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Western Michigan (9-3) vs. Rice (9-3)



Tuesday, December 30th - 8:00 p.m. (et)

The Sports Network

By John Agovino, Associate College Football Editor

GAME NOTES: The Rice Owls will have a definite homefield advantage when they take on the Western Michigan Broncos for the first-time ever in the Texas Bowl at Rice's Reliant Stadium in Houston, Texas.

Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit believes his team is prepared for the challenge at hand.

"We?ve been to West Virginia, Missouri, Florida State, Iowa, Virginia," said coach Cubit. "That?s the way it is in our (league). I think, coming down here, what I like about it is the ticket sales that they?ve done so far. It should be a great crowd, and we know there?s going to be a lot of the Rice crowd, but at the same time, that?s just what we?re used to. So I think the venue, for us, is a lot more important than having to be the so-called visiting team coming down here."

This will be the second straight bowl games for the Broncos, but just the fourth in the team's history. Unfortunately all three of the Broncos' previous postseason appearances ended in defeat, including this past year in the International Bowl, as WMU was beaten by Cincinnati in heartbreaking fashion, 27-24. The Broncos' road to the Texas Bowl started with a rough, 47-24 loss to Nebraska on the road. However, after the setback in the team's opener, Western Michigan went on a roll, winning six consecutive matchups, three of which were won by double-figures. At 6-1 the Broncos were rolling, but the team could not push its win streak to seven, as Western Michigan was defeated by Central Michigan, 38-28. Fortunately the Broncos rebounded with three straight home wins over Eastern Michigan (31-10), Illinois (23-17) and Toledo (27-17). With nine wins already in place Western Michigan was bowl bound, but the team could not reach the 10 win plateau, as the Broncos closed out their regular-season schedule with an embarrassing, 45-22 loss to Ball State.

As for the Owls, they also finished the regular-season with a strong 9-3 ledger, but Rice took a different route when compared to WMU. The Owls flew out of the gates with two straight wins, but quickly fell to 2-2 with losses on the road to Vanderbilt (38-21) and Texas (52-10). Rice grabbed its third win with a tremendous 77-20 decision over North Texas, but then felt the brunt of Tulsa's force, falling to the Golden Hurricane, 63-28. While the setback to Tulsa was embarrassing, it was also a wake up call for the Owls, and they answered in impressive fashion, winning their final six games. Three of those victories came by a double-digit margin, and during that incredible run Rice did not post less than 35 points in a game. A main reason for the Owls' success is due to the tremendous job done by Coach David Bailiff, who was named Conference-USA Coach of the Year. However, coach Bailiff credits his team and school's dedication.

"You know, what it means is I stayed out of a lot of people?s way and that we have remarkable young men at Rice that have a lot of character, and all they have done since the day that we got there is want to win. The award may say ?David Bailiff,? but it is an award for Rice athletics."

The Owls are participating in their ninth bowl in school history, but just their second since 1961. Rice won its first four bowl games, but the team has not tasted victory since, losing its last four postseason matchups, including the 2006 New Orleans where Rice was defeated by Troy, 41-17.

The Broncos' success offensively this season can be attributed to the team's explosive passing attack, which averaged 301.2 ypg, ranking 10th in the nation. Overall Western Michigan racked up an impressive 422.7 total ypg, and that led to an equally strong 29.8 ppg. Leading the aerial assault was quarterback Tim Hiller, who completed 66.7 percent of his throws for 3,527 yards and 34 scores. The signal caller is without question the leader of this offense, and is very excited for his chance to perform in a postseason matchup.

"We had a good experience a few years ago to go to Toronto, even though I wasn?t playing in that game," said Hiller. "This is a place where we normally wouldn?t get to go because its not one of the MAC?s tie in games so it?s very exciting. We?ve got a great opponent in Rice, so the whole thing is just a great opportunity."

Hiller's main target throughout this season was Jamarko Simmons, who grabbed 98 passes for 1,184 yards and seven touchdowns. Those outstanding numbers earned Simmons a spot on the All-MAC First Team. Hiller also had one of the best tight ends in the MAC, as Branden Ledbetter collected 44 passes for 458 yards and six scores. Ledbetter has been dealing with an abdomen injury, but the Second Team All-MAC selection should be good to go by Tuesday. Not to be overlooked is the play of tailback Brandon West, who churned out 970 yards and eight touchdowns on the year out of the backfield. West also played a roll in the passing game, grabbing 32 receptions for 252 yards and three touchdowns.

