Rice-UAB: A Nightmare Revisited

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First of all, let me set a scene, for that will go a long way toward explaining why David Bailiff said what he said in the moments after the Owls' humbling 44-24 loss to UAB at Legion Field.

Bailiff stood hunched over a beige table in a nondescript interview room adjoining the Owls' locker room. Seated to his left was senior free safety Andrew Sendejo, who looked every bit like an athlete coming off a 15-tackle effort for a demoralized defense. Seated immediately to Bailiff's right was senior quarterback John Thomas Shepherd, who had Nick Fanuzzi, still dressed in uniform, to his right. They were crowded around that table in that cramped room.

With that image in mind, Bailiff said the following regarding the performances of his quarterbacks and the subsequent evaluation of the two-quarterback system that failed at UAB:

"We have to watch video on that. There's a whole lot of both of them I'm proud about, and I also know that there are things that we're going to have to grow from and improve on."

Bailiff is an astute observer of the game, and he doesn't need film study to verify what his eyes saw on the field. Fanuzzi clearly outplayed Shepherd, so much so that this two-quarterback plan should be shelved immediately. However, Bailiff is too noble to throw Shepherd under the bus, especially with Shepherd sitting right next to him in a room full of reporters. Bailiff knows what must be done, but he wasn't going to discuss that move in a public forum following a loss in which the Owls were exposed at spots beside quarterback.

The numbers are too glaring to ignore. Shepherd, who started the game, and Fanuzzi worked six series apiece discounting the series in which the Owls conceded the final seconds of the first half. Fanuzzi finished one series in which Shepherd was momentarily sidelined by a staggering blow, so I won't reward the subsequent touchdown to either quarterback. What follows are the numbers the offense posted with Shepherd and Fanuzzi at the controls:

Shepherd: 39 plays, 163 yards, three points, two punts, an interception and one missed FG.
Fanuzzi: 38 plays, 248 yards, 14 points, two punts, a fumble and a turnover on downs.

Shepherd, who began his third season in the system, posted a passer rating of 67.29. Fanuzzi, seeing his first action since closing Alabama's blowout victory over Western Carolina two years ago, had a passer rating of 141.18. For someone who hadn't played a meaningful game since high school, Fanuzzi was incredibly poised. His fumble was a product of adrenaline and exuberance, and he learned the lesson to slide once the first down is gained.

"I guess you could say there was a little inexperience going out there," Fanuzzi said. "My (second) drive I made a read and cut it up (the field) and didn't have the ball tucked away."

UAB turned the Fanuzzi turnover into a touchdown and a 20-0 lead, but the Owls squandered their shot when they twice penetrated the red zone only to come away empty in the first quarter. Shepherd nearly threw an interception on the first drive after trying to squeeze a pass to Taylor Wardlow despite the presence of UAB free safety Chase Daniel. That march ended with a blocked field goal, an inexplicable play considering it was only a 23-yard attempt. When the Owls pushed to the Blazers' 3 on their next possession, Shepherd again tried a pass into coverage, and this time Daniel made the interception at the goal line. That error was critical.

"I made a poor decision trying to hit Tyler (Smith) in the flat," Shepherd said. "Obviously you can't do that and expect to score.

"Looking from the pre-snap (read) I felt like I had a good opportunity to get a little pick and have Tyler out there in the flat. I left it a little behind him and probably should have thrown it a little quicker, and the safety was able to cut underneath and get it."

But let's not make too much of the quarterback fiasco. With Texas Tech and Oklahoma State up next, Bailiff might be forced to play both quarterbacks simply to keep Fanuzzi healthy enough for the home opener against Vanderbilt on Sept. 26. The Owls' young, revamped offensive line performed OK, but the expectations are that the Red Raiders and Cowboys will generate far more pressure than the Blazers mustered. If Fanuzzi is the future, Bailiff will need to ensure that he actually has one that includes his standing upright with all his of faculties.

The most egregious misstep was taken by the experienced defense, which instead of carrying the weight while the young offense found its footing, as promised, buckled under the awesome power of UAB senior quarterback Joe Webb, whose No. 5 must have looked twice as big to the Owls who whiffed at his vapor trail and stumbled at his feet. While Webb played the role of Vince Young, the Owls were the USC Trojans in the 2006 Rose Bowl. They missed tackle upon tackle early, and appeared petrified late after Webb embarrassed them repeatedly.

