Progress At The Quarter Pole

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This is all anyone with logical expectations of such a young team desired. They craved visions of a squad with pluck, one willing to fight no matter the circumstances, one able to display signs of progress even in the face adversity. The trip to Stillwater was about self-discovery almost as much as it was pursuing 1-0. A victory would have exhilarated, but by taking steps toward an offensive identity and defensive pride the Owls provided all reason to believe.

David Bailiff did what he could to acknowledge that he was indeed disappointed with the outcome, but he also beamed with satisfaction. He had prodded and patted, chastised and coddled his charges through two difficult weeks, and his efforts finally yielded something tangible. The Owls looked better, their grit throughout a 41-24 loss offering a jolt of optimism.

"We've gone toe-to-toe with two of the best teams in the country, and you saw how we improved from one week to the next," Bailiff said in an almost subdued tone. "And we'll continue to improve. You'll see a better football team next week against Vanderbilt.

"We had some leadership at a lot of different positions where we hadn't seen it. As I leave here, I leave with a little inner peace that we are getting better and we're going to be a good football team."

It would be presumptive to state that anything definitive arose from the events at Boone Pickens Stadium, but a few questions should have been answered. Not only did sophomore Nick Fanuzzi display the physical tools to end the quarterback competition once and for all, he showcased both the intelligence and mental toughness to earn the job. He made minimal mistakes, oftentimes going through his progressions before finding an open receiver. Superior arm strength enabled Fanuzzi to gun several throws to receivers in tight spaces, and a willingness to stand in the pocket and absorb blows while attempting passes should have won over his teammates. Fanuzzi did everything anyone could want from a starting signal caller.

He showed elements of those characteristics at UAB, but to do so against vastly superior competition on the heels of an underwhelming performance at Texas Tech spoke volumes.

"I learned a lot from last week, and I told myself that the team as a whole each drive we were going to go down with a purpose to score," Fanuzzi said. "Every play mattered, every play counted. When you think like that and think about the next play, you're going to score each drive.

"(Growth) didn't come in (this) game, I felt like it came as a process. This past week coach talked about having a positive attitude. It's all about attitude, and if you have a positive attitude and the right focus good things will come. It was unfortunate that we lost, but (with) myself and some teammates I feel like there is an inner peace that you went out there and gave it your all and did the best you could. I'm pleased about that."   

Not only did Bailiff find a quarterback, he discovered useful methods to get freshmen Vance McDonald and Charles Ross involved. A meeting of the coaching minds produced a decision to move McDonald off the line as a pure tight end and to the slot. The results were positive.

McDonald began the game with two catches for 27 yards on the season. He recorded five receptions for 44 yards against the Cowboys, showcasing his pass-catching ability and athleticism at crucial points of scoring drives. Visions of McDonald against smaller or slower defenders finally manifested, and his skill should create another dimension for the offense.

Ross had his confidence bolstered by scoring three touchdowns as the primary ball carrier in the jumbo package. Injuries to Justin Hill (concussion) and Brent Hotard (thumb) elevated Ross into position to serve as the Owls' short-yardage back. Despite having just one week of practice in his new role, and drawing a delay of game penalty on his first snap, Ross excelled.

"It's a good thing we worked snapping it fast when he was in there, huh?" Bailiff said with a chuckle. "The amazing thing about the jumbo package is we went though Hill and we went through Hotard and then we went through (Andrew) Sendejo and then we went through, oh jeez I can't remember. Then he got hurt so we didn't have it last week. So that's why we're going to Charles Ross.

"You saw him move the pile on some of that jumbo or find the seams in the holes. He had great vision, he played a big-time football game, and he continues to get better each week as we get him out of his glide."

Said Ross, who scored on runs of 2, 1 and 3 yards: "My confidence has gone up a lot. Just getting that playing time and getting in the end zone really will let me open up in upcoming weeks - hopefully."

Those were technical innovations. The bigger, broader picture offered promise because the defense drew a line in the sand and fought back when the Cowboys attempted to overpower the Owls with their ground game. The Owls struggled covering Cowboys All-American receiver Dez Bryant - who doesn't? - but they didn't buckle in the second half like they did in Lubbock. Aside from a fumble return on a muffled field goal attempt and a short field that came courtesy of an interception off a deflected ball, Oklahoma State had to earn its points, a development that exposed the Owls' will and their decision to no longer accept being smacked around.

Offensively the Owls simply grew up. Fanuzzi has made just one career start, the line is dominated by underclassmen, and the skill players - the healthy ones at least - are still learning as they go. But in Stillwater the excuses went out the window. The Owls finally decided to answer the bell, throw a few haymakers, and get off the mat when the Cowboys dropped them into a 28-3 hole. It was a performance that vets like junior end Cheta Ozougwu and senior receiver Toren Dixon could reflect on and note as a point when fortunes turned.

"We actually went out there and had fun as a defense," Ozougwu said. "Before we got hit in the face and didn't respond right. What you saw was us getting hit in the face and responding well."

