we did even a year ago; we got better each week. We caught momentum at the end, and that's what we're going to do here. We're going to outlast this, we're going to keep working hard, we're going to keep focusing on the effort, focus on the little things and keep closing ranks. We're going to be a team with a great attitude and great chemistry. We're not going to quit. We're going to get better each week.

"We're not demoralized. I'm mad because I don't like to lose. It puts that much more gravel in your gut."

Speaking of stomach pains, the quarterback conundrum took a turn in the opposite direction with Shepherd clearly outplaying Fanuzzi. But Bailiff could start Tommy Kramer this Saturday in Stillwater and it wouldn't matter, not with No. 16 Oklahoma State coming off its humbling loss to Team Sumlin. The Cowboys were knocked down a few pegs and will have blood in their eyes, meaning that There Will Be Blood splattered all about T. Boone Pickens Stadium.

Anyone want to take a guess at which team will be bleeding profusely?

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This season is quickly looking a lot like 2007 and the fun clearly is not going to stop for several weeks. Maybe Central Florida will be a winnable game, but there's a lot of pain to come. It's not much comfort to hear that the Owls didn't quit when the team that crushed them last week lost to SMU and the Owls couldn't play Tech closer than N. Dakota did. I've said it before, but if this is the best the Owls can do against BCS teams, I'd just as soon pass up the opportunity.

There's lots of work left to be done, it's as simple as that.

And yeah, obviously we are still talent deficient compared to T-Tech, but so was UH to Okie State. Rice will never match Big 12 programs in size/speed/strength, but the inherent advantage to be had (if mined correctly by a good coaching staff) is superior intellect, work ethic and character. Rice will win when it can out-scheme and out-execute, like it did in 2008.

This team has better talent across the board than the 2008 team. The difference (so far) is the limited schemes on offense (due to inexperienced key cogs) and the lack of execution at those crucial positions and on defense (poor open-field tackling, lack of good ball-in-air defense).

Also, the jury is still out on the quality and novelty of the schemes of this new offensive staff. Only time will tell on that.

Talon: I generally agree with you, but I don't think you are giving the Coogs enough credit. Their skill talent is as good as Okie State's, minus Dez Bryant. Beall is as talented as Hunter, Keenum as skilled as Robinson, and their depth at receiver compensates for the fact they don't have anyone as gifted as Bryant (but few teams do). I wasn't making a point that Rice lost because it lacks talent but rather the talent gap was so blatantly obvious on Saturday that it was startling. That is all. - MK

Eh, MK I think you're reaching a bit there. I don't mean to take anything away from UH's victory, they were the better team and it wasn't a result of BCS-loving pundits' "gimmick" excuse.

Beall might be as talented as Hunter (one game wherein Hunter was injured early doesn't seem a fair sample though), but OSU also has Toston and Johnson, who both (statistically) outplayed Beall and Hunter. Obviously Dez Bryant was heads and shoulders above just about every other player in that game in terms of raw ability, but OSU also has talented WR depth. They just won't ever get the stats of UH receivers because of the system they play in and the play at the one position where UH has a clear advantage: QB. Keenum is better than Robinson and it's not even close, nor has it ever been. Robinson has been overrated his whole career.

Defensively, OSU's skill talent is superior to UH's as well. And it seems you are conceding the fact that OSU's talent on both lines is superior.

UH is not as talented as OSU but they overcame that due to having a great QB (far and away the most important position in college football) and all-around executing better than OSU.

If Rice had beaten a BCS team in the bowl game last year (like they should have had the chance to) would you be so quick to conflate Rice's skill talent as equal? Probably not, but it probably would have happened, and it would have been because of the same factors that led UH to victory. Having a great college QB in a great scheme and out-executing the opposing team.