"I'm very disappointed in the way we tackled," Bailiff said. "That's me. I should have done more live scrimmage, I should have put them in more scrimmage situations and made them do more live work. We're going to work extremely hard on fundamentals starting Monday when we go back to practice. This defense has a lot of talent, and we've got to get them playing like it.

"He (Webb) put us on our heels, and instead of risking to be great we turned passive."

It was difficult to determine which was worse: the Owls' paralyzing fear of tackling Webb in the open field, or the Blazers' frequent exploiting of the Owls' secondary with their tight ends. Jeffrey Anderson and Zach Lankford combined for four catches and 100 yards, an average of 25 per reception against a defense that didn't seem to have a clue what was going on about it.

"That was just us not making a play," Sendejo said. "They didn't really come out with anything that we hadn't seen before. It just came down to us not stepping up and making a play.

"We had a good week of practice and we really didn't expect to get gashed like that, especially by the tight ends. We were in position a lot of times, we just didn't make the play. And that's just something we've got to work on next week when we come back on Monday."

Bailiff went on to describe instances where the devil was in the details: junior strong safety Chris Jones failing to turn his head while the ball was in the air on one scoring pass, and defenders peeking into the backfield while UAB receivers streaked past. Bailiff fell on the sword for the players not being prepared to do the little things properly, but the Owls' lack of toughness is their burden to shoulder alone. If they don't want to get embarrassed next weekend in Lubbock, they'd better find a way to bow their necks and come out tackling. 

And, it wouldn't hurt to settle on one quarterback once and for all.

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My first thought was that the miserable performance on both sides of the ball was due to the lack of "game condition practices" through fall and posted the same on the message board. Shortly after I posted that came the Bailiff quote via Jeffery Martin's game story in the Chronicle.

This goes along way to explain how in the staff's mind JT was equal to (and was the safer choice via turnovers) Fanuzzi and how our D was going to fly to the ball to stop Webb. Once the game started the speed and contact that we never had played right into handing UAB an easy victory.

This is almost inexcusable in my mind as now we have to "go back to camp" for the next two weeks and our chance for injuries is increased. I'm very disappointed in the staff. We could get away with this stuff like last year because we had a much easier opener and an offense that was self motivated to work and get into game ready shape. I even think the D last year needed a few games to get into game mode and playing SMU, Memphis, and N Texas hid that fact. I'm sure the staff is always worried about losing players in practice during the pre-season since we are always going to be thin in the depth chart but yesterday's fiasco was worse.

Tiki: Bailiff has to get this program past the point where attrition is his primary concern. He was so happy to make it through camp relatively unscathed, but the reality is that he was forced to play freshmen on defense because this program still lacks depth. That fact impacts how you practice and how often you hit, and we all saw the results yesterday. It was stunning to watch the Owls either miss ball carriers or allow them to gain additional yards after contact. Simply stunning. - MK

Nice write up MK. You're absolutely right about Bailiff's post-game comments. There's no way he's going to dump on either of his QBs (or any of his players for that matter) in front of the media.

The offense will be OK, IMO. They did score 24 points and arguably could have had at least six more. They have weapons and should be able to find the right mix. The defense is very troubling. There's no doubt that an explosive weapon like Webb opens up other areas of the field because the defense is keying on him. But blown coverages and poor tackling are not what we've been expecting from an experienced squad like that. The Cowboys and Red Raiders can be forgiven for looking ahead to whichever school they face after Rice.

Nice post-mort, MK. Thanks.

That was tough to watch, particularly with all the excitement coming into this year based on last season's success. I'm sure our disappointment pales in comparison to that felt by the coaches and players.

In the end, it's one loss, and we've got a month now to get ready for the conference slate. Our offense looks like it will reload this season rather than rebuild for next. Those guys will move the football and score some points, particularly as Fanuzzi builds chemistry with his weapons (which should have been the top priority since spring practice, but alas, what's done is done...).

Special teams look much improved in the return game.

