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OWLS HAVE A HOOT OF A TIME AS NO. 20 UTES HIT BOTTOM

SHARE OWLS HAVE A HOOT OF A TIME AS NO. 20 UTES HIT BOTTOM

Perhaps many people thought the Utah football team had hit rock bottom when it was upset in the season-opener by heavy underdog Utah State. That was bad, but not even close to what happened Saturday afternoon at Houston's Rice Stadium. This was the absolute bottom of the Grand Canyon for Utah.

The Utes were annihilated, obliterated, decimated and practically exterminated by a 4-3 Rice team that had lost by 63 points to Ohio State earlier this year. Afterward the Utes felt devastated.Final score? Hide your eyes . . . 51-10, Rice.

This wasn't just a defeat, it was a blood-letting, coming appropriately just two days after Halloween. If you didn't know better, you'd have thought it was 10 years earlier and you were watching one of those Jim Fassel Ute teams playing Hawaii or Air Force.

The Utes missed tackle after tackle, couldn't block, made stupid decisions and played with little discernable emotion compared to the fired-up Owls. It was a pathetic performance for a team on a seven-game winning streak and ranked No. 19 in the nation.

"Our kids did not show up to play," said a distressed Utah coach Ron McBride. "It was like going back to when I first came here. We were soft, not tough. It was ridiculous, a joke. I don't see any positives in the game for Utah football - the Utah team or the Utah coaches."

It wasn't like the Utes were playing a national power or anything. This was Rice, for crying out loud, a school that didn't have a single winning season for 28 years before going 6-5 in 1992. Last year, the Owls were 2-8-1, and this year were picked for fifth in the WAC's Mountain Division.

The 51 points they scored against the WAC favorite were the most points scored by a Rice team since 1969, before any of the current players were even born. It was also the most points scored by Rice in a conference game - EVER. For the Utes, it was their worst loss since a 66-14 thrashing by San Diego State in 1990, McBride's first year.

The Owls beat the Utes every which way - on offense, on defense and on the special teams. They rushed for 496 yards in their spread option and held the Utes to a total of 278 yards, just 46 yards rushing through three quarters. They returned a punt for a touchdown, an interception for a touchdown and even completed a pass for a touchdown, which was amazing since they only threw three passes all day and the TD was their only completion.

McBride said he wasn't surprised by Rice and believed his team wasn't overlooking the Owls. "There was no way to overlook these guys, they were very good on film. You've got to give them credit. They wanted to win more than we did," he said.

The main problem was the Utes' effort.

"In all three phases we were outplayed," said McBride. "On defense, it was a lack of tackling and playing aggressively. On offense we had a lack of consistency at quarterback and on the offensive line. We had to control the tempo and we didn't. On special teams, it's inexcusable to let a guy return a punt (for a touchdown).

Even though it was a landslide loss, there were a couple of keys in the first quarter that turned the game around for good for Rice and made it tough for Utah to recover.

One was the Utes' inability to score inside the red zone. Twice in the first seven minutes of the game, the Utes got inside the 15-yard line - but instead of 14 points, all they came away with was a measly field goal.

"It was ridiculous," said McBride. "We should have scored both times. The guys made mental errors."

The other was another bonehead play on punt return by Harold Lusk, who has made several bad decisions that have cost the Utes this year. This time Lusk retreated to his own 3-yard line to catch a punt, then slipped and fell on the Astroturf trying to make up for lost ground. It was essentially a 9-point goof, because the Utes gave up a safety, followed by a touchdown because of Rice's good field position after the safety kickoff.

"It's inexcusable to field a punt inside the 5-yard line," said McBride.

"It's a common-sense thing," said special teams coach Sean McNabb. "I'd like to think he learned his lesson, but obviously he didn't."

The Utes were down 7-3 at the time, following a 21-yard field goal by Daniel Pulsipher, who earlier missed a 31-yarder, and an 11-yard run by Michael Perry. But on third down, Mike Fouts threw a pass from the end zone and was called for intentional grounding - which is an automatic safety.

After a kickoff from the 20, Rice returned it to the Utah 45 and took just six plays to score with Benji Wood going the final yard to make it 16-3.

Utah held on the next Rice possession, but late in the half Perry returned a punt 67 yards past flailing Ute defenders to make it 23-3.

The Utes came through with their best offensive drive of the day as Fouts completed four of five passes, including a 39-yarder to Terence Keehan, who made a great move to free himself for a touchdown with 1:49 left in the half.

Down just 23-10, Utah was still in the game and seemed to have momentum on its side going into halftime. However, the third quarter was absolute disaster.

Despite having the strong north wind at their backs, the Utes couldn't get a single first down in the quarter and gained a grand total of just 27 yards. Meanwhile Rice scored three touchdowns, while gaining 212 yards.

On the second play of the half, Spencer George broke loose for a 76-yard run, and Wood followed with a 4-yard run to cap a long drive. Then to really humiliate the Utes, the Owls completed their one pass of the game with backup QB Chad Richardson finding Mike Gingrich all alone for a 28-yard touchdown play.

"We missed tackles and assignments and didn't do what we were supposed to do," said Lusk. "It was like we weren't even there."

The Utes replaced Fouts early in the second half because of a hip pointer he suffered on the touchdown play, but backup Brandon Jones couldn't move the team either. Midway through the fourth quarter, defensive end Jason Winship picked off a Jones' pass and rambled 60 yards for the final score.

GAME NOTES: The Utes, now 7-2 and 5-1 in the WAC, go on the road to face New Mexico next week, before getting a bye the following Saturday . . . Besides Fouts, other injured Ute players included Juan Johnson (sprained ankle), Rocky Henry (shoulder), Nate Sybrowsky (thumb) and Nate Kia (knee) . . . The famous Marching Owl Band, a.k.a. the MOB, known for its outrageous performances, used the upcoming presidential election as its halftime theme . . . Throughout the game, the press box announcer kept referring to the "real" Rice Stadium, a subtle knock against Utah's stadium named after Bob Rice.