Talon: First of all, I never suggested any examination of the defenses or the lines was in play - Oklahoma State is clearly superior in each case, so I don't know why you felt the need to go there. And if you want Toston/Johnson, I'll be glad to take Beall/Sims. If there is an edge at tailback, it's negligible. The greater point is superior quarterback play combined with penalties/turnovers can be as critical as coaching schemes. Too often fans get caught up in screaming about schemes when games are more often than not decided by the players and those factors that are difficult to prepare for (turnovers/penalties). A fabulous quarterback (Keenum) plus a few breaks (UH had five fewer penalties and was plus-2 in TO margin) can tip the scales when the talent balance is askew. Rice had a fabulous quarterback (Clement) and caught all the breaks (significant advantages in penalties and TO margin) last year, and that played much more of a role in its success than Mensa. Spotty quarterback play and an inability to force turnovers is partially to blame for the Owls' abysmal start more so than anything Coach Z has or hasn't done. - MK

Re: UH-OSU, I pretty much agree with talon. OSU's starting lineup had 9 4-star recruits, 10 3-star, and 3 2-star. UH's had 0 4-star, 2 3-star, 15 2-star, one D1 transfer, and 4 who were not even listed by rivals. At least a couple of that last group were former walk-ons. Star ratings are not really the same thing as talent (e.g. Jarett Dillard), but they give a feel for how the schools recruit. Keenum and Beall were steals for the Coogs, but their lines didn't look any more talented than ours last November.

A clearer example is Navy-Ohio State. That OSU has at least as much talent as Texas Tech, and we should have at least as much talent as Navy. But the Middies were three yards away from taking the Buckeyes to OT.

For that matter look at North Dakota. Until I looked it up I thought they were D1-FCS. Nope, they are D2 -- TWO tiers below ours, with a scholarship limit of 36. I doubt any Fighting Sioux players had FBS offers. And yet they played Tech 20 points closer than we did.

We may not have as much talent as Tech, but we have a lot more than we have shown so far. If we are less competitive than North Dakota, then we have problems beyond talent.

Gothic R: Jeez, now we're discussing star ratings? Yuck. Look, no matter what Rivals/Scout might suggest, UH isn't that deficient in talent compared to Oklahoma State. The Coogs proved that by playing the Cowboys close for a half last year and beating them on Saturday. As for your argument on Ohio State-Navy and Tech-N. Dakota, season openers are tricky. Superior teams often slack, especially if they feel as though the game is in hand prior to kickoff and they don't want to reveal anything in anticipation of a competitive game immediately down the line (Ohio State with USC; Tech with UT). I'm not writing that the Owls had zero chance against Tech because Tech had more talent. I am writing that a focused Tech team (which we saw in the second half) can destroy an inferior Rice team inexperienced at key positions (O-line, quarterback) and talent deficient at others. It sure it was easy for Mensa to scheme with two seniors (Clement, Dillard) and a unusually versatile, 24-year-old sophomore (Casey) serving as the pillars of his offense. - MK

There was no appreciable talent differential on Saturday between those teams. Both teams had loads of talent at the skill positions (man, Beall looks much improved and Sims might even be better). Noticeably though, UH more than held their own at the line of scrimmage. Keenum wasn't sacked once, and their backs had holes to run through.

Schemes tend to look a lot better when players are given time to execute them.

As for the Tech game.. at UAB we apparently graded pretty well on the defensive assignments. How does the report card look for this game?

I can't believe we gave up on Fanuzzi so quickly that game. Especially after he came out in the 2nd half and led us to a couple first downs, before the disastrous tipped pass on 4th down and subsequent bad snap.

At Ease: I don't know if it's symbolic of giving up on Fanuzzi but rather anticipating similar pressure from Okie State and going with the quarterback (Shep) who best handled the pressure at Tech. Hey, I'm the biggest Fanuzzi apologist here, but he has to find a way to complete that pass to Willson on 4th-and-1 at the Tech 47 - period. Both quarterbacks were guilty of occasionally holding the ball too long, but with Shepherd you at least get the feeling that he can escape. Fanuzzi has to show me more regarding his ability to get out of the pocket and net yards with his feet. As for the report card, not very good on the secondary in the second half. Bailiff avoided calling anyone out by name, but his inference was clear that the corners made some 'fundamental technical errors' relative to covering certain routes. - MK

Thanks, MK. I hear tipped pass, and find it hard to fault the QB... but not having the luxury of seeing the play, I'll defer to your take.