That defense... well, looks like it won't be the strength we were hoping for. But this group was playing pretty solid at the end of last season, and surely they couldn't be worse? In the end, I think you just attribute that performance to the remarkable talents of Joe Webb. He disrupts the whole defense, as each player has to not only play their assignment, but keep an eye on the backfield as well. I actually thought we were too aggressive with Webb yesterday, and too often lost containment as we tried to win 1 on 1 battles in open space (which only plays into his strength..). I think we'll be much better against more traditional pocket passers this season.

One question, what % of plays did Solomon take at DT vs. DE? And what were your and the coaches thoughts on his play?

At Ease: Didn't specifically get into Solomon given the way the entire defense performed, but I did keep an eye on him for a while and thought the experiment didn't work as well as intended. I liked the idea, but am in favor of Solomon moving back to end and staying there. As for the offense, convert those two early red-zone opportunities and no one is complaining. That unit, with tweaks, will be fine. - MK

MK, do you believe that Fanuzzi will be the starter by the time they come home for Vandy? I agree that Shep may need to play the next 2 weeks to ensure Fanuzzi doesn't get killed. I just hope Bailiff can see the light on this. Otherwise, the masses will be restless.

The D was just depressing. I hope he gets those boys in pads on Monday. You'd figure after being in the same system for 2+ seasons, they wouldn't make the same pursuit and tackling errors. That is quite an indictment on his Defensive staff.

d1owls4life: Yes. Heck, Fanuzzi should be the starter Saturday at Tech. But I am in favor of a gradual process of some sorts if Fanuzzi gets in trouble in Lubbock. As an aside, does anyone think I was too harsh with my game story on the mother site? Still feeling this relationship out, and am soliciting opinions from ya'll. - MK

I agree with your insights, MK.

I think Fanuzzi needs to start against T-Tech. We need to play every game trying to win it. If we play sound D and capitalize on offense, we could put up an at least respectable fight in Lubbock and amass at least some smidgen of momentum to build on. I mean Tech didn't look all that impressive against 1-AA UND. If things don't go well, and Fanuzzi is just getting tee'd off on for the whole first half then sure, bring in JT for relief. But after what I witnessed yesterday, I just don't think the offense can function effectively with JT in there. The opposing D can just play the run and short pass (like those disastrous screens) all day because there is no threat of downfield pass with JT at QB.

I am actually pretty excited about the offense's potential from what I saw with Fanuzzi in there. There are so many, young, talented weapons in this offense. Clark, Willson, McDonald, Turner, Ross, Dupree, Randolph, they all showed well in there (granted, limited) opportunities. I'd like to see Charles Ross get more caries, he ran hard and has the ideal speed/size combination. Tyler Smith looked good too when he had blocking. If Shane Turner can translate what he did on returns to running out of the backfield, look out.

Speaking of Shane Turner, that was the best set of kick returns I've seen at Rice since the Michael Perry/Spencer George days. I think he'll break one this year, he was very close on one yesterday, and I don't think he ever reached top gear since he was constantly weaving through traffic.

Defensively, honestly I am baffled and really disappointed. I mean with the offensive issues there are clear things you can point to and fix. With the defense, I don't know, they took a big step back to 2007-early 2008 form, and with the lack of injuries and all the returnees, that is highly concerning. I think momentum played a role. Boy was I pumped after that first defensive series and the great field position, and I'm sure the whole team was too, but after the botching of those two great scoring opportunities early, the wind went out of my sails, and I'm sure the Rice team felt similarly. That doesn't excuse the Rice defense to just fold it up, but it can help explain why they just seemed so overwhelmed by Webb thereafter, after playing fast, sound and confident at the game's opening.

Bailiff needs to take on a hard edge this week in practice and quit it with the happy-go-lucky confidence and praise. That was a poor performance and there is plenty work to be done this week. Name Fanuzzi the starter, perhaps move some of the young offensive talent up on the depth chart, and have the defense practice as hard as they ever have, they need to practice like it's a game. That's what all the great programs do, and it's what I assumed we did too. Apparently I was wrong in that assumption, and I should have known given the almost absolute lack of injuries through fall camp. You can't protect players to that degree if you want to be prepared to play on Saturdays.

