Final act for dynamic duo at Rice

HOUSTON It would be nice for the Owls if that kind of production could translate into a few more victories this season.

Clement, the Owls' quarterback, set 18 school records and four Conference USA marks in 2007 even as Rice stumbled to 3-9. His favorite target was Dillard, who enters this season as college football's active leader in career receptions (205), receiving yardage (2,828) and touchdown catches (40).

Clement has thrown 32 TD passes to Dillard and seven more will set an NCAA record for a quarterback-receiver duo. The seniors have known each other since they were stars at rival high schools in San Antonio and the chemistry has carried on in their three seasons at Rice.

"We just sort of synched up," said Clement. "I know exactly where he is going to be. I don't ever have to worry about him running the wrong route or taking seven steps when he should take six. He's a guy that knows where he's supposed to be and he knows exactly where I'm going to throw it."

The relationship has reached the point on the field where one can tell what the other is thinking just by making eye contact.

"I can tell by his eyes if I'm open or not, if somebody's on my tail," Dillard said. "If he gives me those eyes, I know it's coming and I'll just run with him. It's just natural between us."

Clement threw for 3,377 yards and 29 touchdowns last season, both school records. Dillard caught 79 passes for 1,097 yards, his second straight season topping 1,000.

As prolific as the duo was, they couldn't outscore teams that were riddling the Owls' defense. Some of the scores of those losses: 48-43, 45-31, 38-35, 56-48.

The defense was not only young last season, it was hampered by injuries and guided by a different staff for the third straight season. Todd Graham replaced Ken Hatfield before the 2006 season, then bolted to Tulsa, and David Bailiff took over as head coach.

Now that the defense has had a full season and a spring and summer to learn Bailiff's system, the Owls promise they'll be much better.

"I think we were better in the spring than we were at any point all of last season," said senior linebacker Brian Raines, the Owls' second-leading tackler last season.

Rice returns 16 starters and 36 upperclassmen, including the players who accounted for 371 of the school-record 377 points in 2007. The most welcome returnee might be Bailiff himself after Graham's sudden departure.

"It's tough having three coaches in three years," Clement said bluntly. "Having the same coaching staff for two years is huge for us."

The Owls dropped their first four games in 2007 and Clement said the team took half the year to get used to Bailiff and his staff. Bailiff said he was learning as well.

"I'll be a much better head coach here in than in year one because I know what this team is capable of doing now," he said. "I reflect back on some of the decisions I made last year, even offensively, when we lined up in power sets to play power football. That is not who we are."

Rice has had only two winning seasons since 1997 and the Owls say a bowl game is a realistic goal. Dillard needs only 11 touchdown catches to become the NCAA's all-time leader, but he wants his legacy to be more about winning games than setting records.

"If we win games and go to a bowl game," he said, "all the rest of that stuff will take care of itself."

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