by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

For an indicator about how long we have been in business at TGS, consider this:

When TGS began publishing in 1957, Rice was an acknowledged football power! Although anyone under 65 years of age might have trouble recalling, or believing, that such was ever true.

Of course, the ‘50s were a pretty good decade for the Owls, who were also involved in one of the most-famous bowl games, and certainly most-famous bowl plays, of all-time in the first half of the decade. The game in reference was the 1954 Cotton Bowl, in which a Jess Neely-coached Owls team had qualified as champion of the old Southwest Conference. In that Cotton Bowl vs. Alabama, RB Dicky Moegle broke down the sideline for what appeared to be a 95-yard TD run, only to be tackled near midfield by the Tide’s Tommy Lewis, who famously left the Bama bench to nail Moegle. The refs correctly ruled the play a TD, helping Rice to a 28-6 win. That Owl team finished sixth-ranked in the country.

Neely had another very good team in 1957, our first year publishing TGS, with a squad led by QB King Hill, who would go on to be the number one choice in the 1958 NFL Draft when picked by the old Chicago Cardinals, and eventually one of the league’s most-familiar backup QBs throughout the ‘60s (much of that time spent with the Eagles). Those Owls also had another QB who would go on to even greater glory, Frank Ryan, who eventually won an NFL title in 1964 with the Browns, plus WR Buddy Dial, a future Pro Bowler and member of the College Football Hall of Fame. Neely’s ‘57 team also won the old Southwest Conference crown and earned another invitation to the Cotton Bowl, though it was beaten by a rugged, physical Navy squad coached by Eddie Erdelatz, 20-7, in Dallas.

Still, Rice was a top ten team in that initial TGS year of 1957, with the Owls finishing 8th in the final rankings. Neely later made it to the Sugar Bowl in 1960, losing 14-6, to Johnny Vaught-coached Ole Miss, and had another ranked team (17th) in 1961 that qualified for the Bluebonnet Bowl, played at its home stadium, where it lost to a John Hadl-led Kansas side, 33-7.

But for much of the next half-century, Rice football has been mostly an afterthought, to the point its ongoing existence has even been questioned by many at the tree-shrouded, suburban Houston-based private school with the second-smallest undergrad enrollment (only 3708, behind only Tulsa) in the top tier, FBS level.

As a monument to those long-ago glory years, the Owls still play their games in the imposing Rice Stadium, built in 1950 with 70,000 wonderful, unobstructed seats, still perhaps with the best sightlines in college football. But the Owls have had so much trouble filling the stadium (which hasn’t sold out for a Rice game since the early ‘60s, and can still hold more than the number of Rice alumni, alive or dead) that the school covered up the endzone seats, which were decaying wood benches from the original construction, with tarpaulins a few years ago, reducing the current capacity to 47,000.

Among the historical highlights of Rice Stadium include being the host facility in January of 1974 for Super Bowl VII, in which Don Shula’s Dolphins beat Bud Grant’s Vikings by a 24-7 count, and three seasons as the home base of the AFL Houston Oilers between 1965-67. The crosstown Houston Cougars also used Rice Stadium (originally called “Houston Stadium”) as their home base between 1951-65, and the old Bluebonnet Bowl, as mentioned above, enjoyed a pair of stints at Rice between 1959-67 and 1985-86.

The stadium was also the site of President Kennedy’s famous 1962 NASA-themed speech that challenged Americans to share his vision of putting men on the moon before the end of the decade.

“But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal?,” said Kennedy nearly fifth years ago to the stadium audience. “And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the moon! We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."

What other school (besides Texas), we ask, was a part of such a famous presidential speech? Take that, SEC, Big Ten, and Pac-12 schools!

