Oct. 9, 2009
By MOISEKAPENDA BOWER
Nick Fanuzzi picked the perfect time to channel Chase Clement, the multifaceted quarterback who rewrote the Rice record book and earned the respect of its fan base with his tenacity as much as with his talent, and the graduated senior Fanuzzi was attempting to succeed as starter.
In the midst of engineering the Owls' third second-half scoring drive against Oklahoma State, Fanuzzi pulled a stunt that was commonplace with Clement behind center. Nestled comfortably in the pocket, Fanuzzi quickly came to the conclusion that his army of receivers where blanketed by Cowboys and made a sensible yet gutsy decision: he sprinted for pay dirt. With Oklahoma State defenders closing in as he neared the pylon, Fanuzzi stifled the cynicism of his dwindling number of detractors by haphazardly diving for the corner of the end zone.
Fanuzzi did not reach his goal, but his remaining skeptics were silenced by his blatant disregard for his own self-preservation. The Owls would score soon thereafter but Fanuzzi, finally and comfortably in control of a protracted competition to replace Clement, injured his right shoulder with his reckless abandon. That was three weeks ago, and after missing the past two games with a Grade 1 shoulder separation, Fanuzzi aims to reclaim the momentum established by his breathless play in Stillwater.
"I can't say it's going to come right away but that's the idea," Fanuzzi said. "I plan to pick up right where I finished. As far as my attitude, there's not going to be any hesitation with, `OK, that was three weeks ago. Let's see if I can do this again.' I'm very confident that when we start this game we're going to have a good mentality and go out from the very start of the game and try to put points on the board right away."
Fanuzzi will make his second career start on Saturday when the Owls (0-5, 0-2 Conference USA) host the Naval Academy (3-2) at Historic Rice Stadium. That the Owls have scuffled offensively in his absence only hastened the desire for his return, but in truth the Owls' offensive woes won't be fixed by Fanuzzi's reinsertion into the lineup. Despite the daring and determination he displayed while keeping the Owls within range of Oklahoma State on Sept. 19, Fanuzzi solves only one problem.
For a second consecutive week, the Owls will start two linemen - right guard Tyler Parish and right tackle Scott Mitchell - out of position while reserve left tackle Kody Emmert continues his crash course as a starter. When starting right guard Jake Hicks was lost to a foot injury against the Cowboys and his backup, Eric Ball, to a high ankle sprain a week later in the Owls' home opener against Vanderbilt, the foundation of the Owls' offense began to crumble. Their depth compromised, the Owls strained to mount an attack against Vanderbilt and Tulsa, and even with Fanuzzi back at the controls the Owls' offense won't be operating at full capacity.
"We're going to have to see how we're holding up up front," Rice coach David Bailiff said of the reconstructed offensive line. "You've got to hold up up front to push the ball down the field, and that's one of the things that was an issue last week. You watch those five guys work and it's not exactly what you want, but it's gotten a lot better."
If anyone is aware of who's missing, it's Fanuzzi. He has shared the sidelines with Hicks, Ball and tailback Tyler Smith, a frustrating space for those longing to contribute while the team stumbles along without them. Striking a balance between intently focusing during practice and managing the disappointment of not being able to participate weighed on Fanuzzi. He paid rapt attention while the Owls expanded their playbook but also had moments where he needed to step away alone.
"I've absorbed everything that's been put in," Fanuzzi said. "That wasn't the difficult part because you can pick those things up pretty good. What was hard was being out there and wanting to do those (new plays) and not being able to. At times in practice I would walk off and do some shoulder drills because it meant that much more to get out there and be able to do it."
How much of an impact Fanuzzi can make in his return will be determined against the Midshipmen. For two seasons Clement was the straw that stirred the Owls' offense, but that unit was relatively healthy during that 25-game run. Fanuzzi lacks Clement's experience and the Owls are bereft of the firepower they used to their advantage last year, so plugging in one player teeming with potential might only do so much.
Of course, Fanuzzi did so much so exceptionally in his last appearance that rampant optimism is an acceptable response now that he is back.
"We're still trying to find pieces to the puzzle and patch things together," Owls senior receiver Toren Dixon said. "We still have guys playing out of position on the O-line and that's tough on us, but it's good to have Fanuzzi back. He was coming on and he was playing well before he got hurt. It's good having him back, and we'll see how he responds."
Said Bailiff: "I'm sure that there will be some excitement after the way he performed at Oklahoma State. I think the team will play just as hard as it's played. The great news is it hasn't been an effort thing; it's where we're not making plays. We've got to not get so frustrated where all of a sudden it's like you're in quicksand and sinking. We've got to make sure we keep playing hard and working together and staying a team, and we're going to work our way through this."