Hatfield hopes Owls football benefits from baseball success

Updated: August 12, 2003, 9:22 PM ET

HOUSTON -- Ken Hatfield doesn't expect his football team to match the national championship won by Rice's baseball team. He does expect to benefit from the afterglow.

When coach Wayne Graham's baseball team beat Stanford in the final game of the College World Series on national television, the smallest school in NCAA Division I-A became the little school that could.

"I think you'll see an effect for everybody involved at Rice," Hatfield said. "It was a plus for everybody. If we do anything, if any Rice team does anything for the next six to eight months, they'll say, 'Now they did this.' They will expect it. There will be more coming from Rice instead of something odd that happened."

Hatfield's aim is Rice's first Western Athletic Conference title, which could be the only way the Owls will get a bowl invitation.

Two years ago, Rice went 8-4 with possibly Hatfield's best team in nine seasons at Rice. Despite having the school's best record since 1953, there were no postseason invitations.

"We're trying to do something and be a part of that first team that ever won the WAC and the first team ever to go to a bowl game in a long time," Hatfield said. "That's what keeps us going. That's a good goal for our guys."

To reach their goals, the 2003 Owls will have to learn how to win the close games. Their 4-7 record and sixth-place finish in the WAC last season could have been dramatically different if they'd converted just a few more plays.

They lost by a combined 11 points to Fresno State (31-28), Hawaii (33-28) and Texas-El Paso (38-35). Losing to Houston 24-10 in the season opener set a bad precedent.

"The Houston game was so big," Hatfield said. "We drove 80 yards to their 6-inch line and fumbled. They drove 99 yards and it's a 14-point swing that's the difference in the game."

In Fresno's win, Rice gave up a 77-yard touchdown pass when two defenders ran into each other. The Owls were stopped on Hawaii's 11-yard line with eight seconds left. UTEP won on a 59-yard field goal as time expired.

"Those are little moments that hurt us," Hatfield said. "That was what we lacked last year that we had the year before when we made the one more play."

Hatfield's spread option offense is ready to again rank among the national leaders in rushing offense. Rice was sixth in the country last year at 247.7 yards rushing last season.

Quarterbacks Kyle Herm and Greg Henderson will probably share time and could give the Owls more of a passing attack than previous years. Fullback Robbie Beck, the leading rusher last season, also returns.

"We've got the best receivers we've had since I've been here," Hatfield said. "We threw more this spring than we have before because both quarterbacks were back and they were throwing well."

Marcus Battle and former quarterback Jeremy Hurd are the Owls' top hopes at wide receiver.

Defense isn't as well-stocked with only three returning starters: senior leader Jeff Vanover at linebacker, tackle Jeremy Calahan and free safety Raymorris Barnes.

"Defense is always a concern," Hatfield said. "The biggest thing defensively is having enough depth to rotate people. When you get tired in the fourth quarter and can't rush the passer, they sit back and beat you with their two-minute offense."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index