Stuck Between Today and Tomorrow

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In the postgame aftermath of the Owls' dismal 27-10 loss to Tulsa at HRS, David Bailiff made two comments that raised antennae. Before offering some perspective, read both for yourself:

"I know there's a lot of wins left in this season for this team. There's a lot of good still out there for us. We've got seven opportunities left, and I know that each week we continue to improve."

"No matter what anybody tells me we're going to keep the expectations for this program high, and we're not going to change the expectations. And we're not going to let the virus of losing set in to this program. I want the virus of success infecting this program, and we're going to continue to work hard to give Rice University what Rice deserves and this football team deserves."

The first comment clearly speaks to the prospects for this season, which in all honesty look quite depressing at this juncture. At the season's onset, the best-case scenario for the Owls would have yielded six wins and a possible bowl berth, and by any definition losing three offensive starters does not equate to a best-case scenario. Current results serving as a guide, the Owls will be lucky to win four of their remaining seven games, and that's with Nick Fanuzzi, Tyler Smith and Jake Hicks back in the fold. The team lacked experience and depth going into Birmingham, and the injuries have only exacerbated those obvious shortcomings.

The second comment really struck a nerve because one has to wonder who questioned Bailiff to his face about the direction of the program. Those with intimate ties to Rice football have expressed excitement over the prospects for the 2010 and 2011 seasons, such unbridled enthusiasm that it was easy to assume that even those with their fingerprints all over Rice football had conceded this season as one for rebuilding. With just two senior starters on defense (FS Andrew Sendejo and LB Terrance Garmon), no seniors in the offensive line rotation, and a pair of gifted transfers (RB Sam McGuffie and QB Taylor Cook) set to bolster a collection of skill players teeming with potential, the immediate future of Rice football is bright. Who believes otherwise?

Clearly someone with some access to Bailiff does, or he would not have gone on the record with his defensive statement. It was easy to write off this season before the Owls faced UAB. The senior class is fractured, the non-conference schedule was unforgiving, and the Owls were at a talent deficit thanks to recruiting hauls in 2005 and '06 thin on impact players. This 0-5 start underscores the notion that today's strife will be erased by tomorrow's success, although Bailiff went out of his way to declare that the final seven games really do matter.

So if all hope isn't lost and the rest of the schedule has value what, beyond getting healthy, can be done to reverse this losing skid? With the recent performances delivered by the defense and the stunning maturation of sophomore punter Ray Guy, err, Kyle Martens, will plugging Fanuzzi, Hicks and Smith back into the mix revive what has lost breath the past two weeks? Or, are the Owls in desperate need of some other jolt (aggressive play-calling, etc.)?

As for Corbin Smiter, the lingering soreness from his early-July sports hernia surgery made the decision to sit him for the balance of this season an easy one. Smiter has endured an injury-marred career on South Main, and one can only hope that given a full 10 months to recover he can come back for his fifth season ready to contribute according to his capabilities.

Looking back, that '06 class of receivers has been snake bit. There was so much hoopla over their arrival, which coincided with the Owls switching to the spread and the overwhelming worry over the lack of returning receivers capable of thriving in the new offense. As it turned out, Jarett Dillard, Joel Armstrong, Mike Falco and Tommy Henderson did just fine. The eight athletes signed in February 2006 to catch passes? Only Toren Dixon has made a real impact.

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You reverse this losing skid with decent QB play. Once you get that, everything falls into place, given the progress of the defense and special teams.

My concern is whether snaps given to RL and JTS can be seen as a sensible investment towards that goal.

I can't imagine anyone really getting on Bailiff about the direction of this program. He's clearly set a path to a very bright future.

But I wish Bailiff would have told himself this stuff back at the start of fall camp. Any 'virus of losing' seems to have been inoculated with his handling of the QB situation. When the season opener seems to be as much about finding a QB as beating UAB, you've clearly lost some of that focus from the culture of winning he's looking to build.

MK -- Two questions: How does it look for Fanuzzi's return for Navy? Any word on Sendejo's condition? -- he looked pretty shaken up after the big hit. Thanks.

karrief: Bailiff doesn't get the injury report until 3 this afternoon. When I find out, I will pass along the information. - MK

I imagine he made those comments as much to reinforce to his team that he knows that even though things look bleak now, there is a bright future.

Regarding the present, I'm concerned by two things based on Saturday:
1. Play calling that left Lewis a sitting duck waiting for receivers to come free was incredibly stupid
2. The defenses complete lack of an answer for Tulsa's 2nd half adjustments cannot be explained away by being tired.

The coaches have to put the players in a better position to make plays.

I think you might be reading a bit much into that Bailiff comment. I think the big boss is getting mighty frustrated on some level, and it may have just been a pre-emptive strike or really a kind of a comment to himself if you know what I mean. Or maybe a reaction to the media's writing off of the program post-triplets and the fact that so far the season has supported that writing off.