We’re talking about all of this nostalgia stretching back a half-century because there hasn’t been much else to talk about regarding the gridiron Owls in the 50 years since. Along the way, Rice switched leagues a couple of times (Southwest to WAC to Conference USA) and endured a bowl drought that stood from 1962 thru 2005, and only once won as many as ten games. That was during a colorful 2008 campaign in which the Owls, featuring a potent offense led by QB Chase Clement, WR Jarrett Dillard, and do-everything RB-TE James Casey, finished 10-3, scored 40 ppg, and destroyed Western Michigan 38-14 in the hometown Texas Bowl.

Even that rather recent bit of excitement seems as far removed as JFK’s 1962 speech, however, as the Owls have again regressed in the past three seasons, losing 26 of 36 games between 2009-11. Coach David Bailiff, of whom many believed walked on water when Rice exploded for those 10 wins in 2008, now finds himself squarely on the hot seat entering 2012, with the Owls preparing the noose unless Bailiff finds a way to get Rice back on track in his sixth season in charge.

But prospects of fashioning a recovery this fall look a bit iffy, especially if the Owl offense again fails to hoot, as was the case last season. Rice, which has often had enough firepower to at least trade points and give itself a puncher’s chance in recent years, was almost an ineffective on attack last fall as it was on its annually-leaky defense. The Owls ranked 91st in total offense and 85th in scoring offense, good only in comparison to the latest frightful numbers posted by yet another outmanned stop unit that ranked 111th in total (462 ypg) and 99th in scoring (33.3 ppg) defense in 2011.

Those age-old problems on the stop end could easily help unravel yet another Rice season in 2012, and likely the Bailiff regime along with it. The “D” returns only five starters from last year’s ineffective platoon, and exited spring work with some real concerns up front beyond sr. DE Jared Williams, the lone returning DL starter in the Owls’ 4-2-5 alignment.

The graduation of DE Scott Solomon, last year’s lacking sacker with 6 ½ and picked by the Tennessee Titans in April’s NFL Draft, leaves various questions up front, with no returning player having recorded more than one career QB sack. The speedy, 250-lb. Williams, effectively a linebacker playing at DE, has the potential to make an impact, though he recorded only one sack last fall.

Still, as usual, the Owls will be mostly undersized at the point of attack, subject to bullying tactics from bigger offensive line opponents. Which is why d.c. Bryan Thurmond has been keeping a close eye on diamond-in-the-rough 290-lb. DT Christian Covington, a RS frosh from Vancouver, B.C. who could emerge as the gem of last year’s recruiting class. Powerful and with an explosive burst, Covington could prove an important contributor if he continues to progress in fall as he did in spring work, and a unique, physical force for the Owls on their DL. The healthy return of jr. DTs Dylan Klare and Hosham Shahin from last year’s injuries would also fortify the depth along the line.

That familiar lack-of-bulk issue on the Rice “D” has motivated the 4-2-5 looks and put an emphasis on speed rather than size, but it also puts enormous pressure on the linebacker components. Versatile, safety-sized defenders who can deliver a pop at the point of impact are hard to come by, although jr. Cameron Nwosu (left) filled the bill pretty well a year ago when making 108 tackles ane earning All-CUSA honors in his first year as a starter. Senior Kyle Prater, a former LSU transfer but yet to live up to his once-considerable hype, is likely to get the first crack starting alongside Nwosu.

The bigger problems experienced by the Rice “D” in 2011 occurred in pass coverage, where the Owlies ranked 112th nationally and allowed a whopping 32 TD passes. The lack of a consistent pass rush, and the necessity to blitz to harass opposing QBs, created a dangerous scenario in the secondary a year ago, when the DBs too often had to fend for themselves as they were stranded on the proverbial island. Three starters return, including soph CB Bryce Callahan (right, last season vs. SMU), who led the nation’s frosh with six picks a year ago but was also burned on numerous occasions. More will also be expected from sr. SS Corey Frazier, son of NFL Vikings HC Leslie Frazier but whose effectiveness waned a year ago, dropping from a team-high 83 tackles in 2010 to only 46 stops a year ago.

