Rice defeated Florida Atlantic two weeks ago, but it wasn’t lightning in a bottle. It was pretty much lightning everywhere. For 90 minutes torrential rain and special-effects-like lightning brought the fourth quarter to a dangerous halt. By the time the weather parted and the game resumed it was Rice that provided the fireworks. Down by 12 in the fourth, Rice rallied for a 27-26 victory, completing an 83-yard drive in the final minute.
“We played our best quarter of football both offensively and defensively,” head coach Dave Bailiff said. “Just the way Driphus [Jackson, the quarterback] ran the offense; [tight end] Connor Cella’s big play. The tight end got us down the field so we could score those two touchdowns in rapid succession. The defense only gave up 35 yards in the quarter. It was great to get that win, our second conference win, going into this week.”
This week the Owls host Army, but their comeback against Florida Atlantic still remains the primary topic of conversation.
“You know, I really think after that lightning delay, that we went into the locker room upset with how we had played,” Bailiff said. “We completely changed our attitude and approach. We came back and really played with a chip on our shoulder. And really, that’s how the game is supposed to be played. We really hadn’t played up to our play-making ability up to that point.”
Rice had the week off following that game, which given its opponent Saturday could turn out to be decisive. Not just with players having a chance to soothe their aches and pains, but with dealing with Army’s biggest pain – its triple-option offense.
“Everybody has an assignment every play,” he said. “The tackle, the dive, the quarterback and the pitch. That sounds easy, but they’re using counter motion and they’re load blocking you. You have to fight off the slot backs to make those plays. But, you have to follow your assignment. If you go to help somebody, that’s when they sting you with the home run. They don’t throw the ball a lot, but when they do, they’re averaging 22 yards a completion. So, you’re asking that secondary to come up and support the run and at the same time, play the pass. That’s why [getting] so many reps at it is important. It’s hard to turn around and play an option team with just three days [practice].”
“They’ve got some experience coaching against the triple option, and that certainly helps them,” Army head coach Jeff Monken said. “They are a big, physical team. We’ve got to try to get some movement on their defensive tackles inside and knock them off the ball. They are fast in the secondary; very athletic. They have to cover a lot of really good receivers in Conference USA. To be able to do that and accomplish that effectively, you’ve got to be fast and athletic. I think those guys possess those qualities on that side of the ball. We’ve got to do a great job of sustaining blocks against them. Typically, when we look at drives where we don’t execute and have to punt or don’t gain the yards even when we think we have a good play called it makes it more difficult when you’re going against big guys in there that are stout and good at shedding blocks and athletic guys on the perimeter that you have to go on and block in space.”
If the Owls are wary of Army’s offense, the Black Knights owe them the same consideration. Against Florida Atlantic, Jackson completed 22 of 34 passes for 284 yards passing and three touchdowns. And, like Army, they have a loaded backfield, not just one running back who carries the freight.
“They do a good job with all their skill players,” Monken said. “They are probably a little like us in that we have several guys who have played the b-back position and several guys at slot back. We have a philosophy that doesn’t change all that much depending on who is in the game. I think they are very much the same, I don’t know they have a different philosophy. All three of those running backs have each had a game with 100 yards, they have a couple of receivers with several starts and a tight end who has started a bunch of games for them. They do a really good job running the ball effectively. They have a lot of run-throw options with screen passes out on the perimeter, which may look like run plays, but a lot of those are run-pass options.”
In other words, Army best not take anything for granted when Rice has the ball. One on-going problem for Rice is the number of penalties its offensive line has committed. Of the team’s 44 penalties this season, 10 came in its game against Florida Atlantic.
“We’ll keep working at it,” Bailiff said. “We’ve been one of the least penalized teams in [Conference USA] and we’ll just keep stressing it. A lot of it is that we’re playing some younger players up there. [Offensive linemen] Calvin [Anderson] and Peter [Godber]. They’re young and they need to learn to keep their feet moving. A lot of times when they are getting those, they’re not using good technique. Instead of moving their feet with the play they’re leaning out, getting their hands outside their body. [Offensive line coach Ronnie Vinklarek] will get it all straight. I’d like to see no penalties. Really, that’s one of the things that we have to do. We can’t beat ourselves and penalties are one of those things where you beat yourself. We’ve been getting too many penalties and that’s been a point of emphasis.”
No more penalties. Hopefully, no more lightning. As for his team’s priority against Army, Bailiff said, “Sustaining our blocks. They’re fabulous against the run. I think they are only giving up 145 yards per game. They are very sound what they do defensively. They’ll blitz you some, but they just play so hard. They are a typical academy team. They’re going to come at you. They score most of their points in the fourth quarter. We have to sustain those blocks. It’s a game, too, where they are averaging 31 minutes of time of possession per game. We have to make sure we are scoring at the end of drives. Last week against Bucknell, they held it the last five minutes of the game and [Bucknell] never got the ball back. We can’t let them beat us at what we want to do.”