By JONATHAN BAGLEY
You’d think the chance to play a team that beat you 49-0 last year would mean something to a football player.
“BYU was ready for us,” said Rice defensive end Andy Clifton. “We haven’t watched any film from the game. We had to put the loss behind us so we could get ready for TCU.”
To Clifton BYU is just another game. He is not saying there will be any revenge factor involved when BYU plays Rice on October 11. All Clifton will say is he is excited for the game because he thinks BYU is the team to beat this year. And he enjoys banging shoulder pads with their offensive line.
“Our goal is to win the conference outright,” Clifton said.
“BYU has a great offensive line, the best in the conference,” he said.
With the 49-0 loss behind them Rice promises to challenge for the Mountain Division title, but they aren’t counting on anything.
“We don’t want to assume anything. We want to earn our way into things,” said Rice head coach Ken Hatfield.
15 of the starters coming back from last year’s Rice football team return for a rematch with BYU, and this time it is in Houston.
Michael Perry (5-9 200) returns at the running back position. Hatfield said Perry is one of the best all purpose backs in America — probably because he averaged 5.4 yards per carry last year as a sophomore.
Perhaps even more dangerous than Perry is Benji Wood (6-2 230). Hampered by a shoulder injury in ’96, Wood emerged in the second half of the season to average six yards per carry.
Chad Nelson (5-11 195) will control the option as quarterback. Nelson injured his ankle in the first half of the BYU game after averaging 6.3 yards per carry. Nelson has 4.4 speed.
“If (Nelson) would continue to improve his passing he’d be a lot better,” Hatfield said. “I think he is one of the best runners in the nation.”
The offensive line will not overpower more physical football teams, with most lineman at 285 pounds or lighter. They will have to outflank teams like BYU. But when size isn’t a factor the Rice offensive line should dominate teams with experience and talent.
Only one starter departed, three return with two years experience and one of the sophomores was tabbed a freshman all-America by the sporting news.
Rice runs a 3-4 defense. Their inside linebackers Thomas Benford and Rashad Reynolds won all-WAC honors as sophomores. These two should force passing teams to throw deep and running teams to turn the corner. WAC quarterbacks will need quick offensive guards to block Rice defensive ends who replace Ndukwe Kalu, a Philadelphia Eagles draftee.
Hatfield thinks his defense will be key to a WAC championship. “One thing about this conference: whenever you have a good defense you can be competitive,” he said.
Rice opens up against conference foe Air Force; something Hatfield said he isn’t happy about. Air Force beat Rice 45-17 in 1996. Hatfield would rather his team had a couple of non-conference games to help them learn about themselves before facing a WAC opponents.
BYU fans are probably hoping Rice will duplicate its 51-10 trouncing of Utah. The personnel that ran all over the U return, but this year the game is in Salt Lake City.
“They’re gonna be gunning for us. They’re a better team than they played like that day,” Clifton said. “I’m sure (Ma’afala) will be tough to stop, but I hope we can do it.”