Differentiating Between Facts and Excuses

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"You need people like me. You need people like me so you can point your (explicative) fingers and say, 'That's the bad guy.'"

- Tony Montana

For the sake of fair play, I will eschew the annual midseason report card because nothing positive can come from doling out D's and F's like candy corn on Halloween (aside from Owls MVP Kyle Martens, who is deserving of an A+). Instead of wallowing in the muck that was the first half of the 2009 season, let's examine where the program is heading under David Bailiff.

For the record, I firmly believe CDC made the correct choice when he selected Bailiff to lead this program in January of 2007. And I'm not just writing that because no one outside of UTSA wanted Larry Coker, and Georgia defensive coordinator Willie Martinez will be fired any day now. Bailiff had a vision for Rice football, and unlike the previous coach, he has embraced all of the challenges that make this job a difficult one. He hasn't shied away from the academic rigors, he isn't pleading to lower standards so that he can plug gaps with JUCO players who might raise a ruckus on the other side of campus, and he continues to recruit his backside off. Is it justifiable to debate his coaching acumen? Sure it is, but no one can refute that Bailiff has the perfect disposition for his post. And, the day might soon come where his X's and O's are bigger, stronger, faster than the other coach's, so his ability to out-scheme every coach on the schedule might not be necessary. Bailiff has this ship heading in the right direction - period.

Was last Saturday difficult to stomach? Absolutely. It was gut-churning football at its worst, but the fact is things aren't going swimmingly on the Rice sideline, and it's difficult to gauge the impact injuries and youth are having on this team. I touched on some of that inexperience during 'Five Things To Watch' last week, but there are freshmen and sophomores everywhere. The Owls started two seniors on defense (FS Andrew Sendejo and LB Terrance Garmon) and two seniors on offense (WRs Toren Dixon and Taylor Wardlow) against the Midshipmen. We discussed at length the problems this team would have without extensive senior leadership, and those concerns have manifested. Everywhere you look the Owls' roster is taking on water:

FACT: Sophomore quarterback Nick Fanuzzi played well considering he missed two weeks with a separated shoulder, and displayed rust relative to his time sidelined. It's hard to sneeze at a 130.08 efficiency rating for a quarterback making his second career start, and doing so behind a makeshift offensive line and with a running attack hampered by critical injuries.

FACT: Right guard Tyler Parish is not a guard. If it's one thing we learned last season, it's that Parish has a nice upside as a right tackle. Try as Parish might, his transition to guard has been rocky, and the Owls are in desperate need of health on the O-line, not toughness. With Jake Hicks and Eric Ball, this team would have continued to progress off the performance at Oklahoma State. And at this stage, depth on the offensive line is nonexistent. Lose two members of the rotation - two at the same position, no less - and disaster isn't far behind.

FACT: Freshman tailback Charles Ross keeps getting dinged at the worst possible time. The Vanderbilt game plan called for Ross to get 20 touches, but an asthma attack scuttled that. With the Middies coming to town and Fanuzzi back in the fold, Ross was set to be the feature back on several plays designed to get him outside of the box. One undisclosed injury later and the Owls were forced to rotate Shane Turner and Jeramy Goodson. Not having Ross or Tyler Smith to contribute to this hamstrung offense has only undermined the problems on defense.

FACT: The Owls might be down to four linebackers against East Carolina. Garmon (lung, concussion) and Matt Nordstrom (foot) are likely out for this weekend, meaning Justin Hill and true freshman Trey Briggs will be your starters. Tanner Shuck and Aaron Williams, who has been on the scout team for weeks, are your backups. Does that sound like an ideal situation?

FACT: The Owls might also be without Ryan Lewis (shoulder) and Phillip Gaines (wrist) against the Pirates. Just when you think it can't get worse, it does. These are tough times.

So, what of the second half of this season? If Fanuzzi remains active, the offense will continue to develop, just not by leaps and bounds. The defense had shown signs of improvement before Navy got everyone all confused, so there is reason to remain optimistic. Special teams have been fine (thanks, K-Mart!!!) aside from four flubbed field goals, so keep your chin up there, too. Perhaps I was overly optimistic in predicting five victories, but no one could have imagined another ravaging spate of injuries sapping this team. I thought 1-5 was a distinct possibility at this point, and while I maintain that the Owls could have defeated UAB, a loss in Birmingham is understandable considering how many guys were starting for the first time on offense. If the Owls play at East Carolina like they did in the second half against Oklahoma State and the first halves against Vanderbilt and Tulsa, they should be respectable. And, given how low expectations should have been coming into this season (replacing The Triplets plus three starters on the O-line and the Black Knight wasn't easy), that is a reasonable goal.