The strength of the offense has been the weakness for WMU defensive unit, as the Broncos head into this bowl, surrendering 249.4 ypg through the air. On the season the team was abused for 390.3 total ypg, but that only led to 23.8 ppg. A definite problem area for this unit was its inability to force the big play, as Western Michigan forced just 18 turnovers on the season, while recording just 22 sacks. The Broncos also allowed opponents to convert on 40 percent of their third down chances, and did an even worse job in its own red zone, permitting teams to score 78 percent of the time.

Senior cornerback E.J. Biggers is one of the veteran players for this unit, and understand the hard work that goes into a season this special.

"Coming in as a freshman we had some great players here," said Biggers. "I grew up in the program and now as seniors we want to do the same thing that Greg Jennings, Tony Scheffler and Ryan Cubit did, and that?s take the team under our wings. This year we really stepped up as upperclassmen and focused a lot harder than we had in the past."

Following by example was free safety Louis Delmas who led the team in tackles with 100, and also interceptions (4). Delmas' outstanding season earned him a spot on the All-MAC First Team roster. Joining Delmas will be linebacker Austin Pritchard, who racked up 81 stops to go along with a team-high 12.5 TFLs.

Much like their counterpart, the Owls were paced by their potent passing attack. Rice averaged 327.8 ypg through the air, and that ranked fifth best in the nation. Overall the Owls have dominated the opposition, averaging 472.2 total ypg, and that led to an equally impressive 41.6 ppg. Leading the way for Rice was Conference-USA Player of the Year, Chase Clement. Clement was sensational on the season, throwing for 3,812 yards and 41 touchdowns against just seven interceptions. The signal caller, who earned a spot on the All C- USA First Team has changed the record book in the conference, topping the charts with 96 passing touchdowns and 120 total touchdowns. On top of his passing ability, Clement also did the majority of the damage for the ground game, rushing for 621 yards an a team-best 11 scores. When Clement was looking to pass, he was usually looking towards Jarett Dillard and James Casey. Casey, who was selected to the All C-USA First Team, finished the regular season second in the nation with 104 receptions. Casey also tallied 1,217 yards and 12 scores for the Owls. As for Dillard, he hauled in 79 passes on the year for 1,224 yards and a nation's best 19 touchdowns. For the third time in his career Dillard was selected to the All C-USA First Team, and rightfully so, as the wideout currently holds some impressive records. The senior heads into this matchup with 59 career touchdowns, which is the most for a receiver in NCAA history. Dillard has also racked up 4,052 career receiving yards, which tops the record books in the Conference-USA.

Unfortunately the Owls well held back by the performance of the defensive unit, which at times looked awful. Rice was pummeled by the run and pass, allowing 192.9 ypg on the ground, while also surrendering 273.8 ypg through the air. The Owls' inability to stop an opponent led to a whopping 34.9 ppg scored against this defense. Surprisingly the defense was able to force 29 turnovers on the season, but pressuring the quarterback was a major problem, as the team collected just 22 sacks. The defense was also unable to stop drives, as opponents converted on 47 percent of their third down chances, and also scored on 86 percent of their red zone attempts.

Coach Bailiff still has faith in his defense however, and feels the game today has changed, as offenses have progressed.

"It used to be that your defense had to be in the teens to win a football game," said coach Bailiff. "Now, if you can hold somebody to 28, you're probably in pretty good shape, you know, in the fourth quarter. Football has changed. The quarterbacks are so much more intelligent on reading all the different coverages. They know where the soft spots are. It's a wide-open football game."

Defensive back Andrew Sendejo paced this defensive unit with 90 tackles, while Scott Solomon did most of his damage from the line of scrimmage, leading Rice with 9.0 TFLs and 4.5 sacks.

This matchup should be an explosive and thrilling contest from start to finish. Expect an overwhelming amount of passing, as the two teams will try to prove who has the more dominant passing attack. However, when it is all said and done, the Owls, who are playing on their homefield, should have enough of an advantage to edge out the Broncos in a shootout.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Rice 52, Western Michigan 45

12/26 10:09:02 ET


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