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Depth paying dividends for Owls

Courtesy photo
Rice nose tackle John Gioffre welcomes playing fewer snaps per game this season, thanks to the Owls' newfound depth. The Owls visit Marshall Saturday for a 3 p.m. kickoff.

Prospective attorney John Gioffre rose this week in defense of the Rice defense.

The Owls may have been roughed up a time or two in the first five games, but he remembers tougher times. Like his freshman year of 2008, the last time the nose tackle played against Marshall.

Actually, that was a banner year for the Owls, who rode a high-powered offense to a 10-3 season. The Owls downed Marshall 35-10 as the Thundering Herd drove 99 yards for a touchdown but mustered little else the rest of the way.

Gioffre and the Owls face Marshall again at 3 p.m. Saturday at Joan C. Edwards Stadium. A senior political science major who recently took his Law School Admission Test, Gioffre is scheduled to start his 18th consecutive game at nose tackle.

He and his defense are coming off another big game, a 28-6 win over Memphis. A good day was had by all as the Owls surrendered their lowest point total since that 2008 Marshall game. Gioffre picked up a sack, always a bonus for those gladiators on the nose.

"It was the first time we hadn't given up a touchdown since 1995. It's a pretty awesome feeling," he said.

Between the '08 Marshall game and last week's Memphis game, Gioffre and his mates have taken their lumps and yielded more than their share of points - 1,195 in 31 games. That's close to 40 per outing for a majority of a man's college football career.

Yes, Gioffre knows his way to the oxygen supply, the Gatorade bucket and the whirlpool.

The reasons for Rice's defensive struggles have been numerous. For starters, the opposition has been consistently potent.

Check out the 2009 season, in which Rice fell to 2-10. Texas Tech and Oklahoma State came back-to-back. A Navy-East Carolina-Central Florida stretch was no fun, either. And there were all those Conference USA West Division attacks, including a Houston team that jumped to a 59-0 halftime lead.

Depth was a foreign concept, injuries took a toll at times and true freshmen were given key roles by necessity. Gioffre was one of eight true freshmen playing in the Owls' 2008 opener, but the number fell to two this season.

Coach David Bailiff has called this the deepest of his five Rice teams, and the 6-foot-1, 285-pound Gioffre concurs. He should know, as his muscles and joints have borne the brunt of previous depth problems.

"I used to play 60 to 75 snaps a game. Oh, man, it was brutal," Gioffre said. "But now, it's 35-40, maybe 50. That's another reason things are going well on defense."

That's still an up-and-down proposition for the Owls' 4-2-5 defense, though. In consecutive weeks, Baylor's Robert Griffin III went 29-of-33 for 338 yards and five touchdowns and Southern Mississippi's Kendrick Hardy ran for 172. Both teams had 33 first downs and more than 650 total yards.

But the highs have been high. More satisfying than the squelching of Memphis was the 24-22 win over Purdue, Rice's first victory over a BCS school in 22 games. There were some huge defensive plays.

"We stopped them on third-and-[short], fourth-and-1 in the third quarter," Gioffre said. "Earlier in the game we held them [to a short field goal]. After that, we held them around our 15-yard line, then blocked a field goal to win."

That block came from weakside linebacker Justin Allen, the team's No. 2 tackler behind strongside 'backer Cameron Nwosu. Veteran defensive end Scott Solomon leads with seven tackles for loss and four sacks, and strong safety Paul Porras leads with five pass breakups.

For Gioffre's part, he has 10 tackles and 11/2 sacks. There are no stats kept for occupying two blockers, who often measure between 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-7 and 300-330 pounds.

"The stats don't show it, but the coaches are happy with me," Gioffre said. "If I hold up two guys and give linebackers a sack, that's great."

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  • Sophomore quarterback Taylor McHargue is overshadowed in his own city, but that's part of life at Rice. Crosstown rival Houston has cracked the Top 25 with sixth-year quarterback Case Keenum, who throws to speedy receivers such as Patrick Edwards.

    McHargue's numbers are efficient but ordinary: A 58 percent completion rate for 175.8 passing yards, with a net of 23.0 rushing yards added in. His top two receivers are big, big targets - 6-5, 250 tight end Luke Willson and 6-5, 260 tight end-turned-wideout Vance McDonald.

    "We run the typical spread, no-huddle," McHargue said. "Try to spread it around. We feel like our skill positions are as good as anybody's in the conference. My job is to get the ball in their hands and get as many guys touches as possible.

    "For me personally, they ask me to do some stuff with my feet, here and there. I'm not a running quarterback, by any means, but there are situations where they call on me to extend the play, or make a play with my feet."

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  • Rice had a all-conference candidate in the backfield in former Michigan runner Sam McGuffie. He's still around, but won't duplicate his 883 rushing and 384 receiving yards of 2010.

    He has rushed just 26 times for 77 yards and caught eight passes for 73, including a 19-yard touchdown against Purdue. That stood up as the eventual game-winner.

    "He definitely had a slight injury during camp, and we've been slowly trying to bring him along," McHargue said. "He's getting a lot more mobility. Like I said, our skill group is pretty talented, especially at running back; we have five guys we are really confident in.

    "He's still getting touches. We're trying to get him the ball more as the season progresses. Yeah, he's a big player for us."

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  • Finally, the real question about the Rice program: Who is the wisest Owl of them all?

    Talking to Gioffre and McHargue, one name came up both times: Travis Bradshaw, a safety who would have been the defense's cornerstone if not for a career-ending neck injury. With time to burn, Bradshaw is no doubt jacking up his grade-point average as a chemical engineering major.

    McHargue also offers a walk-on quarterback, sophomore Michael Poynter. McHargue said Poynter is a math/economics major with roughly a 3.9 GPA.

    Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or dougsmock@wvgazette.com.


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