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November 25, 2006

Ponies need to draw first blood at Rice

There have been halftime speeches. Adjustments made in the locker room, and some on the field. There have been dramatic comebacks, touchdown-scoring kick returns, key fumble recoveries, even interceptions taken back for touchdowns.

SMU has seen a lot in the second halves of its games during this second half of the season. But on that list above, you might observe that few of those plays have occurred in the first half.

The Mustangs have been a second-half team this season, evidenced by late rallies that won last week's game against Tulsa and almost won one two weeks ago against Houston. The Tulsa second-half may have been SMU's best this season. Scoring 27 unanswered points can buoy any team. But SMU needs to carry the momentum from that frame into Saturday's game at Rice, a team that has been a nemesis for the Mustangs of late. Rice has won three of the last four, and is on an eight-game win streak in Houston.

Think of the ugly starts SMU's had this season at North Texas, at UTEP, at East Carolina, and against Tulsa. What might have been if the Mustangs had played those first halves like they did the second against Tulsa.

Looking at the Rice matchup, getting a lead and not allowing the game's momentum go over to Rice quickly will be a key. If SMU is indeed hyped up about its bowl chances pending the result of Saturday's game, here's its chance to show it. The Mustangs have failed in this category through most of the season.

As for matchups and trends, you probably know most of it.

SMU quarterback Justin Willis continues to be on a roll. He's set a handful of school records thus far, but it is his play-making ability that has impressed the past few weeks. The redshirt freshman continues to evade rushers, get out of bad plays, scramble to make good plays, and use his arm to deliver downfield strikes. Getting him into the flow early is certainly on the SMU coaches' minds.

Defensively, SMU leads Conference USA in rushing defense and tackles-for-loss. There's a whole lot that's good happening there, although the first half of last week's game against Tulsa exposed some weaknesses.

Rice presents a defensive challenge for SMU, but at least it's from an offense the Mustangs are accustomed to seeing. The Owls are playing from spread formations now and throwing the ball more than running, which will make longtime foes rub their eyes while seeing dramatic changes from Rice's wishbone past.

The spread created an offensive show unseen in a generation at Rice. The Owls' 302 points this season are the fifth-most in one season in school history. Rice is also averaging 32 points in its seven C-USA games thus far.

And you wonder which Rice team shows up? The one that got way-layed by Texas (52-7) and a mediocre Florida State (55-7) team, or the one that lost to UCLA close on the road (26-16) and has won four straight over UAB, UCF, UTEP and Tulsa?

"They're playing for the same thing we are," SMU coach Phil Bennett said. "We have to assume they're bringing their best to the game like we are."

Saturday's game isn't about offense or defense, although they certainly play into the outcome. Saturday is about a bowl bid. One of these programs finally gets to shake off the dust from its bowling past, and take a step forward in the race to catch up to conference rivals Houston, Tulsa and UTEP in the C-USA West Division. Saturday's result gives the winner the lean at the finish line.

"A bowl bid will validate what we're trying to do here, and how we're running the program," Bennett said. "People lose sight that we've won nine of our last 14 games. And most of our premier players are underclassmen.

"For us, right now, our mentality is that we need to go to a bowl. We still haven't played our best game yet. What a great time it would be to have that take place Saturday."

Some of SMU's keys for the game:

1. Let it all loose: SMU has played tight at the start of the last two games with its bowl eligibility in doubt. The Mustangs need to come out in the free spirit and enthusiasm they displayed against Sam Houston State, Tulane, and UAB.

"We're going to pull out all the stops to get this done," Bennett said Tuesday during his press luncheon.

Can we assume some of that will be on offense? The fourth-down call near the goal line against Houston, plus the first half last week against Tulsa, has displayed SMU's tendency to choke up when things get tight. Perhaps this is the week to indeed let it all loose.

2. Score first: Somehow, SMU needs to jump out to a lead. The Mustangs' last four opponents have scored first on the Mustangs, which led to a 14-0 first-quarter deficit against Houston and a 24-7 halftime deficit to Tulsa the past two weeks.

SMU trails its opponents in first-quarter scoring, 65-52, on the season. But take away the starts of runaway wins against Sam Houston State and Arkansas State, and opponents are out-scoring SMU 59-24. And while SMU's second-quarter scoring advantage of 103-65 looks impressive, take away the combined 45-0 second-quarter bursts against Sam Houston State and Arkansas State, and the advantage goes to the opponents, 65-58.

