The Rice Owls football team (2-5) will make its longest road trip of the regular season this weekend when they travel to Orlando to face UCF on Saturday and the Owls can only hope that their second visit to the home of the Magic Kingdom can be as inspiring as their first.
In 2006, the Owls were only weeks removed from the shock of losing a teammate (Dale Lloyd) that turned to inspiration the same week as Rice drubbed Army 48-14, The following week, the inevitable letdown that followed caused the Owls to drop an uninspired effort at Tulane, 38-24.
They righted the ship somewhat the next week, scoring a late touchdown on an improbable series of events to defeat UAB 34-33, but the 2-5 Owls headed to UCF unaware that a paradigm shift for Rice football had only just begun.
The lengthy trip was nothing new for Rice, which had already played road games in California (UCLA), New York (Army) and Florida (Florida State) and still had another long trip ahead that did not require leaving the state of Texas (UTEP).
If the Owls were the least bit road weary on this latest road swing, the trip to the Citrus Bowl on game day surely should have shaken them out of their doldrums.
As the first bus pulled out from the team hotel under the perceived safety of their police escort, a small pickup sped past the officer standing in the road and slammed into the bus carrying the offensive team. Sitting in the second bus, I heard the unmistakable sound of a collision and looked up to see the pickup bouncing back from the impact and rotating around, so that when it came to rest, it was facing a different direction.
"The impact was much greater than any damage you could see on the bus," Rice running back Quinton Smith recalled. "It was loud and there was no question what had happened," he added.
The truck fared far worse, with steam pouring from the crumpled grill and the driver stunned but not fully aware of how lucky he might have been to have struck the bus directly on the back wheels. Despite the apparent lack of damage to the first bus, the team was transferred to the third bus, leaving team officials and guests to wait for a replacement bus to arrive, while the team pressed on towards the Citrus Bowl.
But, as if the bus ride needed any additional flourishes, several tourists in panic mode made some rather aggressive, multi-lane left turns to prevent their missing the entrance to some theme park, causing the bus drivers to slam on the brakes.
Needless to say, the aging accommodations of the Citrus Bowl never looked so good when we were able to disembark upon arrival.
The game began with a surprise, as the Owls successfully converted an onside kick to set up a field goal. After a second field goal, they held a 6-0 lead before the Knights, featuring future NFL players Mike Simms-Walker and Kevin Smith on offense came back to tie it 6-6 on a pair of three-pointers. The teams then traded touchdowns and went to the locker room tied at 13.
Rice head coach Todd Graham was in no mood to give the Owls the impression that a tie with the home team was close to satisfactory.
In particular, he focused his attention on an evaluation of Smith's first half performance. He had opened strongly in the first quarter, rushing for 55 yards on six carries, but added only four yards on four carries in the second.
"He came in and did his thing at halftime, and there were a few individuals who he paid special attention to...and yes, I was one of the main ones," Smith laughed. "I remember how hot and humid it was when we got there, but he didn't want to hear anything about being tired. He made it clear that he felt I was not running very hard. It lit a fire under all of us, and that showed in the second half," Smith recalled.
Well, not exactly right out of the gate.
On the Owls first possession, Smith was dropped for a one-yard loss on first down and the Owls had to punt. UCF then re-took the lead with a field goal, but their lead would be short-lived.
On the Owls' third play of the following series, faced with a third and two, Smith took the ball and blasted through the UCF defense for a 69-yard touchdown to give Rice a lead it would never surrender. He would add two more scores in the fourth quarter, pushing the Owls lead to 40-22, rushing for 125 yards on 11 carries in the second half to finish the day with a career-best 183 yards.
For the Owls, the march towards their first bowl bid in 45 years was now truly in motion. Far more tranquil trips to UTEP and Tulsa extended the win streak to four, and home wins over ECU and SMU turned the dream into a reality.
And it all began in earnest with a wild ride in the Magic Kingdom.