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Rice coach hopes players have that championship attitude

Eleven months ago, the Rice Owls visited BYU with the WAC Mountain Division football title in the balance . . . and promptly suffered a 49-0 drubbing at the hands of the eventual conference champion Cougars.

Someone asked Rice coach Ken Hatfield if there are lessons to be learned from last year's loss. "If we didn't learn from it, we'll be in for a rude awakening," quipped Hatfield, as his Owls prepare to host BYU Saturday night at Rice Stadium in Houston (7 p.m. MDT).Rather than an Xs and Os answer, Hatfield said something more intangible was to be gleaned from the Nov. 9 game in Cougar Stadium: a championship attitude.

In a WAC conference call Monday, the Owls coach cited factors such as 66,000 fans in the stands, 25 seniors across the field on the BYU sideline, and the Cougars' sense of authority and dominance. "That championship attitude is something we hope we've learned," Hatfield said.

Rice has faced that "championship attitude" several times since, having defeated Big 10 champ Northwestern (40-34 earlier this season), suffered a narrow loss to Big 12 champ Texas (38-31 two weeks ago) and now in meeting defending WAC champ BYU in a division battle to be broadcast by ESPN2.

Houston fans seemingly have caught the college football fever - perhaps because of the departure of the NFL Oilers to Tennessee this season. The Owls have averaged nearly 54,000 fans in their first two games, already passing the 106,000-plus home attendance total of last.

The Owls describe their option-oriented offense - ranked second in the nation with 374.8 yards a game - as a spread option, a blend of the wishbone, veer, single-back and West Coast attacks. Rice is the only team with not one, not two, but three backs ranked in the top 30 rushers in the country.

Junior "A" back Michael Perry - 14th with a per-game average of 116.6 yards - also leads the nation in all-purpose yards with 216.2 a game. Senior fullback Benji Wood is the 27th-leading rusher with a 97.2 average; senior quarterback Chad Nelson is 30th at 95.4.

There's little need for Rice to pass, completing just 15 throws in five games and ranking second-from-last of the 112 Division I-A teams in passing with a per-game average of 51.6 yards. "But they're so effective when they do throw it because it's off the play action and they've lulled you to sleep," said BYU coach LaVell Edwards.

Rice is struggling on defense, giving up no fewer than 24 points in all five games - including 41 against Air Force, 34 to Northwestern and 38 to Texas. The Owls are relatively inexperienced, with just two senior starters on defense and as many freshmen starters in the secondary alone.

"I hope they're getting better," said Hatfield of his defense. "We're just trying to slow people down."

But it has been like trying to slow a runaway train, with the Owls' 1997 defense allowing total-yardage amounts of 363, 414, 405, 460 and most recently 533 in last week's 42-24 win at Tulsa.

Rice is 3-2 overall and 1-1 in the WAC, undefeated on the road and winless at home. The team's 7-4 overall mark last year was its best in 35 seasons.