With its manpower disadvantages, however, there is only so much that the Owls can do defensively. It’s going to be up to the offense, perhaps even more than the stop unit, to improve its game enough from last fall to give Rice a legit shot at a bowl bid for the first time since the magic 2008 campaign.

Only five starters return from the 2011 strike force, although a few key skill-position weapons remain in the fold. That includes jr. QB Taylor McHargue (left; 1072 YP and 8 TDP a year ago when splitting duties with graduated Nick Fanuzzi), who has played with occasional flair the past two seasons but needs to curb his tendency to escape too quickly from the pocket while trying to make something happen with his feet rather than his arm. Redshirt frosh Driphus Jackson, who mounted a challenge to McHargue in spring, possesses many of the same run-first characteristics, ones that Bailiff wishes to curb as he attempts to turn his QBs into updated versions of the prolific Clement from a few years ago.

Helping the aerial show in the fall will be expected enhanced contributions from the versatile Sam McGuffie, the touted former Michigan transfer who spent the entire spring working at WR after previously being utilized at RB. The thought process behind the move is to get the ball into McGuffie’s hands more often, and also remove a bit of the wear-and-tear from full-time RB duties that caused him to miss five games due to injury last fall.

Versatility is a hot commodity in Bailiff’s offense, with last year’s leading rusher, Turner Peterson (485 YR), being a former QB, DB, and WR, and also the pivot man when receiving direct snaps for Bailiff’s “Wild Owl” formations. Punishing 230-lb. jr. RB Jeremy Eddington will also be expected to flash some of the potential first displayed as a frosh in 2010 when rushing for nearly 400 yards.

McGuffie’s introduction as a WR fortifies an intriguing mix of pass-catchers that features the best TE combo in CUSA with srs. Luke Wilson (right) and Vance McDonald. The Canadian-bred Wilson reminds some regional observers of recent Owl hero Casey, now with the NFL Texans and like Wilson a multi-sport athlete who also excelled in baseball (Wilson is a member of the Blue Jays farm system). Like Casey, Wilson is being mentioned as a possible H-back in the NFL. As for the 260-lb. McDonald, he was the Owls’ leading receiver in 2011 when he caught 44 passes and like Wilson is also being mentioned in NFL Draft circles for next April.

The real concerns for the offense, however, lie up front. Only one starter, soph RG Drew Carroll, returns along the OL, and the prospect of the forward wall being the weak link offensively has Bailiff concerned. Newcomers are going to have to contribute in a hurry, with RS frosh (tackles Caleb Williams and Matt Wofford) and a juco (C Nate Richards) likely to be involved in the starting lineup. Keeping jr. LT Jon Hodde, perhaps Rice’s most-talented lineman, healthy after a variety of nagging injuries over the past two years, will be another key.

At least the kicking game appears to be in good hands with Lou Groza Award candidate jr. Chris Boswell, although he’s going to be asked to add punting duties to his PK chores after nailing 17 of 21 FG attempts (including three beyond 50 yards) a year ago.

Pointspread-wise, note that Rice has been burning its backers lately when on the road, dropping 9 of its last 11 spread decisions away from home. The Owls also began to reverse their extended “over” trends a year ago; after going “over” in 47 of 60 “totals” decisions between 2006-10, Rice was “under” 8-4 a year ago.

Summary...The David Bailiff regime has reached a crossroads at Rice, with a full class of recruits having cycled through since the last highlight year in 2008. Although expectations are modest for the Owls, more regression this season likely means the Bailiff era ends unless the Owls improve upon last year’s 4-8 mark and return to a minor bowl, which Rice fans were looking forward to experiencing on a regular basis a few years ago. It hasn’t happened since, however, and we’re not sure anything changes this fall, especially with evidence of defensive upgrades being very elusive. There might be some potential for offensive improvement, but Bailiff needs McHargue to make the big step forward as a playmaking QB this fall. Otherwise, don’t be surprised if Rice is looking for a new coach in December.

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