If college football teams were ranked on the basis of fan entertainment rather than won-loss records, all those "We're No. 1" cheers reverberating out of Pittsburgh, Los Angeles and Ann Arbor would be silenced by a team that may lose eight games this season. The honor would go to the Rice University Owls for staging the most exciting and scariest aerial act since The Flying Wallendas—who never had to face a prevent defense.
Rice is as curious as the applause attending its steady stream of defeats. The Owls are less than mediocre—three wins in nine games—and yet they are undeniably thrilling, a perfect representative for a university whose role in collegiate sport is unusual, unenviable and generally unknown.
For one thing, the Houston school's academic standards parallel those of the Ivy League more than the Southwest Conference, where the Owls have not had a winning season in the last 13 years. For another, Rice has an undergraduate enrollment of 2,600, including coeds, and a 71,000-seat stadium that last held a full house in 1974—for Super Bowl VIII. Publicist Bill Whitmore notes, wryly, that if every graduate in Rice's 64-year history showed up on the same afternoon to cheer the Owls, Rice Stadium would still be half empty.
Yet Rice has refused to soften its schedule or lower its athletic sights, taking on such out-of-conference heavyweights as Florida, LSU and, in recent years, Notre Dame and USC. The Owls this season have been a delightful contrast to most of the state's other teams, which monotonously run the ball out of the wishbone, veer or T-bone. While the Owls seldom are successful, they are rarely boring, and the reason is a game-long passing attack that resembles Fran Tarkenton's two-minute offense.
The gunner in Rice's aerial circus is 21-year-old Tommy Kramer, a 6'2", 195-pound quarterback whose passing statistics are as staggering as the defenses that have tried to stop him. Kramer has averaged 24 completions in 44 pass attempts a game for a season total of 2,580 yards and 17 touchdowns. With two games left, Kramer has already surpassed the 11-game pass-completion total compiled last year by San Diego State's Craig Penrose, the 1975 NCAA passing champion. Kramer also has rewritten 10 Rice career and single-game records.
Teams often throw the ball a lot when they are overmatched or far behind. Rice is usually both, giving up an average of 36.1 points and 486 yards a game. As a result, it frequently seems that the Owls are playing catch-up from the opening kickoff.
It is probable, however, that Kramer would throw the ball a lot in any event. Passing is the key to the "Triple Pocket" offense introduced to the Owls when Homer Rice (no relation) became head football coach and athletic director last January.
As taught by Rice the coach, the offense of Rice the team is a combination of the triple option ground game and the dropback pass. The key to the latter is well-rehearsed timing between Kramer and his receivers.
"On the snap from center," Kramer says, "I take a seven-step dropback that puts me nine or 10 yards deep. My receiver is running his route based on a number of steps, too. As I'm hitting my seventh step, he's going to be breaking off his route so that I'm almost letting the ball go within half a second after I set up."
"I hardly ever see Tommy throw," says sophomore Receiver David Houser, who is averaging 20.5 yards per reception after catching passes for more than 100 yards in four of his last five games. "I hardly see Tommy at all for that matter. The way our system works, you first see the ball about eight feet away, just before you catch it."
Kramer has connected on 52.6% of his passes and has been intercepted only 12 times in 403 attempts. Because of his quick setup and release, Kramer has been sacked but 14 times although the Owl offensive line is constantly being shuffled and patched up because of injuries.
The SMU game two weeks ago was more than a little typical of a Kramer performance. With Rice losing (what else?) 34-27 with less than four minutes to play, Kramer fired a barrage that took the Owls to two touchdowns and a 41-34 victory. When the game was over, Kramer had completed 29 of 45 passes for 386 yards and three touchdowns. Eleven of those passes were caught by Running Back James Sykes. Doug Cunningham, who has played his last five games with a splint on a broken finger, caught the touchdown pass that enabled Rice to tie the game at 34-all. The winning touchdown came on a six-yard pass to Tight End Ken Roy. After last week's 38-6 loss to Baylor, Sykes is second in the nation in pass receptions, averaging 6.7 a game, and Cunningham is third with a 6.3 average.
As a blue-chipper at San Antonio's Lee High School, where he threw 55 scoring passes in two seasons, Kramer was one of the most sought-after athletes in Texas.
"Notre Dame really wanted him bad," says Mark Bockeloh, a linebacker who is Kramer's roommate. "If he had gone there, they would have been national champions twice."
Kramer, however, elected to go to Rice. "I wanted to stay in Texas," he says, "and you're not going to get a better degree out of the state of Texas."
Now Kramer looks at his decision philosophically. "Naturally I'd like to be with a winner," he says. "That's the American dream. But you're going to face adversity throughout life and I think how well you can adjust to it is going to mean a lot to you later on. We've had some bad times, but I don't regret coming to Rice even though we didn't win a lot of football games. As far as my life is concerned, it's helped me out tremendously."
The Rice offense also should prove to be a big help to Kramer in the pro football draft, assuming there is one. Pro scouts low-rated him early in the season, but his worth has risen with every pass completion. It did not hurt him one bit when he hit 34 of 57 for 397 yards and two touchdowns in a 42-15 loss to Texas.
"He's a good pro prospect," says Norm Pollom of the Rams. "He's got a good arm, he's smart, he handles the offense well. He's not the fastest, but he can move around if he has to. I think he could be a first-round choice."
Gil Brandt of the Cowboys agrees. "He's got great potential," Brandt says. "He's an athlete—that's No. 1—and he's a natural dropback passer, which everyone in the NFL wants because we haven't developed too many. You'll really be able to see how good he is when he gets into a game like the Senior Bowl."