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Southern Mississippi vs Rice: Questions and Answers with sportswriter Jeremy Shapiro

Rice v Florida Atlantic
Zach Wright had a career receiving day last week against North Texas. Jeremy Shapiro calls Wright “a fun wide receiver to watch”.
Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images

Jeremy Shapiro is a sports writer for SB Nation and he's been covering Rice University sports for the past four years. We asked Jeremy if he would respond to some questions that we have concerning the Rice at Southern Mississippi football game that takes place this Saturday and he kindly agreed.

1. Rice was 2-2 at this time last year and, even though the schedule has been harder, can you tell us the feeling around the team this week?

The mood certainly was somber after Saturday’s loss to North Texas. Coming up short in double overtime is never fun, but it was the way they lost the game that made it especially bad. To lose your grip on a 17-0 lead was visibly frustrating. The players looked a bit shell shocked in the postgame interview room. I think after a few days later the shock and anger has worn off and the mood has gotten lighter, but I wonder if those lingering doubts about blowing a lead will have an impact next time Rice builds a lead.

2. Rice has been struggling with turnover margin in 2016 and quarterback Tyler Stehling has twice as many interceptions as he does touchdown completions. How likely do you think it might be that J.T. Granato is given a chance against Southern Mississippi?

It’s not likely. Publically, at least, coach Bailiff is committed to Stehling, with Nate German coming into run the Wildcat (or Wild Owl in this case). I actually thought Stehling played his best game against North Texas. He was smart about when to run. He made mostly accurate throws and he led his team down the field for a touchdown and two-point conversion to force overtime.

3. Southern Mississippi uses a balanced-spread attack that features the passing of all conference quarterback Nick Mullens and two running backs, Ito Smith (over 100 in every game) and George Payne (over 100 yards if he carries 13+ times). Last year, that combination put up 65 points against Rice. How do you think Rice will keep that from happening again this season?

By somehow getting Christin Covington and Phillip Gaines (now in the NFL) extra eligibility. The NCAA probably wouldn’t go for that though, and those two are busy with the Texans and Chiefs anyway. The Owls defense hasn’t consistently stopped anyone, and I think it’s safe to say Southern Miss has one of the more explosive offenses in the conference. I’m sure Rice will try to pressure the quarterback and create turnovers, but it’s going to be an uphill battle. I will advise to keep an eye on linebacker Emmanuel Ellerbee. He’s been a beast the last two weeks.

4. Rice is one of the best in the country when it comes to not having injuries this season. Only Connor Patterson and Justin Blackham appear on the “will not play” reports I've seen. Are there other important players who won't play or are doubtful?

Not, that I’m aware of. I don’t think any Owls suffered injuries in the UNT game that would keep them out an extended period of time.

5. We all know about Stehling at quarterback and Darik Dillard, the Owls' top running back, but are there players who normally fly under the radar that we should watch for?

Zach Wright is a fun wide receiver to watch, and he’s capable of making a few defenders miss. He’s coming off a 10-catch, 120-year game and seems to be sympatico with Tyler Stehling. As mentioned earlier, Ellerbee has been a tackling machine lately. I think he’s had 25 in the last two games. Also, you may want to circle (sophomore running back) Austin Walter in the program. He’s due for a breakout game one of these days.

6. Generally, how do you expect this game to go and, if you like, what do you think the final score might be?

If last Saturday’s first quarter Rice team shows up – the one that raced to a 17-0 lead – then the Owls will have a chance. But given what we’ve seen so far in total and how well Southern Mississippi played against UTEP, there’s a reason the home team is heavily favored. I’m still mulling over the score, but Southern Miss should win pretty comfortably.

We thank Jeremy Shapiro for working with us and giving us an informed look into the Rice University football program.