Said Dixon: "If we continue to build on these things and take it into next week, we can be a pretty good football team. I saw a lot of guys growing up. If we continue to build the sky is the limit for us. We just have to continue progressing every week and keep this momentum going."

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After two weeks of doubt the performance at Stillwater has us all excited. The Kiddie Corp showed that they should be playing now and I expect a victory over Vandy. I expected us to be 1-2 at this point but will gladly settle for 1-3 after this weekend.

Areas of concern still exist at LB, in the FG team, the injuries on the OL, and the shutdown of Scott Solomon. I look for Bailiff and staff to address each of these issues.

It's unfortunate that with an 0-3 record there will be little enthusiasm beyond the Rice faithful for attending the game (and with all eyes on Roberston) but it will still be good to be back at the Nest.

Several things to feel good about from that game. There was a semblance of the '08 offense seen there in the 3rd quarter as Fanuzzi masterfully orchestrated 3 consecutive touchdown drives, overcoming dropped passes, penalties and the talent of the OSU defense to get the ball within three yards of the goalline and let the '09 iteration of the Thor package do its business with impressive efficiency. Offensive playmakers emerged. TD finally looked like what we all expected him to be coming into this season. The overflowing talent of VMcD was finally set free and intelligently integrated into the scheme. Jeramy Goodson ran hard inside making quick cuts and received the ball well out of the backfield as he has a propensity to do. We found the new short yardage back (Ross). Offensive line held up well even with mounting injuries and players being forced into unfamiliar situations.

What I still want to see from the offense: Obviously I want Fanuzzi to be named the starter so this team can move forward 100%. I want 3rd and 4th receivers to establish themselves from the pool of Clark, Maginot, Smiter?, Dupree and Beasley. I want McDonald to be on the field at WR with Willson/Wardlow at TE, and both to be running patterns as legitimate targets. I want Ross to get more carries at RB. I want the coaches to find a way to get Turner into the offense, if not at RB, then in the slot, he's too talented to not use on offense. I don't want to see anymore of those fruitless bubble screens until our players learn how to execute them and/or our coaches learn how to misdirect the defense from them first like most teams that run them effectively know to do. (MK have you had a chance to query a coach about all the failed screen passes?)

Defensively we saw some of that resiliency and toughness vs. the run that emerged down the stretch in the '08 season. It was really a welcome sight, and hopefully it indicates that the defense will soon reattain the level of play seen vs. WMU and Marshall last season. True freshman Gaines and Lowry played well in their first starts. Lowry is a physical freak for a freshman, those OSU linemen had real trouble moving him. Travis Bradshaw laid some major licks out there. The one he put on Bryant on the sideline that knocked Dez out of the game was more than highlight reel worthy, it threw Bryant into the padded wall like a ragdoll. I hope he keeps hitting like that regardless of that bogus penalty that was called on him a different play. Ozougwu awoke from his hibernation, but Solomon seemingly slipped into one. LB play was improved.

Martens punted the best he probably has in his time at Rice. Coverage teams did a good job as usual. Looking forward to seeing Boswell on kickoffs though, what's his ETA? That gaff on the FG was about as ugly as I've ever seen. Not only did Kitchens completely miss catching the snap but he then completely failed when he had an opportunity to recover it. I think (hope) we won't be seeing him hold for a while.

Really looking forward to the game vs. Vandy on Saturday!

You mean Rice gets to play at home this season? It will be good to get back to the Nest and, if it's possible after a loss, with some momentum.

While the offensive tinkering will probably go on for several more weeks, can we expect the defense to have somewhat solidified themselves?

Owl-88: That's hard to say. Hopefully Justin Hill can make a return to action, and I'll have to check on Chance Talbert, who started but didn't seem to play that much against the Cowboys. I thought Matt Nordstrom validated Bailiff's decision to give him the start over Shuck and Williams, so there is some flux there as well. And, the staff has to find a way to get Scott Solomon involved. - MK

Thanks for addressing my questions, MK. ;)

I'll repeat them here so you don't have to dig through my epic post.

1. About those screen passes...have you had a chance to ask a coach about their frequent use and frequent failure.

2. What's Smiter's status going forward. And what's the story on why he has played so little so far?

3. When will we be seeing Boswell on kickoff duty?

Talon: No problem. I can answer all three of these prior to practice:

1. I've been banging away at this staff over the screen passes for two years, and they believe it's a matter of execution, not personnel. I disagree and would just as soon see them eliminated from the playbook, but it doesn't appear that will happen.

2. Smiter practices every week, but he has yet to feel completely confident going hard during games. It's a wait-and-see process, with everyone hopeful that he will soon clear the mental hurdle of coming off hernia surgery.

3. Same as Smiter re: Boswell. The groin is getting better, but he has been hesitant to turn it loose in practice. When he believes that he is 100%, Boswell will be back on the field. They don't want to rush him back into action, however. - MK

Man, I feel like I did at the beginning of the season. I have nothing but high hopes and excitement about this team. Let's get a W on Sat. and make a statement while we are at it!

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