I thought it was a fine recap, but if your intent was an AP-style recap, then it did read a little harsh, and as if written by someone who was perhaps a little disappointed in the outcome of the game.

At Ease: Thanks for the feedback. I'll work on that for the coming weekend. - MK

Absolutely not. I feel your assessments were accurate. This team fell flat on its face yesterday and there is no way to sugarcoat it.

d1owls4life: Apparently I need more sugar in my diet because the story has been yanked in favor of a more generic AP version. This will be an interesting week. - MK

Ok, just realized that your article got pulled. Once again, I didn't think it was too harsh. I thought it was accurate. But, you have to walk the tight-rope with the administration. I guess you have to pull back on emotion in the write up and leave that to the blog. That would be the best way, but I don't see what was wrong with the original article.

Boy this is feeling like 2007 all over again.

I'm disappointed that what you wrote was pulled. It was honest and fair. It's hard to sugar-coat what happened yesterday and I didn't read anything that crossed the line or would/should have offended anyone. I guess my skins pretty thick after 25 years of (mostly) beat downs. Keep pushing the boundaries. How else will you know where they are, right?

I'm reminded of that classic line early in "The Last Picture Show" (written by Rice alum Larry McMurtry)

"Why can't you kids learn to tackle?"

I hope the lessons of this defeat are learned and that the teams surprises us -- and some opponents -- in the next several games.

Go Owls!!!

SERIOUSLY CHUCK POOL!! Let MK write for pete's sake. The best thing about him when he was writing for the Chronicle was his objective eye and criticisms when needed. Does anyone actually think that what this team needs right now is a pat on the back and a "oh well, at least your tried"? I am not saying lets rip this team a new one, but lets be realistic. The team performed not as well as expected and MK is just calling them on that. I think that it is not the fact that the team lost that bugs the crap out of us, but how the team lost. The offense, which I think we can safely say is a new offense showed some hiccups, but we kind of expected that. The defense, that was supposed to be revamped and improved, just did not show up. How many missed tackles where there? Too many to count. I really hope Coach can get this act together and at least have a better showing next week. I want this team to at least compete with teams like Tech and Okie Lite.

OK, now that I have gotten that off my chest... I think that our offense will get better. They showed some sparks out there and I just wish our first game had not been a conference game. Our OL needs time to gel, that was obvious, but when they do, I think we will have a better time moving the ball. Our running game also looks like it has more to offer. Our special teams looked better too. I will kind of be disappointed if Turner does not return at least one KR for six.

MK please monitor practices closely this week. I'm very interested in what changes occur. Also, be sure to keep us up on the coaches' progress towards naming one QB.


Talon: Already tweeted that Fanuzzi will start at Tech and that he'll stay in the game as long as he is successful and the line provides ample protection. If he starts to sink or faces imminent danger, Shepherd will come off the bench. And I'll fulfill that first request. - MK

I am troubled by Bailiff's comments regarding the QB play vs. UAB in the Chron blog.

Is he just trying to reinflate JT's confidence? Some of the things he says are just clearly false.

"Nick completed 66 percent of his balls. Put his drops in there, and he's at 70 percent. You put the drops in for John Thomas, and John Thomas is at 77 percent. When you look at the total package and not just the final stats, John Thomas' game wasn't as bad. He actually ran the ball and had better reads than Nick, who is doing some wonderful things."

So we are supposed to believe 7 of JT's passes were dropped? Um I do believe I watched this same game being described, and I recall no such thing. Not to mention the ridiculous claim on the reads.

Talon: I am confident that Bailiff will ultimately make the correct decision on the quarterback situation. He sees the same thing we all see. - MK

MK, re: your response to Tiki, I think we will continue to need freshmen for depth. Most teams do. That is life with the 85-scholarship limit. We need to embrace it.

Gothic R: Oh, I completely agree. But specifically, I think the staff would have preferred to give Cody Bauer a little more seasoning before throwing him into the fray. He is a talented young player with a bright future, but he might have preserved his redshirt if AGN had returned. The same could be said of at least two corners had Christopher Douglas returned and if Joseph Leary were healthy. Ifs and buts ... - MK

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