Rice As Nice – C-USA Opener vs. Owls Keeps Miners Focused [VIDEO]
As bit-chomping goes, you wouldn't think UTEP would be so ready to play a team it's beaten once in six years. But like a weekend hiker staring up from base camp at Mt. Everest, the Miners saw the mountaintop in Norman, OK, last weekend.
Franklin Mountains State Park – and the Rice Owls – never looked so good.
Though changes in Oklahoma's actual topography could be measured in meadow muffins, the college football altitude goes way above the timberline in Norman. Needing a good game plan is one thing, needing sherpas and oxygen is another.
After a solid first drive that resulted in a game-tying touchdown, the Miners lost their way and ran out of gas, losing 56-7 to the seventh-ranked Sooners.
Enter the Rice Owls. UTEP may never again be so glad to play a team that beat them by 20 last season.
It's not just hyperbole. It's an early wake-up call that head coach Sean Kugler says will keep the Miners focused on what's ahead instead of lamenting last Saturday.
"It does get your attention," said Kugler. "To have a conference game your second game, yeah it is the earliest I’ve had a conference game as a player or a coach. It gets your focus early, knowing that you could be 1-0 in conference or 0-1 in conference right after week two."
Added reason to eject Saturday's game tape and put in something the Miners can dance to.
Thing is, Rice under David Bailiff has proved it has better moves than the Miners under Kugler every year except 2015.
Notable about that game – all-time leading rusher Aaron Jones was rehabbing a season-ending ankle injury, meaning UTEP won using Plan B; in this case the steady hand of quarterback Mack Leftwich, who threw for 231 and a pair of touchdowns to Jaquan White.
Kugler believes the Miners have that steady hand again in junior quarterback Ryan Metz. That confidence was only reinforced last Saturday in Norman.
"I was pleased with Ryan’s play...and Ryan didn’t show anything that made me think differently in that game," said Kugler. “He did a good job getting us in the right audibles when the box was outnumbered and threw some hitches and those type things. Two of those completions were taken back from penalties. Three of his completions were taken back from drops, and he still had an efficient game."
The Owls are dealing with their own issues in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Rice was ripped in its season opener, too, losing 62-7 at the hands of 2016 Hyundai Sun Bowl winner, No. 14 Stanford, in the Sydney Cup.
Not only must Bailiff try to lift his team after a crushing early loss halfway around the world, he and the entire Rice family are dealing with lost homes, lost facilities, lost time.
Kugler can sympathize. There are a number of South Texas Miners dealing with post-Harvey stress.
"We’ve got one kid, Kevin Dove, who had horses back there and lost every single horse in their horse farm," said Kugler. But losing your entire home base is something very different.
"Our thoughts go out to David Bailiff and his team. I can’t imagine some of the things that they’re going through," said Kugler, who also believes Bailiff will be making the most of the Owls' circumstances.
“I don’t know if it’s going to be a problem for them, they can also rally around that and use that as fuel," Kugler said. "They are coming here to play a football game and we are here to play a football game.
"After the game, certainly he and I will get together and talk, because we’re good friends.”
Two longtime friends and rivals getting together. You can already hear the distinct "TSSST!" sound of tops being popped.
To new beginnings...