Game date: Oct. 1, 2016
Game time: 6pm CDT
Location: M.M. Roberts Stadium, Hattiesburg, MI
Records: Southern Miss 3-1 (1-0); Rice 0-4 (0-1)
Series history: Rice 4-2
Last year: Southern Miss 65, Rice 10
Odds: Southern Miss -24 (o/u 59)
Television: CUSA TV
David Bailiff was feeling good. In fact, he was feeling very good.
His Rice University football team had played well against North Texas and now, with the ball on the North Texas one yard line, Coach David Bailiff was going to put that ball into the hands of his star running back Darik Dillard and expect him to do what he had done moments before---run one yard to once again tie the game.
Dillard never made it to the end zone. North Texas was ready and stuffed him at the line.
Rice fans dissembled into the Texas night. Their team was 0-4. After leading 17-0, they wondered why.
This Saturday, Rice travels to Hattiesburg with a chance to change the trajectory of its season with an upset of Southern Mississippi. And, there are seven reasons why the Owls might just do that.
But first, the Owls need to face some stark realities.
Southern Miss is ranked 8th in team defense (Rice 125th), 31st in total offense (Rice 114th), 84th in turnover margin (Rice 123rd), and 35th on AC Index's (aciventura.com) top-50 teams (Rice unranked).
The Golden Eagles are led by three dynamic all conference playmakers, Nick Mullens at quarterback, running back Ito Smith, and center Cameron Tom. Add in future all conference defenders D'Nerius Antoine, Dylan Bradley, and Xavier Thigpen and it’s easy to see that there are plenty of potholes between Houston and Hattiesburg.
By halftime of last year's game, the Golden Eagles already had a 42-0 lead and Mullens had already thrown for five touchdowns.
Yet, despite those barriers, Rice might be just the team that can change the “w” of “why?” into the “w” of “win”.
It was only the year before last that the Owls started 0-3. Yet, Rice finished that 2014 season with eight wins and players believe it can be done again.
Some of the players from that 2014 team are still around and one of those is receiver Zach Wright. Wright is telling anyone who will listen, "It's not what happens to you. It's how you respond." That’s what they learned in 2014 and that is how they are handling things now.
Coach Bailiff agreed. “The first thing that we have to make sure we win is the locker room. That’s what the seniors have to do.”
And Rice is good at bouncing back. Last year in two games, the Owls lost 119-27 but the team didn’t fade. Instead, the Owls went three weeks without losing again.
Can we honor Rice’s resilience with a new word? How about “Riceilience”? I think this group has earned it.
2) Tyler Stehling
Last week, Rice quarterback Tyler Stehling threw for 232 yards, ran for 92, and gave the Owls a 17-0 lead before North Texas knew what was happening.
“We had 28 first downs, coach Bailiff said. “We had 100 plays and completely dominated the first quarter.”
Coach Jay Hopson of Southern Mississippi agrees. “We know we have a big challenge this weekend. They’re talented. The quarterback makes plays.”
It's a unique challenge for Hopson and the Golden Eagles because they have not had to stop a dual-threat quarterback like Stehling this year. USM loves to bring pressure but if that pressure does not have gap integrity, quarterbacks like Stehling get loose for big gains.
Until Southern Miss proves that it has the ability to stop fleet, dual-threat quarterbacks like Stehling, then Rice has a place to scheme.
3) Mr. Wright
Zach Wright has become a high-flying receiver and just last week, had career highs for receptions (10) and receiving yards (120).
Southern Miss has suffered some long-ball losses and that proves that one team’s Mr. Wright might very well become the other team’s Mr. Doom.
4) Southern Miss coaches see the threat
Southern Miss head coach Jay Hopson knows that conference games are hard-fought and the game against Rice is full of risk.
“They’ve played everybody tough and they are a team that lost in overtime last week and played Baylor strong. It’s a team that we understand we have to be ready to play. We know they are a good football team.”
Despite overwhelming UTEP 34-7 last Saturday, USM offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson still expresses concern. “We played about a quarter-and-a-half of good football.”
5) Southern Miss still shaky with long-ball defense
The Golden Eagles are aware and concerned that they have given up too many big plays.
“We had 12 explosive plays that we gave up Saturday,” Hopson said. “Seven of those were technique. One was a bad call by the coaches. We’ve got to execute, continue to improve and continue to grow some of these young guys up.”
If Zach Wright had his biggest game last week for Rice, then Southern Miss must solve its problem with explosive plays or Mr. Wright will be dancing in the end zone much too often.
Both teams have struggled with giving up the ball and both have been erratic from one game to the next.
Against North Texas last week, the Rice Owls delighted their fans with 17 points in the first 17 minutes only to see it fall apart.
“Once we got up to 17-0 that’s where, all of a sudden, three out of four drives we had turnovers,” Owls' coach Bailiff said, “We had two fumbles and an interception. That’s where you have to hard-focus the most and learn to dominate an opponent when you get up. We have to keep emphasizing it and keep working on it.”
Southern Miss has had similar issues. Nick Mullens threw six interceptions in his first 10 quarters of 2016 and, while that settled down last week against UTEP, it's not a problem that anyone can say has been rectified.
Which team solves the turnover issue the best gives itself a great leg-up in terms of winning, and that is something coach Bailiff knows very well.
“For us to go to Hattiesburg and come out with a win we’ve got to win the turnover battle that we lost this week 3-1. We’ve got to eliminate these foolish penalties. We’ve got to eliminate the technique errors that we’re making to stay in the game with them.”
7) Slow start, fast start
It’s not a secret that Southern Mississippi takes a bit too long to get things going. That was a pattern made evident last season and it was evident right from the start this year when the Golden Eagles fell behind Kentucky 35-10 in the first half before rampaging for 34 straight points.
Last week, Rice started very fast.
The team that is most ready to play at the opening kick-off might likely be the team that is ahead at the final gun. The team that has shown a greater propensity for doing that is Rice.
Rice has an explosive offense and giving up explosive plays is a problem that concerns Southern Miss coach Jay Hopson.
If Southern Miss starts slow and if Rice starts fast and doesn't give the ball away, this game will hit the “Priority Alerts” all across America.
While those factors give Rice some hope, Southern Miss won last year's game 65-10 and the Golden Eagles are favored in just about every statistical category.
Clearly, Southern Mississippi enters the game as the favored team.
The odds are with Southern Mississippi, but the odd-shaped ball they play with favors no one. It can bounce in curious ways and is often responsible for one team getting the “w” of win while the other dissembles in the dark with the “w” of why.
I think AC Index (aciventura.com) has it about right:
Southern Miss 42, Rice 14