Nov. 14, 2009
By MOISEKAPENDA BOWER
Fate, so maddeningly cruel to Rice for the umpteenth time just one weekend ago at SMU, decided on Saturday to smile on the Owls. Finally.
Victimized by three miscues in the kicking game against SMU, the Owls benefitted from a muffed PAT by Tulane and turned their fourth fourth-down conversion into a game-clinching score, defeating the Green Wave 28-20 at Historic Rice Stadium to record their first win of the season.
Owls quarterback Nick Fanuzzi threw a career-best four touchdowns, three to senior receiver Toren Dixon. Their final hook-up came on fourth-and-10 from the Tulane 29 with 54 seconds remaining and the Owls (1-9, 1-5 Conference USA) clinging to a one-point lead. With the Owls continuing to struggle in the kicking game - senior kicker Clark Fangmeier had one PAT deflected and pushed a 25-yard field goal wide right earlier - Rice coach David Bailiff elected to go for the end zone rather than attempt a long field goal or a running play to erase clock.
"We talked about a lot of different ways (to approach the situation)," Bailiff said. "But that was something we needed to do. It wasn't a fourth-and-short anymore, and at that point I was not going to kick a field goal. I just decided it was time to take a risk and hopefully get some rewards out of it, and that's what happened."
Fanuzzi, having already recorded scoring strikes of 32 and 70 yards to Dixon, fired a perfect strike to Dixon as he curved around the defender. Dixon made the grab despite the tight coverage and waltzed into the end zone, capping a statistical oddity where the Owls converted all four of their fourth-down attempts while finishing 1-for-12 on third downs.
"Dixon did a great job of getting off the line," said Fanuzzi, who was 15-of-24 for 214 yards. "Right off the bat he had a jump on the guy and beat him. Luckily enough I put it kind of inside - in my opinion it should have been a little more outside. I led him pretty good and it was pretty good touch on it. It was there ... and he was able to make a great play on it."
Added Dixon, who became the sixth player in school history with three touchdown catches in a single game: "When I came out (of the timeout) I was actually kind of shocked because I saw they were in a man look. He was playing off coverage, and I just released and gave him a slight head fake inside and he bit on it because we run a lot of intermediate routes. Nick made a great throw and the line blocked well, and it was six."
There were two moments that suggested Saturday would belong to the Owls and that Tulane (3-7, 1-5 C-USA), which gave Rice its lone victory in 2005, would again play the unwitting role of homecoming victim.
When Tulane set up to punt following its opening possession of the second half, Owls linebacker Justin Hill powered though the blocking scheme and blocked the kick of Ross Thevenot. That `defining moment' as Bailiff later labeled it gave the Owls the ball at the Tulane 25, and two snaps later Fanuzzi hit Pierre Beasley for a 17-yard touchdown that gave Rice its first lead of the contest at 21-14 with 9:11 left in the third.
And, after Ryan Griffin and Casey Robottom connected for 31 yards and a score on a post pattern early in the fourth quarter, the Green Wave muffed the ensuing PAT, allowing the Owls to preserve their lead at 21-20. The teams played to a stalemate for the rest of the period until Fanuzzi and Dixon sealed the Owls' fifth consecutive homecoming win.
The Owls' defense played an instrumental role by stuffing the Green Wave after surrendering two first-quarter scoring drives. Between the time Tulane snagged a 14-0 lead with 1:19 left in the first quarter and the Griffin-to-Robottom pass play that cut the Owls' lead to one, Rice forced three punts and sophomore tackle Michael Smith notched his first career interception. Tulane's last three possessions ended with a punt from midfield and two turnovers on downs, including the final possession that returned the ball back to Rice with 28 seconds left. Fanuzzi led the offense back on the field to organize a formation that seemed unfamiliar and long overdue this season - the victory formation.
"What I am absolutely the most proud of about this win is that for this entire season this football team has done nothing but come over here with a great attitude and its lunch pail to go to work," Bailiff said. "They've never fragmented, they've tried to do what we've asked them to do, and they've done it with effort and they've done it with enthusiasm. They hung together and we got our first victory tonight.
"It takes special people to do that in a season like this one is going. That's a tribute to the character and the type of young men they are."
Said Dixon: "Just the thought of going 0-12, that's one thing you dread. So I was determined, as well as the other guys, that we were going to win."
Sophomore safety Travis Bradshaw paced the defense with 15 tackles and two pass breakups. Freshman tailback Charles Ross led the Owls' irrepressible ground attack with a career-high 90 yards on 17 carries.