Another week of Rice football passes, and the win column remains barren and empty.
For a long time, the Owls seemed to be a victim of circumstance — showing clear improvement by losing several close games and handling a difficult opening schedule. But after a 31-27 loss in San Antonio, as favorites, to a UTSA team trotting out a backup quarterback, Rice’s winless status doesn’t have quite the same surrounding aura.
Mike Bloomgren’s team returns to Houston after a two-game road stand. Rice has played particularly well at home this season, holding Baylor to 21 points and coming within one score of the currently undefeated Bears and forcing 6-1 Louisiana Tech to overtime in its C-USA opener. Another challenging foe comes down to the Owls’ nest this week, a team also on the wrong side of an upset loss in Week 9.
Southern Miss jumped to a 14-0 lead over Louisiana Tech last week, but a 21-3 run by the Bulldogs in the final quarter left the Golden Eagles walking out of Ruston in heartbreak. Thought by many to be the C-USA frontrunner prior to Week 8, the Golden Eagles suffered their first conference loss of the season and are in dire need of a bounce back week.
While Southern Miss’ identity last year primarily lied on the defensive side of the ball, Jay Hopson’s program has seen a strong escalation from his offense. Quarterback Jack Abraham has thrived in his second year as a starter. Last year, he accurately delivered a lot of short passes, but the junior has expanded his range and sits fourth in the FBS in passing yards. One of eight starting quarterbacks to average more than 10 yards per attempt, Abraham’s emergence has been the key to Southern Miss’ offensive explosion.
However, his 4-interception performance against Louisiana Tech put a damper on an otherwise-tremendous season. Abraham must bounce back and establish a strong connection with wide receiver Quez Watkins. The deep threat wideout has surpassed 100 receiving yards in 60% of his games this year and is second in the C-USA in receiving yards behind UAB’s Austin Watkins. Quez has a formidable threat lined up opposite side of him in Jaylond Adams, the team’s leader in receptions. Rice’s cornerbacks will be well-tested by this group, hoping to yield below the season average of 244 yards through the air.
Rice brings one of the conference’s top-tier receiver duos to this matchup as well. Junior Austin Trammell has registered 472 yards on 37 catches this year and junior Brad Rozner has tallied 479 on 32. The player throwing to Trammell and Rozner varies, however. Rice is still running a 2-quarterback system with redshirt freshman Wiley Green typically earning the start and grad-transfer Tom Stewart checking in when the offense needs a spark. The quarterbacks have combined for seven touchdown passes and two interceptions this year, and they’re style contrasts greatly to Abraham’s deep-ball approach. Green averages 5.9 yards per attempt, while Stewart averages 6.8.
Rice’s offense production primarily stems from the running game. Aston Walter posted his third-consecutive 100-yard, 1-touchdown game at UTSA last week, and he’s averaged more than 5.5 yards per carry in each of these contests. While Southern Miss’ passing defense has struggled this season, the Golden Eagles rank 37th in the country in stopping the run, so Walter and the offensive line will have to work to continue the streak.
Southern Miss averages over 30 points per game, but the Owls prefer to keep things on the low-scoring side. Rice managed a season-best 27 points on the road in Week 8, but the Owls’ defense has controlled opposing offenses and held them to low-scoring outputs. Most notably, Rice’s front seven pressured Baylor and shut out the Bears in the second half of the 21-13 loss. Outside linebacker Blaze Alldredge is appearing to become a lock for First Team All-C-USA, with a team-high 59 tackles this season, including 12.5 tackles for loss.
Southern Miss also features a defensive standout in safety/linebacker hybrid D.Q. Thomas. With two interceptions and three sacks on the season, Thomas has been a force in all areas on the defensive side of the ball and is the biggest individual threat to an offense which has yet to hit its stride this season.
Time and Date: Saturday, October 26 at 1 p.m. ET
Location: Rice Stadium — Houston, TX
Spread: Southern Miss (-10)
ESPN FPI: Southern Miss has 76.5% chance to win
All-time series: Southern Miss leads, 5-4
Last meeting: Southern Miss 40, Rice 22 — September 22, 2018
Southern Miss has won four-straight in the series, and Rice claimed its last victory over the Golden Eagles in 2014. Since, Southern Miss has become a consistent bowl contender while Rice has yet to defeat an opponent that finished the season with a winning record. Rice claimed a quick 2-0 start in the C-USA West series, defeating Southern Miss in the first two editions of the matchup in 2007 and 2008.
Is this finally the week for Rice? The Owls played both of C-USA’s one-loss teams in highly respectable fashion, and they get to play the role of host when Southern Miss enters Houston. After turnover-riddled games by both teams last week, Rice and Southern Miss will have to shake out the jitters offensively, and neither team will likely cross the 30-point barrier.
Jack Abraham is poised for a strong day, as Quez Watkins and Jaylond Adams should win many one-on-one battles in the secondary, but Rice’s pass rush could create an issue if Southern Miss’ offensive line struggles with their assignments. On the other side of the ball, the Owls will need another 100-yard day out of Walter combined with a serviceable passing performance in order to celebrate a long-awaited win.
Given Rice’s home success, it’ll keep this one close, but Southern Miss pulls away in the end and remains in contention for the C-USA West crown.
Prediction: Southern Miss 27, Rice 20