Owls-Midshipmen: Five Things To Watch

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It's safe to assume that everyone attending Rice-Navy will participate in the military supply drive, right? This cause is way too important to disregard or claim ignorance over, so consider this another friendly notification. When David Bailiff recalled his time in Afghanistan this past summer, he zeroed in on how appreciative our troops were during supply drops. Participate.

The stars have aligned for the Owls to record their first victory on the season. A key starter will return on offense, the defense has developed momentum since the return to HRS, and Navy is down a pair of fullbacks - a critical position for an option team. Furthermore, the Middies are coming down from an emotional high of defeating rival Air Force in thrilling fashion last week. They see the Owls' woeful record (0-5), consider how they've dominated the series in recent years (three consecutive victories including two in a row at HRS by the combined score of 79-15), and understand that the Owls can't be prepared to stop their offense after three days of practice. Rice is no Ohio State or Pittsburgh, and surely the Middies are aware of that.

This is the Owls' best opportunity at launching a sneak attack. Question is, are they capable?

1. Return of The Nick. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Nick Fanuzzi at this point of his career is the confidence that oozes from his pores. He has a way of casually discussing his role in the offense in such a straightforward manner that it elicits contentment. He always appears in complete control and cavalierly represents himself like everything will be alright, and Fanuzzi has been that way since the start of camp. Now, the Owls' problems run deeper than their two-week stint without Fanuzzi, but before you can achieve you must believe, and Fanuzzi certainly seems to believe that his return will cure most of what has ailed the Owls.

2. School Is In Session. Did you know that five members of the Owls' eight-man rotation on the defensive line are freshmen or sophomores? That's a mighty inexperienced unit, especially against an option offense designed to confuse opposing defensive fronts. Junior end Kramer Lucio was moved inside to provide experienced depth at tackle, but the responsibility rests squarely on the shoulders of freshmen Alex Lowry, Jared Williams and Cody Bauer, and sophomores John Gioffre and Michael Smith to stick to their assignments. The Owls' linebackers shouldn't be asked to chase fullbacks and quarterbacks all game long.

3. Swing It To The Right. With Fanuzzi back at the controls, left tackle Kody Emmert (making just his second career start) will have blindside duty. But a lot of the Owls' problems up front against Tulsa came on the right side of the line where tackle-turned-guard Tyler Parish surrendered too much ground too often, and tackle Scott Mitchell struggled staying in sync with Parish. With one game and a second week of practice under their belts, Parish and Mitchell should show signs of improvement. They'd better, or Fanuzzi will be on his backside.

4. Don't Forget JT. There was an unwritten backup plan in place that involved John Thomas Shepherd playing a 'slash' role in the Owls' offense if he failed to win the starting quarterback job. Well, with Fanuzzi and redshirt freshman Ryan Lewis ahead of Shepherd on the depth chart, the time has come to utilize Shepherd in a creative manner. While he is the backup to Andrew Sendejo on punt returns, Shepherd must see the field at receiver in some packages. He is good in space, has solid hands and, as a quarterback, could serve as a unique weapon.

5. Take a Seat, Fellas. For all the chatter about the Owls' improved defense, the opponents' third-down conversion rate (40.9 percent) is nothing to laud. The Owls rank 82nd nationally in that category, and with Navy aiming to run the football and chew up time of possession (Navy ranks fifth nationally in T.O.P. at 33:29), the Owls must find a way to stall Midshipmen drives when opportunities are presented. If the offense is to snap out of its funk, multiple possessions would be a plus. That means the Owls need to force punts, not watch the chain gang move.

Thoughts? Questions? Concerns?

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I like the idea of integrating JT in a slash role, but I like the idea of getting the base offense clicking better than inserting a new wrinkle. Wardlow, Dixon and Ross need to see a steady diet of crisp passes from Fanuzzi.

Missed tackles are bad against anyone, but they're fatal against the triple option. The Owls need to hit and wrap up. Don't try and strip the ball, just bring your man down.

Can we get a game breaker from our special teams this week? Shane Turner taking one to the house would do the trick.

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