by Chuck Pool (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Houston- Darik Dillard and Luke Turner each ran for a pair of scores as the Rice Owls weathered a pair of lightning delays during warmups to open a season in victorious fashion for the first time since 2008, downing Wagner 56-16 on a steamy Saturday at Rice Stadium.
Driphus Jackson, Austin Walter and Nate German added touchdowns on the ground, while Jackson connected with Sam Stewart on a 35-yard scoring pass to lead the Owls to their highest point total in any game since they scored 62 against East Carolina in 2010 and their most in a home opener since they thrashed SMU 56-27 in 2008. Rice totaled 543 yards, including 401 on ground as they wore down their visitors from New York.
"It was smoking hot out there after the rain," Rice head coach David Bailiff said. "It was like breathing mayonnaise. That was one of the things we told the team was our edge would be the environment. We had to own the edge and we did."
Opening at home for the first time since 2012 when they lost to UCLA, the Owls saw the start of the season delayed by more than an hour due a pair of stoppages during warmups because of lightning in the area.
It was the first time Rice had seen a home game delayed since 2007 when David Bailiff's debut as the Owls head coach was twice stopped by strong storms. Ironically that game was the last vs. an FCS school before Saturday's meeting with Wagner, but unlike that stormy night which saw the Owls fall to Nicholls State, Bailiff's 2015 squad shook off the inconvenience and quickly took control of the game.
"We've had some rain delays in camp where we had to go inside and regroup. Didn't mean to , didn't want too, but the guys were always mature enough when the rain delays happened at practice, we went right back out and picked up where we left off and had a pretty good practice."
Rice marched to scores in five of six first half possessions, piling up 338 yards in the first half. Dillard scored on a pair of runs, his second capping a 16-play, 93-yard drive, while Turner and Jackson added rushing scores of their own.
Senior safety Zach Espinosa, making his first career start after 39 games as a reserve, set up the final score of the half with an interception which led one play later to Jackson's TD toss to Stewart.
After a sluggish third quarter that saw Rice gain only 35 yards, the Owls exploded for nearly 200 in the final stanza, highlighted by Nate German's 66-yard touchdown run. Redshirt freshman Austin Walter capped the day's scoring with a 32-yard run to give him 107 yards on the ground in his collegiate debut.
In addition to picking up the win, the game also allowed a total of 71 players to see action, 26 of them for the first time in their careers.
"We got to play a lot of players today," Bailiff said "It gave them some experience at game speed and that allows you to work on some depth and that was definitely a blessing. "
The win was the Owls fifth straight at Rice Stadium and their 13th in the last 14 home games. Overall, Rice has won 23 of its last 32 games since October of 2012.
The Owls will be on the road for the next three weeks, with the first road test coming in a familiar setting as Rice travels to Austin next Saturday to take on longtime Southwest Conference rival Texas. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.