The 2016 season has been a disappointing one for two sets of Owls: Florida Atlantic and Rice. Each entered their Week 11 clash with a 1-7 record, with each team’s one win coming against a non-BCS opponent. Both sets of Owls were coming off a brutal conference loss – Louisiana Tech handed Rice a 61-16 drubbing, while Western Kentucky stomped FAU 52-3 in Boca Raton. The loser of the high-stakes Conference USA showdown in Houston would drop to 1-8, while the winner would bounce back to 2-7 … I guess that’s not really high-stakes, is it? Still, as a Rice alum, I was eager to see my alma mater win and avoid the title of “worst team in the land.” Would the Owls win, or the Owls? Would the WatchESPN app work on my tablet for 30 minutes without crashing? Would I have enough beer to get through this one? What follows is a loose game story that shouldn’t be read and shouldn’t have been written about a game that no one should’ve watched.
The television announcers keep discussing the Owls, which is confusing. My four-year-old son insists the blue team must be the Blue Jays. I send him to his room. The fans file into Rice stadium for a 2:30 PM start … not exactly en masse:
Florida Atlantic has an outline of the state of Florida on their helmets? I strongly dislike it:
FAU’s quarterback is Justin Driskel? Is that (ex-Florida, ex-Louisiana Tech, current San Francisco 49er) Jeff Driskel’s brother? Oh, it’s Jason Driskel. And he is Jeff Driskel’s brother. He’s the backup today, apparently. Rice’s defense forces a three and out, which has probably happened before this season but I couldn’t swear to it.
On Rice’s first offensive play, FAU defensive end Trey Hendrickson comes screaming off the blindside and sacks Rice quarterback Tyler Stehling, who somehow avoids fumbling. Two plays later, he scrambles for a first down. Stehling converts a fourth down with an option pitch to halfback Jowan Davis that evokes the Ken-Hatfield-era Rice squads, and he hits freshman receiver Kylen Granson over the middle for a 13-yard touchdown. Rice 7, FAU 0
At this point, the WatchESPN app crashed on my tablet and by the time I got things working again, Hendrickson was sacking Stehling again to end Rice’s second drive. That forced a punt, but the drama wasn’t over yet:
- Punt attempt one: Rice committed a false start. No play.
- Punt attempt two: Got the punt off, only to re-kick because FAU was offsides.
- Punt attempt three: An FAU defender almost blocked the punt … and was penalized for running into the kicker, forcing yet another punt.
- Punt attempt four: Finally, a punt with no flags.
It’s kind of obvious that FAU doesn’t have Alabama’s offensive line and Rice doesn’t have Florida State’s secondary, but this kind of special teams sequence sheds light on how they ended up as two of the worst teams in the country instead of merely somewhat bad.
The announcers just said that FAU has had eight different offensive line starting combinations, including nine different individual starters. This is the sort of stat you hear in a game like this. On cue, a giant run from FAU gets called back for a hold. FAU converts the 3rd and 11 anyway, and then Driskel, who is back running the show, hits a long back shoulder pass down to the 1. FAU tailback Devin Singletary punches it in and we’ve got a tie game. Rice 7, FAU 7
For the second drive in a row, FAU sacks Stehling on third down to force a three-and-out. Rice again commits a special teams penalty, with one of their gunners drilling the FAU returner before he catches the ball. Florida Atlantic marches downfield in three plays to take the lead, with Driskel hitting John Mitchell on a 33-yard wheel route for the touchdown. FAU 14, Rice 7. The teams each punt once more to end the quarter.
Rice runs twice, setting up a 3rd and 7 where Stehling takes a sack. That would be the fourth consecutive three-and-out ending in a sack if Stehling hadn’t barely made it back to the line of scrimmage the drive before. Florida Atlantic marches downfield, but receiver Nate Terry can’t haul in a would-be touchdown – it was possibly deflected – and kicker Greg Joseph misses a 32-yard field goal. Rice finally puts together a successful drive, keyed by a 14-yard draw play on 3rd-and-10 followed by a pair of 20-yard play-action passes. They cap off the drive with a jet sweep to return specialist Nahshon Ellerbe, who reaches the end zone after a cut block by running back Jowan Davis clears the way. Rice 14, FAU 14
I learned something about Rice on that drive. It wasn’t a lesson about character or determination or anything, but just a factoid that guard Cory Klingler is the nephew of University of Houston standout / NFL draft bust David Klingler.
