It was, in a sense, a reverse.
During the third quarter of the Texas Bowl, Rice quarterback Chase Clement sent a lateral, short and sweet, at Jarett Dillard’s chest. The All-Everything receiver took the pass as the Western Michigan defense began to swarm, ready to cement a loss of yards. But Dillard, more often known for class than cleverness, wheeled and flicked the ball back to Clement, wide-eyed and wide-open, who popped into the endzone to give Rice a 30-0 lead.
Clement and Dillard, just as you’d expect. On their own wavelength, at a different speed, combining for their NCAA-record 51st touchdown conversion. But this flea-flicker saw their roles switched, for it was Dillard as the gunslinger and Clement as the crafty catcher.
Is there anything these two can’t do?
Actually, hold that thought — is there anything this team can’t do?
Three years ago, Rice football was lower than a Flo Rida groupie, sitting pretty at 1-10 under then-coach
Rick Warren Ken Hatfield. The next year Todd Graham returned Rice to the postseason for the first time since the 1954 Cotton Bowl, but an injured Clement, ruing a snapped collarbone, watched Troy tear up the Owls in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl. David Bailiff then rode in from Texas State, a complete unknown — an ESPN host tempted his analysts to “guess who the Rice coach is” only to watch them all fail — and a 3-9 season seemed to relegate us back to college football purgatory.
As the 2008 campaign dawned, expectations were tempered, outlooks were middling, and our confidence was shakier than my great-aunt Ida. It’s not as if you could blame us, or even the team. Rice football has had such a culture of ineptitude that moving beyond counting victories on one hand was considered miraculous. Injuries had seemed to decimate us more than others, and outside of behemoth James Casey the Owls looked like Lara Flynn Boyles against the likes of Texas and Florida State.
And if that weren’t enough, Hurricane Ike made sure to wash out a few days of much-needed rest for a team looking for some footing. It seemed everything was against them. No one’s had it this hard since, well, the Rice men’s basketball team.
But as you, me, and, yes, even some ESPN analysts saw this season, Rice slipped on their glass cleats, picked apart their competition, and burned more records than Godzilla in a Virgin Music store.
All those previous disturbances, all those infuriating obstacles, were nothing but building blocks, binds that tied the team and their talents into one.
For a team that’s overcome so much, I’m almost ashamed that I thought the Texas Bowl would be close.
Everything was clicking. Clement picked apart the stringy Western Michigan defense, putting a remarkable 30 of his 44 passes safely into the hands of his teammates. Dillard and Casey were guiding the scariest tandem since Bonny and Clyde, while Toren Dixon — who finished with eight catches, 58 yards, and one all-important fourth-down conversion — continued to show why Dillard’s looming departure may not hurt as much as we thought. And running back C.J. Ugokwe, whose broad shoulders carried a ground game all year, bludgeoned his way to 54 yards on 17 carries, showing that our running game may finally be in safe hands.
Meanwhile, the defense, long the ugly stepchild to our beautiful offense, was spectacular to the point of redundancy. Time and again, Rice kicked sand in the Broncos’ eyes whenever they tried to climb from their hole, forcing five four-and-outs and snagging a pair of interceptions along the way. And while their bid at the first shutout in 13 years failed late in the fourth quarter, Western Michigan required seven red-zone plays and a questionable penalty just to score their first points.