What a difference a year makes on 3rd/4th and 1. You'd think a situation like that would be tailor-made for a run/pass option play involving JTS. Plowing ahead with Tyler Smith and then a slant pass are too easy to defend.

Hopefully our secondary can turn things around, as that's where you're looking for plays to come from in the 4-2-5. Should be a good chance this weekend for the freshmen corners to show some stuff.

At Ease: I'm glad you brought up Shepherd, because he failed on that 4th-and-3 when he had the option to run but instead insisted on passing to Randolph (who was covered). That's where not having an experienced quarterback like Clement hurts, because the minute Clement saw that space, he was gone. There was no second-guessing, which is exactly what Shepherd did afterward. - MK

Well I missed the "skill" qualifier in your original response. It seems like you are saying that UH's talent is close to OSU's, except for defense, o-line, and Dez Bryant. Okay, I can accept that, but IMO all those exceptions make it a nearly meaningless statement. Likewise we have comparable talent to Tech, except for offense, DT, LB, and CB. That's not saying much.

Opening-game fluke doesn't really explain Navy. They've been doing that to teams with superior talent for years. Week 2 saw Central Michigan beat Michigan State and ULaLa beat Kansas State. An FCS team took Maryland to OT, and UNLV hung with Oregon State. This sort of thing happens all the time.

Did Tech reveal more against us than they did against North Dakota?

As for last year, UH-OSU was close for a while, but OSU ended up winning fairly handily. We also beat UH. Of course our departees were major factors, but our lines also manhandled them.

I don't really like star rankings either. They aren't very accurate for predicting who will become a good or great player. They are, however, fairly accurate at representing which players are desired by the top programs. The implication is that teams who win despite low star rankings do a good job of evaluating talent, play over their talent level, or get lucky. I guess you're going with option 1 for UH, but we're supposed to do that too.

If we had lost, say, 35-17, then I could handle blaming the outcome on talent and experience. That score seemed within reason at halftime. The things that really bother me are guys who were solid players last year getting dominated now, and our apparent lack of resilience to adversity.

Gothic R: First off, I couldn't agree more with your last comment. Now, my comparison isn't meaningless when both teams had reputations of crappy defenses. If neither can stop the other, then the wash at the skill positions is important. That was my point. And ease up on that love for Navy, which lost to Duke last year and Delaware the previous season. As for Michigan State and K-State, the Big 10 stinks and the Wildcats are being coached by a soon-to-be septuagenarian who has seen the game pass him by. K-State will continue to lose games like that. Also, I think the Owls forced Tech to show more than it planned because of that inspired first-half performance. The Raiders sure looked better post-halftime. - MK

Fair enough, MK. I think both our perspectives have validity.

But if you're going to use last year's game results as evidence of sustained talent (mention of last year's UH-OSU game) then how do you explain last year's Rice-UH game? Or do you think OSU's skilled talent is below that of Tech's. Or that Rice's or UH's overall talent level changed significantly from 2008 to 2009?

Talon: Your perspectives always have validity. As for Rice-UH 2008, I hate to sound cheesy but intangibles played a huge role in that game. The Owls simply wanted that bucket more than the Coogs, who were superior talent-wise but committed two turnovers while the Owls committed none over 81 snaps (!!!). And, while everyone hyped Okie State, remember that Tech took the Cowboys to the woodshed last season, so maybe the talent gap between those two isn't so great. Rice may have more overall talent this season, but what it lacks at quarterback and receiver will cripple the Owls for a long while. The jury is still out on the difference between the Coogs' talent from this season compared to last. So far, I'd go with '09. - MK

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