by Chuck Pool (firstname.lastname@example.org) -
Rice and UTEP meet for the 19th consecutive year on Saturday, looking to write the latest chapter in a series that has been filled with offense and outcomes that were left in doubt until the final possession.
Rice holds an overall 13-7 lead in the series, having overcome an early 5-4 lead by UTEP to win nine of the last 11. That turnaround was led by the passing and running of quarterback Chase Clement, who was 3-0 as a starter from 2006-08 while throwing for 15 touchdowns and running for three more while leading the Owls to a series of memorable victories.
In four career games against the Miners, Clement completed 85 of 135 passes for 1,082 yards and five touchdowns and added 158 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, setting the stage for Rice run of nine wins in the last 11 meetings with UTEP.
"Looking back, each one of those games were so much fun to be a part of," Clement recalled. "They were competitive, they were back and forth, they were filled with offense that was easily handling whatever defense was thrown at them. It was a series where both teams, no matter their records coming in, played well against each other. I have to think they were great fun for fans to watch."
Clement made his debut against UTEP as a redshirt freshman in 2005, coming on in relief against a Miner squad that was destined for a second consecutive bowl berth while leading a Rice squad that carried a 12-game losing streak into the game, a streak that ranked as the longest in the nation.
He threw for 83 yards, completing six of ten passes, including a 31-yard touchdown strike to Jarett Dillard that brought the underdog Owls to within seven, 38-31. After a successful onside kick, Clement led the Owls to the Miner three-yard line only to see John Wall stopped on fourth down and their losing streak extended to 13 games.
It would be the last time he would shake the hands of his UTEP opponents after a losing effort. In 2006, the Owls were led by a new coach (Todd Graham) and Clement and his offensive mates were led by a new offensive coordinator (Major Applewhite). They rolled into El Paso emboldened by a big win at UCF the week before and showcased a diverse attack to continue their march to their first bowl berth in 45 years, downing the Miners 37-31.
"They had been to two straight bowls, but we were coming in with almost identical records," Clement recalled. "We jumped out to a big lead, but then Joran Palmer got on a roll and it was pretty much back and forth in the second half."
In a year that became defined by the Herculean production of wide receiver Jarett Dillard and a quick strike attack, it was a shift to a ground control effort in the game's final moments that clinched a win for Rice.
Clement threw for 233 yards and three touchdowns and the two teams exchanged blows and combined to score 61 points in three quarters. But after the Miners closed to 37-31 with 7:30 left, the Owls eschewed the quick strike mentality and exhausted the remaining time on the clock, covering 70 yards in 14 plays. Smith covered the last 10 on his seventh carry of the drive for one last first down to allow the Owls to take a knee and run out the rest of the clock.
"It was very cool to see that we could change our personality in that final drive and eat up the rest of the clock," Clement said. "It was a credit to (Major) Applewhite and to Quinton that we could grind it out at the end. Major had the game plan set and Q had the mindset to give him the ball that allowed us to do that.
"Todd had really jumped on Quinton at halftime of the UCF game the week before and after that he was a different player. He wanted the ball on every play and answered the call every time we gave it to him."
One year later, the teams met with little on the line other than pride, Clement led the Owls on an epic Homecoming comeback that, for those who were paying close attention, gave fair warning as to what the Owls would deliver in 2008.
Despite taking an early 14-3 lead, Clement and the Owl found themselves trailing 48-24 early in the fourth quarter, but anyone leaving Rice Stadium early was about to miss an epic final stanza.
Clement threw for 395 yards and six touchdowns and ran for 103 yards and two more as Rice scored the last 28 points to rally for a 52-48 win.
"UTEP was Homecoming and I had three picks in the first half, but we came out in the second half and put it on them," Clement said. "It was as much fun as I have ever had in a game. It was one of those games when you look at the numbers now, it's hard to put them in context.
"People want to say the game has changed, but the reality is when you look at it, each year there are only maybe 10 teams in any year that put the kinds of numbers we did in the second half of 2007 and in 2008. We were a powerful offense that was tough to stop. That was a combination of a good scheme, good players and good coaching."
It was an effort that fueled Clement as his teammates as they prepared for their senior years in 2008. While most were easily deflected by a final record of 3-9, Clement and his mates new they were sitting on a secret weapon.
"Actually starting with the Houston game (a 56-48 loss), we began to show the potential for the offense everyone saw in 2008," he stated. "We scored 48 against Houston and lost by eight, then lost the next two by three points each. I don't know that people understand how close we were to 6-6 that year.
"We were a great offensive team that year over the second half of the year and we were much closer to being very good team, record wise than anyone realized. That drove us in the offseason and prepared us for the 2008 season. "
That confidence quickly evidenced itself in 2008, as the Owls bust out of the gates with wins vs. SMU and Memphis to open the year. They traveled to El Paso in week nine of the season, needing just one win to reach bowl eligibility. The Miners came in at 3-4, but as had been the case throughout the series while Clement was at the helm, records were quickly thrown out as the offensive fireworks began.
"It was another typical UTEP game, back and forth with two great offenses clicking," Clement recalled. "UTEP had switched to a funky 3-3-5 defense and it was a little confusing to us at times, but as the game went along we were able to adjust."
UTEP took an early 17-7 lead, but thanks to a late score before the end of the half and then a score on the opening possession of the third quarter, Clement pushed the Owls to a 35-20 lead. The Miners stuck back and closed to within five three times, but could get no closer as the Owls reached bowl eligibility with a 49-44 win.
Clement topped 300 yards for the second straight game vs. the Miners, throwing for 316 yards and four touchdowns.
Rice would go on to win three more times in the regular season before Clement capped his career by earning MVP honors in the Texas Bowl as Rice reached 10 wins for only the second time in its history.
As the Owls prepare to meet the Miners again in 2017, Clement looks at the series with both fond memories in addition to a glittering lineage of statistics. And he hopes the current group of Owls will enjoy a similar experience to the one he had in a pair of games in the Sun Bowl.
"I would have to say that in my four years, UTEP was the top road venue in Conference USA. We played some great games there, the fans always seemed to be having a great time and they were always definitely into the game. I hope that will be the case on Saturday."