The more you have invested in a game, the more difficult it is to move on afterward. Here we are, still e-yelling at each other about the offense almost a week after the Air Force game… And we’re just fans. Imagine how hard it must be for the people who actually invest time and effort preparing for it. (No, remembering to set your DVR doesn’t count as “effort”). No matter how physically and emotionally drained they might be, the players have to suit up, focus, and start practice again on Monday. So it goes for the Navy football team as they enter another crucial stretch in the schedule.
On paper, Rice and SMU would seem to be two of the less daunting teams the Mids have to face this year, entering the weekend with a combined record of 2-7. Not that there’s any team that Navy can chalk up as an automatic win, obviously, but one would figure that the Mids would have a better chance against the Owls and Mustangs than they would with some of the other luminaries on the schedule. Then again, each game isn’t played in a vacuum; they’re played as part of a larger season, and timing doesn’t exactly favor the Mids. Navy is following up a physically and mentally exhausting rivalry win with a pair of long road trips back and forth from Texas, in a season where the Mids have yet to win on the road. When placed in that context, the next two weeks figure to be as challenging as any other. First on the docket in Navy’s Texas two-step is Rice.
Playing in Texas helps Navy’s recruiting efforts, and as such Rice has been a regular on Navy schedules since the ’90s. The two teams last met in 2005, when Matt Hall ran for 91 yards and 2 TDs to lead Navy to a 41-9 victory. It’s hard to imagine a program being so different after only four years; no team in the country has had a more roller coaster existence than Rice. The story actually begins a year earlier, when the future of Rice football and the entire athletics program came into question. I started following the situation when a Rice message board linked a piece I wrote for Scout.com regarding the role athletics play in fulfilling the Naval Academy’s mission. While Rice and the Naval Academy don’t share the same mission, they do face many of the same pressures and misconceptions regarding athletics and the benefits they bring to the school. In April of 2004, the Rice faculty commissioned a study that concluded that a de-emphasis of athletics, including an end to the football program, would be best for the school. In response to this report, the Board of Trustees commissioned a study of their own by McKinsey & Co. to examine its findings and make a recommendation to the Board; options on the table included doing away with football, dropping to Division III, or dissolving the athletic department altogether. When word of these studies were leaked to Rice fans and alumni, their reaction was immediate. Rallies and a massive letter-writing campaign organized by a newly formed “Friends of Rice Athletics” group overwhelmed the Board of Trustees. Bobby May, the Rice AD at the time, talked about the campaign’s effectiveness:
“The Board was totally taken aback; it was knocked off balance by the efforts of those who took the time to write – not just because of the volume, but because of the quality and the logic of the response.”
The other side was overwhelmed, outworked, disarmed and outclassed. One Board member remarked that the work of the Friends of Rice Athletics, and those who wrote, was far better than that put forth by McKinsey.”
With that, Rice football had new life. Rather than drop the program, the school launched a renewed effort to make it better. Rice left the WAC in 2005 in favor of Conference USA. As a member of the C-USA, Rice is able to play most of their games in Texas, maintain some of its old Southwest Conference rivalries, and compete in a West division that consists primarily of private schools (Rice, Tulsa, SMU, and Tulane). It’s a win for the program. In 2006, one of the more underappreciated old venues in college football, Rice Stadium, underwent renovations that included a new playing surface and a modern scoreboard. The most significant changes, though, have come on the field. Ken Hatfield, who had coached on South Main for 12 years, resigned after a 1-10 season in 2005. Hatfield had strayed a bit from his pure wishbone roots, but still employed a running offense based on wishbone power running principles. His replacement was Tulsa defensive coordinator Todd Graham, who hired Major Applewhite to be his offensive coordinator. Graham said at the time,
“We want to spread the field and throw the football, and every quarterback and receiver in this state will be interested in Rice with Major as our offensive coordinator.”
Sounds great, but probably not the easiest transition after running the wishbone. Not surprisingly, the team got off to a 1-5 start. Soon, though, Applewhite found his answer in a pair of sophomores: quarterback Chase Clement and wide receiver Jarett Dillard. A last-second pass from Clement to Dillard lifted Rice to a dramatic 34-33 win over UAB and sparked a six-game winning streak that put Rice at 7-5 and gave them their first Bowl berth in 45 years. Although the Owls lost in the New Orleans Bowl, the program appeared to be headed in the right direction. It was… Until Graham’s former employer came calling. Steve Kragthorpe left to take the Louisville job, and Graham returned to Tulsa to take his place after only a year at Rice. This time Rice tuned to the I-AA ranks to find their new coach, hiring David Bailiff away from Texas State. Bailiff was a former defensive coordinator at TCU, and led Texas State to an 11-3 record and a berth in the I-AA semifinals. Year one of the Bailiff era wasn’t exactly the stuff of dreams. Rice fell back into despair, finishing 3-9 and giving up a ridiculous 42 points per game. Year two, on the other hand, couldn’t have gone much better. The Clement-Dillard combo led Rice to a 10-win season, including a win in the Texas Bowl– Rice’s first bowl victory since 1954.
By the looks of the 2009 season, you’d never guess that the 2008 season was one of the most successful in Rice history. The graduation of Clement and Dillard have returned the sine wave of Rice football back to the trough, as the Owls enter the Navy game at 0-5 and giving up 40.6 points per game. A lot of that has to do with playing Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, of course, and in fact the team is coming off of its best defensive performance of the season against a prolific Tulsa offense. Of course, when a 27-10 loss is your best game of the season, you’ve probably seen better days. The constant turnover has hurt Rice recruiting, leading to some thin classes and forcing them to start younger players. Four of Bailiff’s five starters on the offensive line are sophomores, and the defensive two-deep features 15 freshmen or sophomores. Only eight seniors were listed on the depth chart last week against Tulsa. The few upperclassmen they have, though, include some talented players, particularly on defense. Scott Solomon, a 6-3, 265-lb. defensive end, had three sacks last week and is fifth all-time in that category in Rice history. Preseason all-conference safety Andrew Sendejo is a dual threat, having led the team in tackles for two consecutive years and sitting sixth in the country in punt return average. Still, it hasn’t been enough to overcome youth and injury, with the Owls playing three different quarterbacks this year.
Not that there’s no reason for hope, though. Bailiff has seen the spread option before. Actually, he’s had a bit of success against it; his 2005 playoff run included wins over both Georgia Southern and Cal Poly. The defense is coming off of its best performance of the season, and injured quarterback Nick Fanuzzi is set to return. Fanuzzi led the Owls on three TD drives against Oklahoma State, but missed the last two games with a shoulder injury. Does all this, plus hitting a soft spot on the Navy schedule, have the makings of an upset? Probably not. But Rice will spread out the Navy defense, and their 4-2-5 scheme on defense will give the Mids a look they haven’t seen yet this year. There’s no rest for a weary Navy squad.