C-USA Championship Game

Spring Preview: Rice Owls


Fresh off a 10-win season, it’d be unwise to mistake Rice as a season-opening warm up game. The Owls, winners of Conference USA last season, return to Notre Dame for the first time in 25 years with the hopes of starting the season with a major upset.

With 10 starters returning to head coach David Bailiff’s team, it’s been an offseason of significant transition. To get us up to speed on that, I checked in with Jefferson Powell, the managing edition of Rivals.com’s Owls Insider. He was kind enough to answer a few questions and kickstart our summer reading.

Last year’s 10 win season may have ended with a thud, but the Rice program has been on a steady climb since David Bailiff took over. Was 2013 a peak? Or is the best yet to come?

It’s really hard to imagine the Owls peaking any higher than that. Their goal entering every season is a conference championship and bowl win. They’ll take a conference championship any year they can get it but obviously they would have liked to cap things off with a win in the Liberty Bowl. I don’t know if they can get back there in 2014, but head coach David Bailiff has this program headed in the right direction, so I wouldn’t expect them to fall off too much anytime soon.

The Owls need to replace Taylor McHargue and Charles Ross, two weapons that were critical to the offensive attack. How are the battles are quarterback and running back shaping up?

Driphus Jackson is the named starter at quarterback and has led the Owls to some big wins before, most notably the Armed Forces Bowl in 2012. At running back there isn’t a clear workhorse, and as of now looks like it could be more of a committee approach unless things change this fall, but the two guys at the top of the stable are true sophomore Jowan Davis and redshirt sophomore Darik Dillard, both saw plenty of action in 2013. 

On the defensive side of the ball, coordinator Chris Thurmond has to replace quite a bit of production as well. How do the Owls look on defense heading into 2014?

There has been a lot of movement during the spring and I don’t think the defense will be fully situated until fall camp gets here. It looks like safety Malcolm Hill could slide over and replace the departed Phillip Gaines, while Gabe Baker and Jaylon Finner could step in and replace the two vacant safety spots. The biggest question mark is at defensive end, where the Owls have to find a way to replace two departed starters. This battle is far from over and likely won’t be decided until camp. But I suspect there could be a lot of rotation here as well.

If there’s a playmaker on the offensive side of the ball that should scare Irish fans, who is it? Same thing on the defense, who is the Owls’ best defensive playmaker?

Jordan Taylor will be the Owls biggest threat. I thought he was a bit under utilized in 2013. He’s a 6-foot-5 playmaker that possesses good hands and the ability to break big plays. They have to find a way to get him more involved in 2014.

On defense the name to watch is Christian Covington, a massive defensive tackle that is really coming into his own. Covington is the son of CFL Hall-of-Famer and all-time sacks leader Grover Covington. Covington is a strong and physical defensive tackle that has a great skillset and will be a headache for offensive linemen to deal with. He gets better and better every time I see him and I think he’s due for a breakout year in 2014.

What’s the biggest question mark for the Owls on offense? On defense?

Offense I would have to say the quarterback position. Jackson has won them games in the past, but can he lead this team on a down-to-down basis and get them where they want to go. He has the experience, he knows the offense, it’s just a matter of can he get it done.

Defense, the biggest question mark is the defensive end position which I touched on. They have to find players to replace Cody Bauer and Tanner Leland. Zach Patt, converted wide receiver Derek Brown, Grayzen Schantz and Brian Nordstrom are the top candidates, but I don’t think any of them really separated themselves from the rest this spring.

How big of a game is this for Rice fans? Will a large group head to South Bend for the first game between the programs in 25 years?

Obviously the fans are excited to play a prominent program like Notre Dame, but in all reality for Rice, this is nothing more than a gauge of where the program is at. It’s an important game, yes but a non-conference game against a national program that will be a good gauge of exactly where the Owls are heading into 2014. We will have a much better idea of where the Owls stand following this game.


Special thanks to Jefferson for going out of his way to do this. For more great coverage on Rice you can check out the Owls Insider or follow Jefferson on Twitter @JeffersonPowell

Only focus after Clemson loss is winning on Saturday

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The 2015 college football season has yet to showcase a truly great football team. With early title contenders like Ohio State and Michigan State looking less than stellar, Alabama losing a game already and the Pac-12 beating itself up, the chance that a one-loss Notre Dame team could still make it into the College Football Playoff is certainly a possibility.

But don’t expect Brian Kelly and his football team to start worrying about that now.

We saw a similar situation unfold last season, after the Irish lost a heartbreaker in the final seconds against Florida State. With many fans worried that Notre Dame wasn’t given credit for their performance in Tallahassee, the Irish’s playoff resume mattered very little as the team fell apart down the stretch.

As Notre Dame looks forward, their focus only extends to Saturday. That’s when Navy will test the Irish with their triple-option attack and better-than-usual defense, a team that Brian Kelly voted into his Top 25 this week.

Can this team make it to the Playoff? Kelly isn’t sure. But he knows what his team has to do.

“I don’t know,” Kelly said when asked about a one-loss entrance. “But we do know what we can control, and that is winning each week. So what we really talked about is we have no margin for error, and we have to pay attention to every detail.

“Each game is the biggest and most important game we play and really focusing on that. It isn’t concern yourself with big picture. You really have to focus on one week at a time.”

Kelly spread that message to his five captains after the game on Saturday night. He’s optimistic that message has set in over the weekend, and he’ll see how the team practices as they begin their on-field preparations for Navy this afternoon.