WatchESPN crashed again at this point, but it returned just in time to see Singletary run for 40 yards. The drive stalls out there, and Joseph’s long field goal attempt bounces off the crossbar. You don’t see that every day. Stehling takes his fifth sack of the game on 3rd and 14 and Rice punts again. FAU drives 67 yards in six plays, capping things off with Singletary’s second TD run. FAU 21, Rice 14
Coolest play of the game alert: After a productive Rice drive stalls out on the FAU 40, Rice coach David Bailiff sends out the field goal team. But Rice kicker Haden Tobola takes the snap and quick kicks, pinning FAU at their own 2. Fake the field goal and punt it instead? Awesome.
Well, maybe not that awesome. FAU marches 98 yards in 12 plays, even with a long run called back for an offensive hold, taking a two score lead after backup running back Gregory Howell, Jr. punches it in from a yard out. FAU 28, Rice 14
Rice bounces back with a huge 37-yard connection between Stehling and Temi Alaka, but the drive peters out after Ellerbe loses yards on a wildcat run. Tobola kicks the field goal. FAU 28, Rice 17
After matching three-and-outs, Driskel hits Henry Bussey III with a deep post. He makes a Rice defensive back miss en route to an 84-yard touchdown. FAU 35, Rice 17. Suddenly I realize I have only one beer in the fridge.
Stehling suffers an injury and leaves for one play, during which my WatchESPN app crashes again, but he returns and hits Granson for 37 yards (which I missed) and then Austin Walter punches it in (which I did see). Walter catches a pass in the flat for the two-point conversion and we have a 10-point game. FAU 35, Rice 25
A rare good moment for Rice football
Yay! Driskel tries the deep post again and D’Angelo Ellis makes a terrific play to knock it away from Mitchell. OH NO! On the next play, Singletary runs 66 yards, seemingly through the entire Rice defense, for another FAU score. He now has three touchdowns on the day after entering the game with only two on the season. FAU 42, Rice 25
Stehling hits receiver James Mayden with a jumpball fade (sometimes known as a YOLO-9 after “you only live once” and the Sid Gillman route tree code for the deep fly). At this point, Rice’s offense is basically YOLO-9s and Stehling curling up in the fetal position. Stehling tries to fit a pass into a tight window in the end zone and it deflects to FAU safety Ocie Rose for the interception that basically ends this one.
Joseph completes his tough kicking day by hitting the upright on a 28-yarder. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone hit the crossbar and the upright in the same game. Rice puts in redshirt freshman quarterback J.T. Granato, who made national headlines as a high school recruit when, I kid you not, Rice’s coaching staff sent a recruiting letter to his cat. I dunno, I think I want my QB to be a dog guy. Granato makes a couple impressive throws and then horribly underthrows a fade route for an interception.
Singletary finishes with 252 yards (a school record) and three touchdowns. He had 295 yards and two touchdowns total in the preceding eight games. FAU piled up 657 total yards, which was a positive for both squads. For FAU, it represented a new school record for single-game yardage. For Rice, it represented an improvement over last week, when they allowed Louisiana Tech to pile up 735 yards on them.
FAU has a little something to build on with an impressive win, but Rice drops to 1-8 after losing by 17 at home to one of the worst teams in one of the worst conferences. They get another winnable game against the Charlotte 49ers this weekend, but then figure to suffer a blowout in the finale against Stanford. Questions remain: Can they compete well enough to save head coach David Bailiff’s job? Can they find a quarterback of the future to replace Stehling, a senior? Can they hold an opposing offense under 600 yards? And why did you read all this?
Follow @davearchie on Twitter. Check out his other work here, like his look at the QB class of 2014, his analysis of value plays at left tackle and a great performance from Case Keenum.
All photos courtesy Daniel Arizpe. Keep your head up, Rizzo.