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Defibrillator? Check!

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As the Owls stumbled to their seventh consecutive defeat last Saturday (Positive Spin Alert: the Owls are playing .500 football over their last 14 games!!!), the Five Things To Watch post preceding the opener at UAB came to mind. The tone for this season was set with that miserable loss to an ordinary Blazers squad because, in hindsight, odds were good that the Owls would scuffle during their six-game stretch against opponents coming off bowl berths.

The Owls have been drilled by the average score of 45-14 during that span, and considering that they close their schedule against No. 17 UH, eight losses are all but guaranteed. How the Owls compete against UCF, SMU, Tulane and UTEP over the next five weeks (thank goodness for open dates!) will shape attitudes going into the offseason for those closest to the program. Win those four contests - or at least play competitively - and take something positive into spring drills. Lose with the same maddening penchant for poor preparation and pitiful execution, and David Bailiff will have to mend spirits before the Owls take to the field in March.

If the Owls are to rise like a fiery phoenix and salvage something from the wreckage that has been this miserable campaign, three things should happen between now and Thanksgiving:

1. The Nick must take ownership of this offense. Sophomore quarterback Nick Fanuzzi has made just three starts in his first season on South Main. He missed two contests with a separated shoulder and alternated possessions with fifth-year senior John Thomas Shephard through the opening three weeks of the season in an experiment gone awry. He wasn't given the opportunity to establish himself as the unquestioned starting quarterback, let alone the leader on offense, until recently, yet he is of the belief that he should be that leader by virtue of his position. Barring injury, The Nick has five starts left to become the leader he desires to be.

"I don't care how many snaps you get. If you're the quarterback of a team, you're the leader of the team," Fanuzzi said. "Obviously more experience helps because guys know you that much longer, but you can't tell me that me and the guys haven't had the time to build a relationship.

"We have a strong relationship, and I think it's going to keep building, especially in this next week. We're going to make sure that our relationship is better than any other team's. We're going to work for each other to get better to pull out a win."

2. Bailiff must dust off his most inspiring motivational speech. For the second time in three weekends the Owls followed a potentially game-altering score with a unexpected and backbreaking special-teams gaffe. Against Tulsa they took their first lead of the season on a field goal late in the second quarter only to surrender a long kickoff return and field goal that knotted the score just prior to the intermission. In Greenville, N.C., The Nick and Toren Dixon delivered a burst of energy by combining on an 80-yard scoring play, then watched in horror as Dwayne Harris responded with a 92-yard return for a touchdown on the ensuing kickoff.

Afterward, Bailiff was clearly exasperated. His vocal inflections reflected a coach at wit's end, and one desperate to drag his team out of the doldrums. As the Owls get healthier - RG Jake Hicks and TE Vance McDonald could return this weekend - they must find a way to stop shooting themselves in the foot when those rare opportunities to succeed are present. When the offense gets on a roll, it must end drives with touchdowns, not field goals. When the defenses forces a third-and-long, it must get off the field, not surrender the first down. And when the offense does push into the end zone, the special teams must step up, not fall apart.

Bailiff spoke of a team with a fragile disposition. He must reinforce their constitution this week.

"They need to see the mistakes we've made and need to know that when things go bad you can't forget about your fundamentals and technique," Bailiff said. "And that's what we'll do."

3. This program must establish a defensive identity. For anyone questioning whether the 4-2-5 works, all you need to do is take a look at what TCU has accomplished defensively this decade. The scheme is sound with the proper personnel, and given the results of the past two-plus seasons with Bailiff at the helm, one has to wonder if the Owls have the proper personnel. All should be hesitant to assume that things will improve once the last remnants of Ken Hatfield/Todd Graham recruits are gone and Bailiff has a defense loaded with his players because wasn't the assumption that the Owls would be superior in Year 3 in this scheme?

Well, the Owls rank 116th in total defense and 120th (affectionately known as dead last) in scoring defense, rankings that remain relatively unchanged from 2007 (118th in both categories) and last season (113th in total defense and 104th in scoring defense). The Owls will lose FS Andrew Sendejo, LBs Terrance Garmon and Robert Calhoun and DT Chance Talbert from their defense, and if anyone sees a demonstrative talent upgrade coming at those four positions please share with the rest of the class. No matter how much better the Owls are offensively in 2010, ranking near the bottom nationally on defense is absolutely unacceptable.

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4 Comments

Any insights on injuries (new ones) from the ECU game? That could be the one positive to come out of the game that we got through without any new casualties.

It seems that the majority of Bailiff's recruiting emphasis has been on the offensive side of the ball with the exception of DB's, therefore your points about losses on the D side at the end of this year are well taken.

Tiki Owl: Sendejo (Grade 2 ankle sprain) could miss the remainder of the season, which would be a crime considering he is tied with Dan Dawson (1998-2001) for second place on the Rice career tackles list with 318. OJ Brigance (1987-90), with 367 tackles, will keep his place atop the heap after Sendejo and the Black Knight failed to remain healthy and keep their potentially record-breaking paces. - MK

Tough times. It's hard to watch these guys find ways to fail. To me it seems we're hoping for things to succeed, or trying too hard to force things to succeed, instead of just expecting that if we do our thing the success will come. It's tough to win (and easy to get down) with that mindset.

That's where the leadership void really seems to come to play. Encouragingly, it seems like Fanuzzi is trying to step up as a leader...

You mention the D needs an identity. I think that's what the offense needs most. Someone has to step up and be the ONE to turn to when a first down needs to be had. Nobody's emerged as that guy. Dixon and Randolph have been way too inconsistent. Outside of his great TD catch against Tulsa, Wardlow hasn't shown the tenacity to be a force in the middle. I'm looking forward to seeing what McDonald, Hotard, and Kitchens can add here.

I thought our running game did alright. Goodson, Smith, Ross all did some good things. Our best rushing attack has come from the wildcat.

We'll certainly miss Talbert and Sendejo next year (although Webb's shown he can make plays and tackle-- why isn't he starting with Sendejo and Bradshaw?), but I don't think we'll see a dropoff at LB.

At Ease: I'm giving the offense the benefit of the doubt because that identity would have been established had Fanuzzi been named the starter at UAB and not been injured along with Smith, Ross and Hicks. With everyone back (minus Dixon and Wardlow) plus the additions of McGuffie, Cook and a healthy Smiter and Wells, we'll know what the Owls are on offense. Defensively, given three seasons of poor results, remains a mystery. - MK

Geez, now Sendejo. Could this team be more snake-bit with injuries?

MK, how do you think Webb will do in Andrew's spot? I know those are big shoes to fill, but he has to be 2nd on the depth chart for a reason.

Just so frustrating. It just is so hard to be optimistic that the Owls will get that 0-fer off their back. I said 4 wins b/4 the year...I'm seriously wondering if we will get just 1.

d1owls4life: Methinks Webb will be fine. He was solid during camp, and I haven't witnessed any egregious errors when he has filled in for Sendejo. I don't know if he has Sendejo's tenacity, but he should tackle and cover well enough. - MK

Re: TCU also running the same 4-2-5 scheme.

Yeah, but their DCs are smart enough to not leave huge open spaces outside the tackles against the option and not leave a slot receiver (the other team's best player no less) completely uncovered on multiple plays (ECU's Harris).

That's not players making mistakes, that's coaches having no idea how to design/implement an effective defense.

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