With two teams entering in dire need of a sense of hope, Saturday’s matchup between Rice and Middle Tennessee couldn’t have come at a better time.
After entering rough patches of the season the Owls and Blue Raiders rested last weekend with much-needed byes. Rice (0-9, 0-5 C-USA) continues to ride a frustrating 9-game losing streak — albeit many competitive defeats — hampered primarily by offensive struggles. Middle Tennessee gets to play the role of host this week after losing three of its last four, including a two-touchdown loss to Charlotte in Week 10.
Rice’s quarterback situation is more chaotic than the situation Rick Stockstill is dealing with in Middle Tennessee. While the Blue Raiders have trotted out Asher O’Hara to start all nine contests this season, Rice may be starting its third different quarterback of the year.
After the Owls’ offense vanquished in a 20-6 loss to Southern Miss, head coach Mike Bloomgren ensured the unit would see sudden changes. One of those changes was starting true freshman quarterback JoVoni Johnson against Marshall. Despite the Owls losing 20-7 to the Thundering Herd, Johnson brought a spark to the offense and the unit seemed to elevate their production and rally behind the freshman. Johnson completed 10/17 passes for 97 yards and a touchdown, while attaining an additional 65 yards as a rusher.
However, Johnson suffered an injury while sliding after a run in the fourth quarter of the Marshall game. After resting on the opportune bye week, Johnson may have a chance to start his second game of his young college career. As a true freshman, Johnson can make one more appearance this season before Rice must decide whether to burn his redshirt to keep his freshman status in 2020.
If Johnson, isn’t at full health, the starter will likely be senior Tom Stewart, who received one start versus Texas in Week 3. Stewart has 538 yards this season with four touchdown passes and one interception and closed the Marshall game after Johnson’s departure. With a rotating carousel of quarterbacks, Rice’s passing offense ranks 117th in the country, and the inability to ignite this unit is what’s separating the Owls from a winless program to a potential bowl eligible squad — in other words, their defense is that good.
Rice’s defense has not allowed more than 20 points in regulation at home in C-USA play (against conference contenders Louisiana Tech, Southern Miss, and Marshall), but the unit suffers more on the road. In winnable away games against UAB and UTSA, the defense allowed over 30 each time. But what typically makes Rice’s defense one of the stronger units in the C-USA is the front seven. Outside linebacker Blaze Alldredge has been one of the sharpest players on the unit, checking in at sixth in the country in tackles for loss with 16. Three of Rice’s four starting linebackers in its 3-4 defense have registered at least 50 tackles this season, and the Owls’ linebacking corps full of solid tacklers will play a major role in limiting Middle Tennessee’s rushing offense.
Outside of an unexpected 50-point barrage against FIU on October 26, the Blue Raiders’ offense hasn’t particularly been an explosive bunch. But the 50-17 win over the Panthers proves how dangerous this unit can be, especially in the rushing game. O’Hara led the team with 159 rushing yards and two touchdowns that day, but running backs Jayy McDonald and Terelle West each contributed at least 130 yards on nine carries each. O’Hara still has more than 100 rushing attempts over any running back on the roster, and the offense primarily runs through him on every play.
As a passer, O’Hara is completing approximately 62% of his attempts with 13 touchdowns and six interceptions. His passing wasn’t needed in the annihilation of FIU, and he has attempted fewer than 20 throws in each of his last two games. But O’Hara is laser sharp as a runner recently, and Rice’s run defense must spy on O’Hara on Middle Tennessee’s frequent zone reads. The quarterback has 307 rushing yards in his last two games and is the fifth leading rusher in the C-USA.
Contrary to Middle Tennessee’s rushing game, the Owls have mainly relied on the running backs to push the ball on the ground, although the insertion of Johnson in the lineup could change that. Rice’s running back situation is a revolving door with several options, just like the quarterback room. The Owls turned to sophomore Juma Otoviano against Marshall, and he delivered. On 14 attempts, Otoviano created 66 yards of offense, and he’ll match up against the 118th rushing defense in the FBS, in what could potentially be his first 100-yard game since sprinting for 224 last November against Old Dominion.
Middle Tennessee is still alive for bowl eligibility, but the Blue Raiders will need to win on their home turf this Saturday to attain it for the eighth consecutive season. Bowl eligibility has been long out of question for the Owls, but Rice has three opportunities left at preventing a winless season, and any improvement on the offensive side of the ball could be what the Owls need to graduate from close losses and pull out that coveted win.
Time and Date: Saturday, November 16 at 4:30 p.m. ET
Location: Floyd Stadium — Murfreesboro, TN
Spread: Middle Tennessee (-14.5)
ESPN FPI: Middle Tennessee has 81.7% chance to win
All-time series: Despite sharing the C-USA since 2013, there are no previous matchups between Rice and Middle Tennessee
These two teams combine for a 3-15 record, and the winner is going to receive a glorious feeling postgame after a struggling 2019 campaign. Ever since shutting out (currently undefeated) Baylor in the second half in Week 4 and losing by eight points, Rice has seemed destined to steal a game in C-USA play, but it just hasn’t happened yet.
Middle Tennessee’s level of play deviates from week to week. Against Marshall, the Blue Raiders forced turnovers and controlled the Herd defensively to pull off the upset. In the win over FIU, the rushing offense reached unforeseen heights en route to posting 50 points. But like Rice, Middle Tennessee doesn’t have a terrible loss. The Blue Raiders and Owls both battled difficult non-conference schedules and have hung close to some of the top teams in the C-USA. For two teams that haven’t generated big plays on a consistent basis, Saturday afternoon in Murfreesboro comes down to whichever unit can establish the better passing game and pick up solid yardage through the air. Middle Tennessee wins, but once again, Rice remains in striking distance and keeps it closer than the spread suggests.
Prediction: Middle Tennessee 23, Rice 17