But when asked what type of response he wants to see from his team this week, it wasn’t about the minutiae of the week or a company line about daily improvement.

“The response is to win. That’s the response that we’re looking for,” Kelly said, before detailing four major factors to victory. “To win football games, you have to start fast, which we did not. There has to be an attention to detail, which certainly we were missing that at times. We got great effort, and we finished strong. So we were missing two of the four real key components that I’ll be looking for for this weekend. As long as we have those four key components, I’ll take a win by one. That would be fine with me. We need those four key components. That’s what I’ll be looking for.”

Go for two or not? Both sides of the highly-debated topic

during their game at Clemson Memorial Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Clemson, South Carolina.

Notre Dame’s two failed two-point conversion tries against Clemson have been the source of much debate in the aftermath of the Irish’s 24-22 loss to the Tigers. Brian Kelly’s decision to go for two with just over 14 minutes left in the game forced the Irish into another two-point conversion attempt with just seconds left in regulation, with DeShone Kizer falling short as he attempted to push the game into overtime.

Was Kelly’s decision to go for two the right one at the beginning of the fourth quarter? That depends.

Take away the result—a pass that flew through the fingers of a wide open Corey Robinson. Had the Irish kicked their extra point, Justin Yoon would’ve trotted onto the field with a chance to send the game into overtime. (Then again, had Robinson caught the pass, Notre Dame would’ve been kicking for the win in the final seconds…)

This is the second time a two-point conversion decision has opened Kelly up to second guessing in the past eight games. Last last season, Kelly’s decision to go for two in the fourth-quarter with an 11-point lead against Northwestern, came back to bite the Irish and helped the Wildcats stun Notre Dame in overtime.

That choice was likely fueled by struggles in the kicking game, heightened by Kyle Brindza’s blocked extra-point attempt in the first half, a kick returned by Northwestern that turned a 14-7 game into a 13-9 lead. With a fourth-quarter, 11-point lead, the Irish failed to convert their two-point attempt that would’ve stretched their lead to 13 points. After Northwestern converted their own two-point play, they made a game-tying field goal after Cam McDaniel fumbled the ball as the Irish were running out the clock. Had the Irish gone for (and converted) a PAT, the Wildcats would’ve needed to score a touchdown.

Moving back to Saturday night, Kelly’s decision needs to be put into context. After being held to just three points for the first 45 minutes of the game, C.J. Prosise broke a long catch and run for a touchdown in the opening minute of the fourth quarter. Clemson would be doing their best to kill the clock. Notre Dame’s first touchdown of the game brought the score within 12 points when Kelly decided to try and push the score within 10—likely remembering the very way Northwestern forced overtime.

After the game, Kelly said it was the right decision, citing his two-point conversion card and the time left in the game. On his Sunday afternoon teleconference, he said the same, giving a bit more rationale for his decision.

“We were down and we got the chance to put that game into a two-score with a field goal. I don’t chase the points until the fourth quarter, and our mathematical chart, which I have on the sideline with me and we have a senior adviser who concurred with me, and we said go for two. It says on our chart to go for two.

“We usually don’t use the chart until the fourth quarter because, again, we don’t chase the points. We went for two to make it a 10-point game. So we felt we had the wind with us so we would have to score a touchdown and a field goal because we felt like we probably only had three more possessions.

“The way they were running the clock, we’d probably get three possessions maximum and we’re going to have to score in two out of the three. So it was the smart decision to make, it was the right one to make. Obviously, you know, if we catch the two-point conversion, which was wide open, then we just kick the extra point and we’ve got a different outcome.”

That logic and rationale is why I had no problem with the decision when it happened in real time. But not everybody agrees.

Perhaps the strongest rebuke of the decision came from Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister, who had this to say about the decision in his (somewhat appropriately-titled) weekly Point After column:

Hire another analyst or at least assign someone to the task of deciphering the Beautiful Mind-level math problem that seems to be vexing the Notre Dame brain-trust when a dweeb with half-inch thick glasses and a pocket protector full of pens could tell you that in the game of football, you can’t chase points before it is time… (moving ahead)

…The more astonishing thing is that no one in the ever-growing football organization that now adds analysts and advisors on a regular basis will offer the much-needed advice. Making such decisions in the heat of battle is not easy. What one thinks of in front of the TV or in a press box does not come as clearly when you’re the one pulling the trigger for millions to digest.

And yet with this ever-expanding entourage, Notre Dame still does not have anyone who can scream through the headphones to the head coach, “Coach, don’t go for two!”

If someone, anyone within the organization had the common sense and then the courage to do so, the Irish wouldn’t have lost every game in November of 2014 and would have had a chance to win in overtime against Clemson Saturday night.

My biggest gripe about the decision was the indecision that came along with the choice. Scoring on a big-play tends to stress your team as special teams players shuffle onto the field and the offense comes off. But Notre Dame’s use of a timeout was a painful one, and certainly should’ve been spared considering the replay review that gave Notre Dame’s coaching staff more time to make a decision.

For what it’s worth, Kelly’s decision was probably similar to the one many head coaches would make. And it stems from the original two-point conversion chart that Dick Vermeil developed back in the 1970s.

The original chart didn’t account for success rate or time left in the game. As Kelly mentioned before, Notre Dame uses one once it’s the fourth quarter.

It’s a debate that won’t end any time soon. And certainly one that will have hindsight on the side of the “kick the football” argument.