Rice Football Preview: Defense the Key to Owls’ Postseason Hopes

Eddie GriffinSenior Analyst IJune 24, 2008

David Bailiff’s first season as head coach at Rice was a tough one, to say the least.  The Owls went 3-9 and finished fourth in the C-USA West at 3-5.

A good offense kept the Owls close against some of the league’s top teams, but the inability to make stops on defense resulted in some tough losses against Tulsa, Houston, and Memphis.

An easier schedule in ‘08 should give Rice fans hope that they will have a chance to win their first bowl game since 1953.

Rice Owls

Coach: David Bailiff (3-9, second season at Rice, 24-24 overall)

Key Returnees: QB Chase Clement, WR Jarett Dillard, WR Toren Dixon, LT Scott Mitchell, RG David Berken, DE Scott Solomon, DE Cheta Ozougwu, LB Brian Raines, S Bencil Smith

Key Losses: WR Joel Armstrong, OL Lute Barber, OL Robby Heos, RT Lute Barber, NG George Chukwu, DB Justin Abt, DB Gary Anderson

2008 Schedule

Aug. 29 SMU

Sep. 6 @ Memphis

Sep. 13 @ Vanderbilt

Sep. 20 @ Texas

Sep. 27 North Texas

Oct. 4 @ Tulsa

Oct. 18 Southern Mississippi

Oct. 25 @ Tulane

Nov. 1 @ UTEP

Nov. 8 Army

Nov. 22 Marshall

Nov. 29 Houston

Key Game: Nov. 29 vs. Houston

Last year, the Owls nearly pulled off the upset on the road, but they came up short in a 56-48 loss to the Cougars.  This year, the game could mean a lot for Bailiff’s squad.  If Rice plans on becoming bowl eligible, they may need to win all of their home games, and Houston would like nothing more than to dash the Owls’ postseason hopes.

2008 Outlook

Fresh off their first bowl game since 1961, the Owls took a step back in 2007.  Even with a passing attack that ranked 15th in the country, injuries and a below-average defense contributed to a disappointing 3-9 record.  Bailiff and his staff are hoping the team can benefit from the experience a lot of the younger players gained after last year’s injuries.

Benefiting most from last year’s experience should be ends Scott Solomon and Cheta Ozougwu, who were forced to play as true freshmen in ‘07.  Injuries also forced Andrew Sendejo to move over to free safety, where he became a force, leading the team in tackles (107) and interceptions (five).

Some key players will be returning from the list of the walking wounded and are expected to make big impacts on defense.  Linebackers Brian Raines, Robert Calhoun, and Terrance Garmon all missed time in ‘07 due to injuries, but all are looking to make major contributions.

Safety Bencil Smith should give a boost to the secondary after missing all of last season due to a broken foot suffered on the season’s first play.

The defensive line has some question marks at the tackle positions after losing both starters.  The Owls will look to fill the void with age, as junior Chance Talbert and senior Chris Ptaszek will look to help a run defense that gave up 192 yards per game on the ground (100th nationally).

As is the case throughout Conference USA, the strength of this team is its offense, specifically the passing game.  The Rice offense returns most of its key contributors from a unit that averaged 37 points in league games.

Quarterback Chase Clement had a great year in 2007, throwing for 3,377 yards and 29 touchdowns.  He also showed some impressive accuracy for a team that had no real running threat by completing 300 of his 508 passing attempts.

Not only was Clement solid in the passing game, he also led the team in rushing with 535 yards and eight touchdowns.

Clement will have plenty of options to throw to, including his favorite target, wide receiver Jarett Dillard.  As a junior, he led the team in receiving with 79 catches for 1,057 yards and 14 touchdowns.

Tight end James Casey also returns after finishing second behind Dillard in receiving with 585 yards and four touchdowns.

The running attack will benefit from the return of last year’s opening day starter C.J. Ugokwe, who also suffered a season ending injury in ‘07.  His replacement, Justin Hill, is coming off a shoulder injury suffered in the spring.

The offensive line returns three starters in tackle Scott Mitchell, center Austin Wilkinson, and guard David Berken. With the addition of some young talent up front, the Owls expect to improve a running game that averaged only 110 yards a game last season.

If the Owls are to make a bowl game appearance, they will need to shore up the defense and establish a running attack, both of which are easier said than done.

However, a favorable schedule could be enough to get them there.  Rice should go into a three-game home stretch to end the year with their postseason goals still intact.


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