In short, the Mustangs must have a good scoring start. It's been awhile since they worked to keep an early lead.

3. Contain Jarrett Dillard / Pressure the Rice QB: Rice's talented receiver is a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation's top receiver. He's all over the top of Rice's all-time receiving lists, and caught 76 passes in Rice's 11 games thus far.

"We'll try to minimize him with hi-low coverage," Bennett said, referring to the cornerback covering Dillard at the line with a safety not far behind for a sort of double-coverage in the secondary.

Rice hasn't declared Chase Clement the starter at quarterback after he broke his collarbone last week. Clement has averaged 274 yards of total offense the past eight weeks. SMU shut down Houston's Kevin Kolb and Tulsa's Paul Smith well the past two games. The Mustangs' line will need to continue to pressure Clement.

If Clement doesn't start, John Shepherd or Joel Armstrong will get the nod. Both have started games for the Owls this season.

THE SERIES

SMU leads the all-time series, 45-37-1.

SMU hopes to end a 20-year losing streak at Rice Stadium dating back to 1986. SMU won that 1986 game, 45-3, behind offensive leaders Bobby Waters at quarterback, Jeff Atkins at running back, and Jeffrey Jacobs at wide receiver.

Rice has won the last eight games in Houston since, including a 44-10 win in SMU's last visit in 2004.

WHAT'S AT STAKE

The winner Saturday is assured of a bowl berth -- a rarity for both programs. SMU's last bowl appearance came in 1984. Rice has waited longer between bowl bids it's been 44 years since their 1961 bid to the Bluebonnet Bowl.

The likeliest prospects for the winner are the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth, or the New Orleans Bowl. A bid to either game could be issued in the winner's post-game locker room, although nothing official has been determined to date.

IT'S BEEN A WHILE

Rice and SMU are high on the dubious list of teams that have not been to bowl games in 10 or more years. Rice is second with its 44-year drought since the 1961 Bluebonnet Bowl bid. SMU is seventh with a 19-year drought since its 1984 Aloha Bowl bid.

Here is the list of teams that have waited 10-plus years for another bowl game, through the end of the 2005 season:

Yrs. School (last bowl appearance)
45 New Mexico State (1960 Sun Bowl)
44* Rice (1961 Bluebonnet Bowl)
37* Ohio (1968 Tangerine Bowl)
33* Kent State (1972 Tangerine Bowl)
26 Temple (1979 Garden State Bowl)
23 Vanderbilt (1982 Hall of Fame Bowl)
19* SMU (1984 Aloha Bowl)
18 Eastern Michigan (1987 California Bowl)
17* Western Michigan (1988 California Bowl)
15* San Jose State (1990 California Raisin)
12 Indiana (1993 Independence Bowl)
11 Baylor (1994 Alamo Bowl)
11* Central Michigan (1994 Las Vegas Bowl)
11 Duke (1994 Hall of Fame Bowl)

* - teams are bowl-eligible in 2006

Note: Akron (Motor City Bowl), Arkansas State (New Orleans Bowl), Central Florida (Sheraton Hawaii Bowl) and South Florida (Meineke Car Care Bowl) made their first bowl appearances in school history in 2005.

Note: Rutgers broke a 26-year bowl drought with its invitation to last year's Insight Bowl.

Note: The following NCAA Division I schools have never appeared in a Division I-sanctioned bowl game: Buffalo, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe, Middle Tennessee

DO YOU REMEMBER?

In 1940, a 7-1-1 SMU team traveled to 7-1 Rice with a share of the Southwest Conference title on the line. SMU won, 7-6, to share the SWC championship with Texas A&M, while Rice finished in a tie for third place. It turned out to be the season finale for both teams, as neither received a bowl bid.

JUSTIN WILLIS NOTES

SMU redshirt freshman quarterback Justin Willis leads C-USA and ranks seventh in NCAA Division I in passing efficiency (162.92). The Denton Ryan product has already set school records for single-game completion percentage (94.7), game (5) and season (28) touchdowns accounted for, season touchdown passes (25), and touchdown passes in consecutive games (9).

Willis is within range of breaking the NCAA freshman records for completion percentage (66.2 percent) and touchdown passes (29).



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