Sept. 16, 2017
by Chuck Pool (firstname.lastname@example.org) -
Rice and Houston return to face each other in football for the first time since 2013 on Saturday and lest anyone think a four-year hiatus might have dulled any of the luster or excitement for the battle to determine ownership of the Bayou Bucket, the comments from both camps during the week laid any such thoughts to rest.
This year's game takes on a heightened sense of importance this year as it marks the first FBS game in Houston since the historic flooding in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. The schools have combined forces in an effort to collect school supplies to replace some of what was lost in the flooding.
Once the pregame festivities draw to a close, the focus will move to the field between as college football's closest FBS programs in terms of distance between campuses meet for the 41st time in history.
The close proximity of the programs and the overlapping of their recruiting efforts lead to a greater familiarity than your normal Saturday matchup and the lasting impacts of a successful result are never diminished.
Cheta Ozougwu knows this reality all too well. The former Alief Taylor product twice was able to twice lift the Bayou Bucket in celebration in his career, capping the win as a senior with a fourth-down stop to cement a 34-31 win at Rice Stadium for the Owls. Each win stands among the fondest memories he has from a playing career that eventually extended to a stint in the NFL.
"I grew up in Houston and I had played against so many of the Houston players in high school at the Bayou Bowl (high school all-star game), so it always got the juices flowing when it was time to play in the Bucket," Ozougwu noted. "I had a lot of friends from football and you would see them at church or around town.
"Even now, when I run into any former Houston players, they like to talk as if they were always the better team. It's nice to have those two wins to bring up."
He made his debut as a true freshman in 2007, in a game in which the Owls came in as a decided underdog. Rice gave the first indications of the future potential of their offensive attack by piling up 441 yards and taking a 48-35 lead before Donnie Avery and the Cougars outscored Rice 21-0 in the final quarter to win 56-48.
"What I remember most about that game was the announcements they were making about the records he was setting (Avery set school and C-USA marks with his 346 receiving yards), and then he started doing back flips. That stuck with us for quite a while," Ozougwu recalled.
One year later, the Bucket was the regular season finale and for the first time in the series' history, both teams came into the game already bowl eligible. Houston needed a win to earn a spot in the C-USA title game while Rice needed a win and a loss but Tulsa for the same outcome.
The Owls offensive attack, now fully developed, rolled to a 56-42 win. Ozougwu was credited with four tackles, including a sack of Houston quarterback Case Keenum.
"We were really ready for that game and we got after them," Ozougwu noted. "When I saw Case in the off season, he said he thought we hated him because of the way we came after him."
One year later, Keenum and the Cougars gained their revenge with a 73-14 win, an outcome that weighed heavily on Ozougwu and as he approached his final meeting with Houston in 2010.
"We wanted to redeem ourselves after they dropped 70 on his," he said. "We came into the game 1-5 and it was Homecoming. It was our bowl game."
Rice jumped out to a 27-14 lead at halftime, but saw the Cougars score the first 17 points of the second half to take a 31-27 lead. Nick Fanuzzi then lead a drive down the field and then hit Vance McDonald for a 13-yard TD with 4:24 left to put the Owls up 34-31.
In his final Bucket, a series defined by massive offensive production, it fell to the senior defensive end and his teammates to deliver the deciding effort.
The Cougars drove to the Rice 37 inside the final two minutes. Xavier Webb stopped Bryce Beal on third and one and then Ozougwu swooped in to snuff out a broken fourth down play and cement the Owls win.
In four Buckets, Ozougwu was credited with 20 career tackles, a pair of sacks and he broke up three passes. However, no amount of statistics can match up to the memories of the celebrations that followed the wins in 2008 and 2010.
"One of my favorite photos I have from my career is a shot of me and John Gioffre drinking water of the Bucket on the field after we won in 2010," he stated.
"Those are what I remember the most when you ask about my memories of the Bayou Bucket. I want these guys (the current crop of Owls) get that same kind of feeling. That is one notch in the belt they need."