On the Monday following Rice's 38-6 loss to Navy on Oct. 18, 2003 -- a game that many longtime Owls fans called one of the worst performances they'd ever seen -- Rice coach Ken Hatfield told his assistants that it was time to get back to basics.
That meant ditching the four-wideout and shotgun formations the Owls had tinkered with over the past three seasons in favor a renewed commitment to doing what Rice does best -- running the triple option.
Rice averaged nearly 400 yards rushing over the final six games, including a school-record 672 in the finale against Louisiana Tech, and averaged 45 points over its final three contests.
Needless to say, the Owls enter 2004 brimming with confidence and hope to carry that momentum into their final season in the Western Athletic Conference.
Rice returns seven starters on each side of the ball and expects to improve upon last year's 5-7 record that included a 5-3 finish in the WAC. Two of those three league losses were by three points to Tulsa and Fresno State, both of which went to a bowl last year.
"We ended the best we've ended since we've been here," Hatfield said. "Our big goal is to win the conference because then you're guaranteed to go to a bowl, and from there we'll see what happens."
OffenseWith a senior-laden offensive line and an impressive array of ball-carriers in the backfield, Rice hopes its final WAC season will be one to remember. "We stuck to the basics the last four or five games last year and that enthusiasm carried over into the spring. Everybody's excited to get going," said quarterback Greg Henderson, who takes over for three-year starter Kyle Herm.
The biggest challenge for Henderson will be staying healthy. He's the only quarterback on the roster who's taken any snaps in a game.
Rice has a bevy of quick and talented backs, led by halfback Thomas Lott. He averaged 7.3 yards per carry last year, which ranked second in the nation.
The Owls hope they can continue to stay on the rushing tear that closed '03.
"We're pretty confident because not only did we end the season pretty good, but we also had a really good spring," Lott said.
DefenseRice held its own in the pass-happy WAC last season and steadily improved on defense as the season progressed.
The Owls return seven starters and appear to be in good shape on the line, where end John Syptak and tackles William Wood and Jeremy Calahan are returning starters.
The secondary could wind up being one of the best Rice has had in recent years with rover Terry Holley, bandit Chad Price, cornerback Lance Byrd and free safety Andray Downs providing athleticism and speed.
The biggest question mark comes at linebacker, where two new starters will be thrown into the fire. Adam Herrin, a former high school quarterback, it the only linebacker with much experience.
SpecialistsPunter Jared Scruggs led the WAC and was fifth in the nation with an average of 45.9 yards per kick as a freshman last year. He was one of the few bright spots on special teams. Rice allowed too many big returns and didn't make enough big kicks. Placekicker Brennan Landry improved from his freshman to sophomore seasons, but he has yet to show much leg strength.
Final AnalysisRice enters the season with a wealth of momentum after winning four of its final five games, including the final three games, while putting up mind-boggling offensive numbers.
There's little doubt the Owls have enough talent returning to keep the momentum going, but they must find a way to win the close games. Two of their conference losses last year -- both to bowl teams -- were by three points, and they also lost at Duke by three in overtime.
The offense is loaded, but Henderson remains a somewhat unproven commodity despite starting six games over the last two years.
The Owls had to play a lot of youngsters on defense, which is a move that will pay off this fall. The secondary is fast and talented and will need to perform at a high level all season for Rice to contend.