* In case you rushed over the sentence, we repeat: There were no apparent injuries, not even to (we say in jest) quarterback Dan Persa. That shoulder he damaged last week at Nebraska? "It's all right. It's hanging in there. Still attached," he cracked.
And his overall condition after a game in which he took just one big hit? "It's good not to have to go for an MRI or x-ray for once," he said with a smile.
* The 'Cat defense, much refurbished since a month ago, pitched a shutout against Rice until just 4:16 remained at Ryan Field. A mix-and-match unit was then on the field for what would be the Owls' last possession of the game, and it got burned by a reverse- wide receiver pass that set up a meaningless touchdown. But, said linebacker David Nwabuisi, "We were a little disappointed by that."
* The game, despite its workman-like character, still did have some moments fit for the highlight reel, and the first came with the 'Cats facing a third-and-four at their own 10 with just under five minutes remaining in the first half. Here, facing man coverage, wide receiver Jeremy Ebert ran an option route, broke off a post instead of a corner, collected a perfect pass from Persa with no one in front of him and went 90 yards for his team's first score. "It's a pretty surreal feeling to be out there and see green grass in front of you," he would later say.
* Ebert pulled away from his defender on that play and so -- just in case you were wondering -- he has not been timed in the 40 as a 'Cat, but in high school, he says, "I was like a 4.4 something."
* Ten minutes later, with the ball on NU's own three, Persa dropped deep into the end zone and threw into a howling wind toward a streaking Ebert, who outfought a pair of Owl defenders for a 40-yard completion. This was a special catch, but the receivers' signature moment this afternoon would come later, come five minutes into the third quarter when Pesa threw into the same wind and Ebert looked right, looked left, looked right again and made a one-handed catch for a 33-yard gain. "I saw it, thought it was going to go over my other shoulder, so then I turned, then I think the wind put it over the other shoulder, so I kind of ended up being like a ballerina out there," he would say of it.
"It wasn't the greatest throw in the world. I probably should have just checked it down," said Persa. "But I'll take it. He made a great play on it. When you have special receivers, you just throw the ball up and let them make a play."
"It was ridiculous," laughed 'Cat coach Pat Fitzgerald. "I don't know. I don't know how you describe it. It's one of those, 'Are you kidding me?'"
* Ebert ended his day with seven receptions for 208 yards and two touchdowns, the third-best (when it comes to receiving yards) single-game performance in 'Cat history. He did this even though he and Persa and Kain Colter and Drake Dunsmore and countless other offensive starters sat after giving their team a 28-0 lead just 1:38 into the fourth quarter.
* Then there was wide receiver Demetrius Fields, who has been quiet for much of this season. He had a 50-yard reception with five minutes remaining in the first half and then, with that half in its final 30 seconds, he caught a short out from Persa, broke a tackle at the nine, juked a defender at the four and walked in to put the 'Cats up 21. Earlier, on the same pattern, he had a reception negated by a penalty, but after it, he would recall, "I realized I should have kept going (after the catch). Actually Drake told me, 'Feel free to go score a touchdown.' That helped me think about it."
* Persa did finish with career-tying best four touchdown passes, but he also had a pair picked off. Both were thrown from the right hash mark to the left sideline into the wind, and both looked as if they were knocked down by the wind. "Maybe," he reluctantly admitted. "But I've just got to get them out there."
* The defense, facing an up-tempo Owl offense, again used a wave of people in its front seven to stay fresh. It also tackled better than it had a month ago, picked up an interception and limited Rice to just 254 yards of total offense (43 of those came on the bit of trickeration that set up its touchdown). "I think obviously the difference in our team is the defense, hands down," said Persa. "They've really stepped it up the past couple weeks and they're the reason we're winning now, not the offense."
"I disagree with that," Nwabuisi demurred. "He's being modest. The offense is definitely doing its job out there. Us, as a defense, we're kind of spoiled. When they put up (only) 28, we're wondering, 'Hey, what are they doing?' But they're putting up 28 points and we shouldn't let anyone score 28 ever."
But every opponent scored more than 28 in each of the 'Cats four conference losses, so what's the difference?
"Everybody's minding his job," Nwabuisi said. "Everybody's been playing hard, we've been playing with more passion lately, a lot of people have been making plays, it's hasn't been one guy. It's been guys all over the field making plays and having a lot more fun really."
* So now the 'Cats have followed up a five-game losing streak with a three-game winning streak, which naturally enough brings up questions about a turning point. "No," Fitzgerald would say when asked if there was one, and then came an answer as prosaic as this game's character and as accurate as any arrow shot by Robin Hood.
"I think the number one thing our men have done is they've stayed the course," he now said. "We were close in a lot of those games, and nobody likes to be close. You can go one of two ways when that happens. You can start pointing fingers and blaming people, or you can look inward, you can look at yourself in the mirror. I've got a poem I love, The Man in the Glass, you can look at the man in the glass and say, 'What am I going to do about it?' I think the young men have taken that attitude, they've put a chip on their shoulder and they've been focused on preparation, I think our preparation each practice, each rep is getting better and better and better. We've stayed that course. I also think, obviously, winning makes you have more fun. I think they're having fun. They also see the sand is running out of the hour glass, especially seniors, and there's a renewed sense of urgency."
"I don't know. I felt like it was just a backs-against-the-wall type of thing," Fields would finally say when he was asked about the turning point. "Since I've been here, our character's been, when we're down ... I've witnessed 21-point comebacks and victories like that. That's just the way the team has been. It's unfortunate we allow it to get there. But that's kind of the way we are as a team, as a program.
"So I don't know if there was a turning point. It was just a sense of urgency realizing that we don't want to go home in a year where we had such high expectations, we don't want to go home during the bowl season."