Perhaps it is more fair to judge Bailiff's coaching acumen when he has a roster full of players he signed. Chances are good that Sam McGuffie and Taylor Cook, plus a second year of Fanuzzi, Ross, Vance McDonald and Luke Willson will make Coach Z look wiser, and bigger, stronger, faster defenders will lend more teeth to the 4-2-5. Building a program takes time, and after consecutive lost years recruiting (2005 and 2006), three years just might not be enough.

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I agree with what you're saying here for the most part, MK.

However, please, no more mention of the youth of the team. That's the lamest excuse piped out year after year when things don't go well. And there are examples across the CFB landscape which prove that you don't need experience to have a good team.

Counting only real contributors, last year on defense we had 2 seniors and 5 seniors on offense. 7 is greater than the current 4, but it's not a significant difference. Arguably to this point you could count Jeramy Goodson and JT Shepherd as other seniors that have played considerably for this offense so far (both have started games, played significantly in others). So that would make 7 contributing seniors in '08 and 6 in '09.

Talon: True, but look at the quality of contributions you got from those seniors last year compared to this season, especially on offense. Defensively Ptaszek was at least healthy the entire season, and Raines gave so much in terms of inspiration that it was incredible. As for the youth, when you're talking about four sophomores on the O-line, freshmen at D-tackle and corner, and now another freshman at linebacker, it's legit. We all knew that replacing last year's seniors wouldn't be easy, and when Wiebusch, Douglas and Ugokwe quit, that further sapped depth. No excuses for not having the team prepared against UAB and Navy, but so many young guys at so many spots makes backsliding, albeit temporary, easier. - MK

MK, another thought that crossed my mind.

Have you had the chance to ask DB or EZ about any changes in the offensive scheme from last year to this year? I recall the original plan was to keep the same offense and just have EZ run it, but have it be the same offense installed under Herman. Has that held up? At some point did they scrap that idea? Has EZ emphasized certain things that weren't emphasized in the past and deemphasized others? Brought in his own plays from his past OC posts, etc.?

This offense hasn't looked too similar, and obviously you could point to the loss of the triplets as playing a role in that, but there have been things that appear different schematically. For example all these slow developing run plays (the runs with CJ last year were usually just quick hitters), the emphasis on bubble screens (which hasn't worked at all). The lack of quick slants/short curl packages utilized in 4 and 5 wide receiver sets, etc....

Talon: I can/will certainly ask, but I would guess that the answer has a lot to do with personnel and injuries. I know for a fact that there was a discussion of utilizing some two-back sets, but they lost Smith at Tech and can't keep Ross healthy. Were they contemplating two tight ends when Ross got up to speed, only to scrap it when McDonald got hurt? Perhaps some of those sets worked last year because of the personnel, and with so many injuries on offense, it's been difficult to find an identity and stick with it. It's a lot easier to run those quick hitters with CJ when the O-line does a better job of run blocking and the QB is an actual threat to run the ball. - MK

After having some time to stew over last Saturday my feeling is that things may not be as dark as they seem. It was an awful performance, but I can recall many Hatfield option teams that made good teams look bad. This clearly isn't a good team but they aren't nearly as bad as they showed on Saturday. I think this team will respond positively on Saturday. Of course, the continued grind of injuries is going to make any improvement tough.

Why didn't Chris Jones play Saturday? No doubt that had an impact on the game...Willie Garley is nowhere near the athlete Jones is.

What's the severity of Gaines' wrist injury, how long is he likely to be out?

Talon: Jones is on the participation list, so he did play. I know that he's been banged up of late (knee), so that likely played a role in his limited participation. I haven't heard the word yet on Gaines' wrist. Will alert all when I find something out. - MK

MK -- Is there any systemic reason that we seem to suffer so many injuries nearly EVERY year?

Anonymous: Now THAT is the $1 million question. Last season the offense was amazingly healthy, but the defense was worn down to a nub. This season it's the offense, and some would blame the sequence of games against BCS schools (Tech, Okie State and Vanderbilt in succession). From being around the program I can't blame the S&C staff, which does an excellent job in my opinion. Injuries happen to every program, it's just that a lack of quality depth exacerbates those injuries. - MK

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