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Rice Owls on prowl for elusive bowl victory

(AP) – Second-year coach David Bailiff recognizes the significance of what Rice has already accomplished in 2008. With another strong showing, however, the team would establish itself among the best in the program’s existence.
Bailiff and the Owls seek the second 10-win season in program history and their first bowl victory in more than 54 years when they match up with Western Michigan on Dec. 30 in the Texas Bowl at Houston’s Reliant Stadium.
There haven’t been many successful seasons in the latter portion of Rice’s 96-year history as only 10 squads in the last 50 years have enjoyed winning records. At one point, the Owls finished below the .500 mark each season from 1964-1991.
Rice regrouped in 2006, when first-year coach Todd Graham’s team bounced back from a 1-5 start to earn the program’s first bowl berth since 1961. But Graham bolted for Tulsa and the Owls turned to Bailiff last season, when they went just 3-9.
It appeared the Owls were headed for more disappointment in 2008 after splitting the first six games, capped by a 63-28 road loss to Graham’s Golden Hurricane on Oct. 4.
That defeat, though, spurred Rice to a six-game winning streak in which it has outscored opponents by 13.5 points while averaging 44.2.
In turn, Rice (9-3) earned its eighth bowl berth. It won its first four postseason contests, most recently against Alabama in the 1954 Cotton Bowl, but has lost the last three.
It’s a drought Bailiff plans on ending in his first bowl as a head coach.
“In this one game, we can accomplish so much more than just one win,” said Bailiff, named Conference USA’s coach of the year.
Rice, with nine victories for the first time since 1953, is on its longest winning streak since reeling off nine in a row en route to earning a school-record 10 victories in 1949, a mark it can match with a win over the Broncos (9-3) – a team seeking its first 10-win season.
“That’s one thing that’s going to start to settle in here, realizing we’re playing for that 10th win, to make our mark on Rice football history and to become bowl champions,” junior safety Andrew Sendejo said.
To attain that mark, the Owls will look to their outstanding offense, which was 10th in the Football Bowl Subdivision with 472.3 yards a game and was tied for eighth in scoring with 41.6 points per contest.
Rice’s passing attack ranks fifth in the nation, averaging 327.8 yards behind senior quarterback Chase Clement – the C-USA’s most valuable player. Among the six conference records he established this season, Clement set the mark for career touchdown passes (96) and total TDs (120).
Clement, who holds all Owls records in passing and total offense, tied with Texas Tech’s Graham Harrell for fourth in the FBS with a conference-high 52 touchdowns in 2008. He amassed a personal-best 3,812 passing yards and ran for a career-high 621 to lead Rice.
Clement has a pair of reliable targets in wide receiver Jarett Dillard (102) and tight end James Casey (101.4), who sit sixth and seventh, respectively, in the nation in receiving yards per game.
Dillard, the school’s all-time leader in receiving yards and catches before the season even began, leads the nation with 19 touchdown catches. He is the NCAA’s career leader with 59 TD receptions and set a C-USA mark in career receiving yards (4,052).
Casey, second in the FBS with a conference-record 104 receptions, is eighth in the nation with 1,217 receiving yards and tied for eighth with 12 TD catches.
Western Michigan has posed a similar offensive threat while earning the program’s fourth bowl berth – second under coach Bill Cubit. It has lost all three of its postseason contests, most recently 27-24 to Cincinnati in the International Bowl on Jan. 6, 2007.
The Broncos compiled 422.7 yards per game – the 25th-best average in the nation – and turned in one of their best offensive performances in the last 10 years in late September, totaling 633 yards in a 41-7 rout of Tennessee Tech.
Led by quarterback Tim Hiller, the Broncos’ passing offense ranked 10th in the nation (301.2). He connected often with senior receiver Jamarko Simmons, whose 1,184 yards were the 10th-most in the FBS.
“The first thing that jumps off at you is that they have a top 10 passing offense in the country,” Bailiff said.
Hiller and Simmons, who caught 98 passes, re-energized the Broncos following a 5-7 season in 2007 to finish second behind No. 23 Ball State in the Mid-American Conference’s Western Division. They capped their first nine-win season since 2000 with a 45-22 road defeat against the then-No. 15 Cardinals on Nov. 25.
This is the first meeting between Western Michigan and Rice.

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Posted by on Dec 24 2008. Filed under Editorials. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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