NCAA Football Preview - Rice Owls
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From The Sports Network By Gregg Xenakes, College Football Staff Writer 2003 SEASON IN REVIEW: The opening to the 2003 campaign for the Rice Owls was an absolute disaster. The team dropped four in a row and six of the first seven games, essentially ending their season even before the second half began. The Owls were crushed by in-state rival Houston in the opener on the road by a score of 48-14 and was then dumped by Duke (one of the worst programs in Division I-A over the last few years) by a count of 27-24 in overtime on the road. While losing can never be an acceptable result, dropping decisions to Texas at home (48-7) and Hawaii (41-21) out on the island were understandable. A narrow victory (28-24) over San Jose State in Western Athletic Conference action to break the string was followed by a clumsy setback to Navy (38-6) and a slim defeat to the Fresno State Bulldogs (31-28). Against Nevada on November 1 Rice seemed to find its way and captured a 52-42 shootout, setting the stage for four wins in the last five games. In those victories the Owls scored no less than 41 points. In the end the team was a meager 5-7 overall, yet tied for fourth in the WAC with a mark of 5-3 under the direction of head coach Ken Hatfield, who enters his 11th season with the Owls in 2004. 2004 ANALYSIS: OFFENSE: Hatfield, who is fifth among active Division I-A coaches with 164 career wins and is one of only three active leaders to have directed three different programs to top-20 finishes, has his work cut out for him in 2004. Although he is not listed as a returning starter, quarterback Greg Henderson sure spent enough time on the field last season to be labeled one. The senior started five games in the absence of an injured Kyle Herm, but even then he only attempted 81 passes as part of one of the worst passing offenses in the entire nation, averaging just 80.3 ypg through the air. Henderson was also the third-leading rusher for the group with 615 yards and six touchdowns, second only to the departed Robbie Beck who found the end zone 12 times on the ground. Henderson is the only experienced signal-caller on the roster, which makes it even more important that redshirt freshman Joel Armstrong wastes little time in getting into the flow of the offense when he has the opportunity. If nothing else, at least the Owls have a quartet of returning starters along the front line (Marcus Battle, Scott Mayhew, Micah Meador and Greg Wilson) to making the learning process go a little smoother and hopefully without incident. Junior running back Thomas Lott may be a bit undersized at 5-7, but that frame managed to lead the team in rushing last year at 7.3 ypc. Obviously being the featured back this year his average is going to take a tumble, but there's no reason to think that the program won't be hovering around 300-yards per game on the ground once again. Last season the Owls had the second-best rushing attack in the nation at 316.7 ypg. DEFENSE: For a team that surrendered more than 432 yards per game in total offense, it's important that at least a few starters from a year ago come back to try and teach the new guys something. In this case the top three tacklers from last year's squad are all back for another turn against the rest of the WAC. Terry Holley, listed at the Rover position, placed first on the list with 89 stops in 2003, intercepting a pair of passes and recovering a couple of fumbles, while also scoring two touchdowns for the Owls in the process. Holley was originally brought in as a quarterback at Rice, but he switched to linebacker in 2000 and then to rover in 2001 following a knee injury. So if nothing else, Holley understands how an offense works and has had experience at a number of defensive positions in order to use his talents. Although just a sophomore, Chad Price placed second on the unit with 82 stops a number that he expects to surpass as a returning starter this season in the secondary. While he may be just a junior, compared to nose guard Jeremy Calahan who is in his senior campaign, the front line will look to John Syptak (79 tackles, 10.5 TFLs and four sacks) to lead the attack in the trenches and get offenses off their game a bit. Sophomore Andray Downs (free safety) and junior Dustin Haynes (cornerback) will again try to clean up any of the mistakes made by fellow defenders playing in front of them. SPECIAL TEAMS: Generally when the offense for the Owls stalled last year, there wasn't much call for a field goal attempt because they were not in range, which is why returning kicker Brennan Landry made only 6-of-9 of his attempts. The junior converted all 34 of his extra-point tries though, so he has a reliable leg if nothing else. As a freshman punter Jared Scruggs assumed the responsibility of pinning opponents back in their own territory, with nearly a quarter of his 51 kicks landing inside the 20-yard line. With an average of 45.9 yards per kick, Scruggs led the league and won All-WAC honors as a result. He was fifth in the nation overall and first among freshmen with his impressive average. OUTLOOK: Hopefully the Owls learned something last year when they were blown out of the water by the Houston Cougars in the season opener, because the two Texas schools reprise their relationship again this year as they kick things off on September 5th at Reliant Stadium in Houston. A week off gives the Owls plenty of time for Hawaii, which drops in on the 18th, but there's no telling how the team will handle having to play five of their next six games out on the road. The lone home game in the mix is a date with a desperate SMU bunch in early October, other than that the Owls will not be back in the Lone Star State until November 6th for a meeting with the Fresno State Bulldogs. The rough road schedule is going to take a toll on the Owls, who are going to be quite tired after running the ball up and down the field in foreign stadiums. The team should come close to breaking even on the year, even though it has to make it happen without significant returning starters on offense.