UAB welcomes Rice to Legion Field this Saturday evening. Both teams would like to forget the happenings of Week 5.
The Blazers, 2018 C-USA champions, only lost one conference game under Bill Clark a season ago. In the preseason media poll, UAB was expected to regress in the conference standings, but the Blazers were the last team to hoist an unblemished record in the conference. That record finally crumbled last weekend in a 20-13 loss to WKU. UAB threw four interceptions in an offensive struggle, averaging just 4.3 yards per play in the C-USA West showdown.
UAB’s offense has taken a slight step back since the graduation of quarterback A.J. Erdely and wide receiver Xavier Ubosi, two key components to the championship core a year ago. The Blazers average a hair under 26 points per game, ranking 90th in the country. The team’s identity still lies on the defensive side of the ball. UAB has held its opponents to just 15.5 points per game, and the Blazers can attribute their first win to their defense forcing a goal line stand against FCS Alabama State.
In their last meeting with Rice, the Blazers didn’t allow a single points. They cruised to a 42-0 shutout in Houston on the road to their first C-USA title. Once again, the Blazers enter as the favorite over the 0-5 Owls, but the winless record can be deceiving. Mike Bloomgren’s Rice team is miles above where it was a year ago.
The Owls were 26 yards from reaching the end zone with an opportunity to knock off Army in Week 1 and only fell to Baylor by eight points a week ago. Rice never clenched onto a lead in either game but routine defensive stops allowed both contests to be close. But in Week 5 against Louisiana Tech, the Owls’ loss feels like a squandered opportunity.
Rice’s offense scored a touchdown on its opening drive for the first time this season. Then, the Owls responded to a Louisiana Tech touchdown by driving down the field once more for a 14-7 lead, marking the third time the Owls scored touchdowns on consecutive possessions this season. But the offense couldn’t re-create its momentum for the remainder of the game, and Rice suffered a heartbreaking 23-20 overtime loss to the Bulldogs, allowing an 11-yard touchdown run by J’Mar Smith on the final play.
Bowl eligibility remains in play for Rice, but the Owls require six wins in their final seven C-USA games to reach the postseason for a first time since 2014.
Rice’s starting quarterback will be Wiley Green for the third-consecutive week. Green suffered an injury in a Week 2 loss to Wake Forest, but his absence was short-lived. Green had a solid outing in the first half last week with several first down completions to wide receivers Brad Rozner and Austin Trammell. He finished with 14 completions and 128 yards, both marking season highs for an Owls offense which grounds the ball frequently.
Since Green returned, the backup quarterback Tom Stewart has still led multiple drives in each game. Stewart, who gained plenty of experience at the FCS level, has thrown all three of Rice’s passing touchdowns this year and has scrambled for two additional touchdowns as well.
Rice’s rushing game has been the stronger suit of the offense this season. Running back Aston Walter posted the second 100-yard game for the Owls on the ground this season with 112 on 20 carries last week. Walter broke free for both of Rice’s two touchdowns against Louisiana Tech and scored a pair in the fourth quarter against Texas. He’s the go-to threat in the end zone, whether it be on a running play or a screen pass.
The other offense’s signal caller will be Tyler Johnston, looking to shake-off his four interception game from a week ago. Against UAB’s first two FBS opponents of the season (Akron and South Alabama), Johnston threw for over 300 yards and three touchdowns, picking up from where he left off after winning the 2018 Boca Raton Bowl.
In the running game, UAB’s Spencer Brown will look to break past Rice’s forceful front seven. Brown strung together back-to-back 1,200 yard seasons as a freshman and sophomore, but the veteran back has yet to experience a 100-yard game this season, averaging 3.4 yards per carry. He was a key part of the Blazers’ conference title run a year ago, and UAB’s offensive line must get Brown back in rhythm in order to regenerate the offense. The Blazer line allowed three sacks last week, and the unit will be challenge once again by blocking a Rice defensive line which features senior defensive tackle Myles Adams (3.5 tackles for loss).
Rice’s defense did a stellar job limiting Louisiana Tech to just 23 points and 84 rushing yards a week ago. The Bulldogs oftentimes looked listless against the Owls’ defense, led by outside linebacker Blaze Alldredge with 13 tackles. Stopping the run has been Rice’s greatest asset all season long, but the Owls’ haven’t been as flawless in countering through the secondary. Rice recorded a season-high three sacks last week and must pressure Johnston repeatedly in order to force bad throws and force the Blazers into a repeat of last week.
For UAB, Johnston must establish the passing game again. The offensive line must regain its success from the first two weeks, where it didn’t allow a single sack. Johnston has a pair of viable receivers in Austin Watkins and Kendall Parham who could do damage against the Rice secondary. The Owls’ struggled containing the athletic receivers Wake Forest and Texas offered, so Watkins’ height (6’3”) and strength advantages need to play a major factor to produce a Blazer win.
Forcing turnovers has not been common for these defenses this season. UAB hasn’t picked off a pass since the goal line stand on Week 1. Rice is one of two teams (Louisville the other) without a single defensive interception this season. However, the teams are on opposite sides of the spectrum in terms of taking care of the ball. The Owls’ threw their first interception last week but still rank fifth in the FBS in fewest turnovers. Conversely, UAB is 13th in the country in most turnovers committed and second in the C-USA. In a low-scoring game where good field position will be at a premium, the forced turnovers will serve as the major momentum shifts and provide invaluable scoring opportunities.
Time and Date: Saturday, October 5 at 7 p.m. ET
Location: Legion Field — Birmingham, AL
Spread: UAB (-9.5)
ESPN FPI: UAB has 74.2% chance to win
All-time series: UAB leads, 4-3
Last meeting: UAB 42, Rice 0 — October 13, 2018
Last year wasn’t close. UAB quarterback A.J. Erdely threw for 274 yards and two touchdowns, with 196 of those directed to wide receiver Xavier Ubosi, also the recipient of the scores. Rice finished a treacherous 1-for-17 on third down conversions, limited to just 50 rushing yards by the UAB defense. The Owls last defeated UAB in 2013, two years prior to the Blazers’ temporary hiatus. Rice’s three wins in the series have come by an average of 3 points, UAB’s four victories by an average of 28.
Expect an entire game of defensive stands. Both of these teams are great at making stops, but often struggling moving the ball downfield. Neither team will approach 30 points, and UAB’s offensive production will be determined by Johnston’s arm, while Rice should rely on Walter for yardage.
Rice’s defense is capable of putting up performances similar to what WKU did last week. All the Owls have needed this season is to produce a couple turnovers in prime territory, providing the offense with a short field to work with. That finally happens this week, as this Rice team is too good to be 0-6. It will be close though, and this game should come down to a fourth quarter field goal.
Prediction: Rice 19, UAB 16