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Rice at Western Kentucky preview

Owls defense looking to make a statement from the outset in 2016 season opener.

CUSA Championship - Southern Miss v Western Kentucky
While Western Kentucky is breaking in a new quarterback, Taywan Taylor returns as a playmaker at wide receiver. Taylor had six catches in WKU’s 49-10 win over Rice last season.
Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Start Time: 7 pm (CST) Thursday, September 1st

Location: Houchens Industries–L. T. Smith Stadium, Bowling Green, Kentucky

TV: CBS Sports Network

Stream: CBSsports.com

Betting Line: WKU -16.5, O/U 63

Series Record: WKU 1-0

If there was one game that summed up the disappointment of 2015 Rice football, a 49-10 drubbing by Western Kentucky at Rice Stadium probably was it.

Rice entered that October game thinking they could compete for a conference crown. The wheels fell off instead as the 5-7 Owls were not invited to a bowl game for the first time since 2011.

So if slaying the 2015 demons is high on Rice’s priority list, the schedule makers may have done the team a favor. Western Kentucky is the first opponent on Rice’s schedule, and they don’t even have to wait until Saturday. The Owls and Hilltoppers meet at 7 p.m. CST Thursday in Bowling Green. The game will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network.

“There’s power in failure,” Rice coach David Bailiff said at Monday’s news conference. “It forces you to narrow your focus. It forces you to analyze everything in the program. Also, our players now have a bigger chip on their shoulder because nobody enjoyed it, from the president of the university to our fans.”

In last year’s game, Western Kentucky rolled up 424 passing yards. WKU’s Brandon Doughty was 28 of 38 passing with four first-half touchdowns. The Hilltoppers were so efficient passing that the team’s yard average per attempt was 10.9 that day. If a team average a first down every time a pass is thrown, it’s a good bet they get the win.

The porous pass defense wasn’t confined to that game either. For the season, Rice gave up more than 3,000 yards and 36 touchdowns through the air. Injuries and ineffective play led to several younger players seeing time on the field.

Bailiff said the Owls have made great strides on defense during pre-season practices.

“A lot of those freshmen are now sophomores who are a lot more disruptive and understand the game and the scheme better,” he said. “I’m really pleased with where we are defensively, and I’m really pleased with where we are offensively. All systems are a go.”

Catching WKU in the opener may have some benefits. Doughty is throwing passes for the Miami Dolphins, so enter Mike White, a transfer from South Florida. White was named starter on Friday. He beat out senior Tyler Ferguson and sophomore Drew Eckels for the job.

“Mike has done a nice job preparing himself for this moment and operates our offense well,” WKU coach Jeff Brohm said in a news release.

While White has plenty of weapons to work with – including 2016 preseason Conference USA Coaches all-conference team wide receiver Taywan Taylor and running Anthony Wales – getting to face White in game one rather than say game seven may be advantageous.

However, Rice also is breaking in a new starting quarterback in senior Tyler Stehling. The Spring, Texas, native has passed for 479 yards in 10 games as a back-up.

“It’s his turn, and I think he’s made the best of his opportunity,” Bailiff said. “He’s made great decisions with the football in his hand and that’s what he needs to do. He doesn’t need to be great the first game. He needs to be consistent and get the ball to our playmakers on the edge or in the backfield.”

Rice hasn’t opened with a conference foe since a 2009 loss at UAB. Since then the Owls have opened against Power Conference teams Texas (twice), UCLA, Texas A&M and Notre Dame. The last time Rice won an opener was 2008 against SMU.

While Western Kentucky doesn’t have the history of the Aggies or Fighting Irish, the Hilltoppers are again expected to be at or near the top of the C-USA standings.

“First off, we have to worry about what we do because we need to play hard,” Bailiff said. “But, I think our defensive coaches have done a fantastic job of exposing all the different gadgets and giving the team some coaching points of what to look for.”