As I have said elsewhere, I'm not going to pass judgement on the offense as a whole until Fanuzzi is back 100% and gets to play a whole game (hopefully next week vs. Navy).
The fact is the last time he was healthy and leading the offense, Rice scored 3 consecutive TDs against a top 15 team on the road, and that was with the other injuries on offense already having taken place. So maybe solving the offense does come down to one player in this instance.

Talon: You're probably right. I just get suspicious when coaches make comments without provocation, and that second statement came without prompting. As for Fanuzzi, his return won't help much if the line continues to struggle. Yes he is a better option than Lewis and Shep, but even he needs sufficient protection to get the ball to the receivers. Fanuzzi will throw again tonight to test his shoulder. - MK

MK, I've got a question for you. Why do our coaches abhor press coverage so much? The adjustment Tulsa made in the 2nd half that got them down the field was taking advantage of our backed off corners by running outside and bubble screening us to death. Yet, we didn't move the corners an inch. And, it is not even that. It is simple things like...if you blitz on 3rd and 4, you are expecting to either get to the QB or force a short pass. So, why do you leave your corners 8 yards off the line? You are giving them what they need. Our corners are supposed to be active and make the play. But, no offense, they don't on quite a few occasions. This happened on a couple of occasions and didn't allow our D to get off the field. I just don't get it. I've watched it for 3 years and we've never changed how we approach it. I mean, we can't do it once just to give them a different look?

Also, I agree on the line. I don't care if you had Joe Montana back there; if the QB doesn't have time to read the field, like Lewis didn't Saturday, he's got no shot. None. I hope Fanuzzi can return this week, but if we can't protect him, I don't know how much help he will be.

d1owls4life: I've never asked Bailiff that question directly, but it's easy to assume that it has something to do with the personnel. In their 4-2-5, the SS (Jones) often serves as a third linebacker and either hugs the line for run support or checks a tight end or tailback in the slot. That leaves Bradshaw and Sendejo as the safeties to provide help over the top, and neither is great in that regard. If you press your corners, you'd better have capable safeties in pass coverage. Now, fundamentally, the Owls should press on third-and-short, and the fact that they don't is as maddening as anything I've seen short of those blasted receiver screens. - MK

If you posed to the Owl Faithful 10, 20, 30 years ago that the team could go bowling every other year but only get 2 or 3 wins in the off years, I'd guess most would have signed up at the time. Not saying we're stuck with that; but it's what we've had recently and my impression is that it's very possible the trend will continue into next year. Of course it's easy to get greedy with success. 10-3 one year creates expectation and desire for more. Nothing wrong with that, but if we've got folks so high and mighty already, I'm disappointed. I expect that of other schools; not Rice.

Bailiff is a true coach in the every sense of word. Heck yeah we want to win right now. He will fix this, unfortunately it takes time and lumps on the chin. He is going to continue to get the recruits and he is going to have success in this program. He is dying on the inside just as we are folks. However, as a true class act he will continue to be positive and the team will benefit from this in the long run.

Brookes - High and mighty? Why can't Rice have the same expectations of a program like Tulsa, or even better expectations? Bailiff is recruiting very well, and I don't think he would expect the fan base to expect any less than consistent winning seasons going forward with this season as the possible exception. Coaches want the expectations of the fan base to be high, he wants the same expectations in his players too.

Regarding the O-Line blocking, the interesting thing is that the line blocked infinitely better vs. OSU (ostensibly a more talented D-line than Tulsa) even with the injuries to Hicks and Parish and the shift of Mitchell to RT and insertion of Emmert at LT. So, looking at this experimentally, the only different variable really is Fanuzzi at QB. That's why I will hold out judgement until he is back to 100% and gets to play a whole game (something he should have been allowed to do from the get-go).

Regarding the ever-present debate about corner's playing off, and the efficacy of those Tulsa screens - the issue was not the CBs playing off, it was that they failed to attack quickly upon the screen developing. Tulsa's DBs sprinted past blocks the second they saw the screen and dove at the receiver's ankles (what you should do, but risks giving up big play with missed tackle) whereas our DBs seemed to be more preoccupied with just keeping things in front of them and not giving up the big play (may have been a change in philosophy post UAB and T-Tech tackling debacles).

Hey MK, do you know what is going on with Sendejo? I know he got creamed there at the end of the game. Is he doing alright?

d1owls4life: Sendejo is practicing as I type, so I am assuming that he is fine. - MK

Talon, I'm referring to MK's supposition that the direction of the program is being questioned a mere 5 games into the season after 10-3. As I stated, I'm fine with high expectations. If someone is hammering DB about the team's performance at the moment, well, that's ok too. But if someone is telling DB he has to "change the expectations" for the program simply because we've lost 5 games, I think it's a huge overreaction.

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