Originally posted on Fox Sports Houston  |  Last updated 11/26/11
It seemed just for the 2011 season to end like this, with Rice senior quarterback Nick Fanuzzi playing the role of Sisyphus, laboring to move an offense that had sputtered far more frequently than it had succeeded. The Owls' defense, good but not great, provided an opportunity by stopping SMU one final time midway through the fourth quarter. The Owls' special teams, solid yet unspectacular, delivered via a splendid onside kick from Chris Boswell and a determined recovery by Corey Frazier. The stage was set for Fanuzzi, an afterthought when the season began, to muster the improbable leading a unit that had underwhelmed. When his fourth-down pass fell incomplete with 36 seconds remaining on Saturday, there was little left for Fanuzzi to do besides walk dejectedly to the visiting sideline at Ford Stadium. The Owls couldn't march far enough for Boswell to attempt a game-tying field goal, thus their season concluded with a 27-24 Conference USA defeat to SMU. From a macro perspective, the numbers are troublesome. The Owls (4-8, 2-5 C-USA) dropped their 12th consecutive league road game and fell to 10-26 since their 2008 Texas Bowl triumph over Western Michigan. That victory capped a 10-3 campaign, meaning Rice has won as many games in three seasons as it did in its second season under David Bailiff. The momentum former Rice athletic director Chris Del Conte aimed to build by accepting an invitation to participate in a bowl game contested three miles from campus never materialized. Rice has had problems fortifying its roster through recruiting, succeeding at tight end, running back and linebacker, scuffling on the offensive line and at wide receiver. The fan support at Historic Rice Stadium remains non-existent, with the Owls' average home attendance for league games of 15,331 emblematic of a program that has struggled to capture the attention of casual fans. Winning would help lure spectators under the tent, but attrition, injuries and difficult non-conference schedules have greased the skids. The micro view reveals a promising offense that never got untracked. Despite returning nine starters, including ascendant sophomore quarterback Taylor McHargue, five talented tailbacks, the entire offensive line, and a stable of plus-sized and athletic tight ends, the Owls eclipsed 400 total yards only three times this season. They were handled decisively in two of those contests, losing by a combined 64 points at Baylor and Houston. Their 671-yard outburst against UTEP, the third-highest single-game total in program history, proved a mirage. In the three games since that 41-37 victory over the Miners, the Owls have totaled 741 yards. They've averaged 247 yards per game and 4.0 yards per play. Fanuzzi, after passing for a career-best 405 yards against UTEP, totaled only 336 yards against Northwestern, Tulane and SMU. The offensive line provided Fanuzzi modest protection at best, inhibiting his ability to complete passes downfield. The ground game, most notably senior tailback Tyler Smith, came alive in the second half before SMU stifled its momentum. Smith averaged 110.8 rushing yards over the five previous games before netting 32 yards on 14 attempts. What Saturday revealed is that plenty of work remains. The Owls started 13 seniors on offense and defense against the Mustangs, but experienced players will fill several of those holes. McHargue has an entire offseason to reclaim his confidence after a spell of turnovers cost him his job. The rushing attack will miss Smith (155 attempts for 860 yards and five touchdowns), but Turner Petersen, Sam McGuffie, Charles Ross and Jeremy Eddington will return. The depth there remains solid. Of the 15 receiving touchdowns recorded, the Owls lose only two: one apiece from Smith and senior receiver Randy Kitchens. The offensive line will be rebuilt with guards Drew Carroll and Ian Gray, and tackles Jon Hodde and Justin Warren. The defensive line will sorely miss nose tackles John Gioffre and Michael Smith and end Scott Solomon, Rice's all-time leader in career sacks with 24. However, depth was developed there as well, so the drop off in production shouldn't be significant. Bailiff opened this season pleased that he wasn't forced to rely on true freshmen to earn critical repetitions, and he managed to complete the schedule without relying on his freshman class. That bodes will for next season and beyond as Rice strives to develop its numbers. There will be redshirt freshmen waiting in the wings at quarterback, receiver and on both lines. Whether they provide quality depth remains to be seen. Rice will continue attempts to shore up a defense that finished ranked in the bottom 10 nationally yet again, but the non-conference schedule in 2012 is more forgiving. UTSA, Louisiana Tech, Kansas and UCLA are less formidable than Texas, Baylor, Northwestern and Purdue, and after suffering close losses at Marshall and SMU, Rice will get both at home. Perhaps momentum will build then. In the immediacy of their third consecutive losing season it might seem difficult to conceptualize the Owls as a program moving forward. The challenge is determining whether their struggles on Saturday will end or linger into the future. Follow me on Twitter at FSH_Owls
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