Mike Bloomgren launches his second season at Rice with a journey northeast to West Point. Awaiting his Rice Owls (2-11 in 2018) are the Army Black Knights (11-2 in 2018), fresh off a 2018 campaign featuring an AP ranking and a 70-14 Armed Forces Bowl annihilation of Rice’s crosstown rival, Houston.
Considering Army’s returning personnel and on-field success from its 11-2 season in 2018, the Black Knights probably warrant a ranking in the AP Poll. Army received 94 votes in the preseason poll, just two spots away from ushering in the new year with a number next to its name. But what separates Army from most FBS teams isn’t just its rank, but the style of offense it runs.
With a triple option based offense, the Black Knights ran 63.4 times per game last season, ranking first in the FBS. Their rushing yards per game, 312.5, finished second to only Georgia Tech. Factoring in all the intricacies of the offense, the triple option takes extra time to prepare for, so Rice benefited by strategizing for its Week 1 opponent months in advance.
“I don’t think it’s just Army’s offense — I think Army, in all three phases, they challenge you,” Bloomgren said. “It would be extremely hard to prepare for this team in one week. Luckily for us, we started practicing on them in the spring, and for the last two weeks, our commitment to them defensively has been well. You have to practice against live cutting, which we did. You have to practice against the speed of this system to the best of your ability.”
Army’s quarterback remains senior Kelvin Hopkins Jr. The mobile quarterback ran the triple option to perfection last season, obtaining 1,017 yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground. But what separates Hopkins from most quarterbacks this program has started throughout the years is his ability to mix it up with his passing ability. Hopkins became the first Army quarterback to throw for over 1,000 yards since 2007, and he averaged 11 yards per attempt, ranking just behind Heisman finalists Kyler Murray and Tua Tagovailoa.
“Seeing him in film, I got to see what he did against University of Houston last year (170 rushing yards, five rushing touchdowns),” defensive tackle Myles Adams said. “He’s very versatile, he’s one of the guys that we’re going to have to watch out for... He’s fast and can also throw the ball — he’s a good player.”
On defense, Rice utilizes a rather youthful bunch. Adams, voted as the team’s defensive captain, is the only senior on the first two levels of the depth chart on defense. Adams enters with a slight advantage as he recorded four tackles against Army’s triple option during the programs’ recent meeting in 2017.
“When I played against them in our home game two years ago, I remember the discipline of their offense,” Adams said. “You only get a certain number of plays from them. That’s what they pride themselves on — being able to execute those plays. So you have to make sure you’re staying on your game and your preparation so you can properly defend it with physicality.”
Rice’s starting quarterback for the matchup was revealed Tuesday with the depth chart release. A three-way battle between redshirt freshman Wiley Green, Harvard grad transfer Tom Stewart, and redshirt sophomore Evan Marshman continued throughout camp, but Bloomgren decided on Green as the starter in his pro-style offense for Friday.
“The reasons are very simple,” Bloomgren said on Green wining the quarterback battle. “He’s got elite arm talent in what I believe and what I’ve seen from him. Also, the way he prepares, the way he lives a quarterback lifestyle. One of the things that led him to secure the job as starting quarterback is his experience in this system and his ability to protect the ball.”
Green maintained his redshirt status in 2018 by playing in just four contests, but he gained valuable experience nonetheless. Green threw for 621 yards on 88 attempts, earning his first career victory in the season finale upset over Old Dominion.
“It was around day seven of fall camp and I had gone through a couple rough days,” Green said. “About day seven, day eight, you can find in my notebook at the top of it, that ‘I’m gonna make the effort, I’m gonna make the choice right now that I want to be the Rice Owls’ starting quarterback.’ I wrote it down, put down a couple goals next to it, like, ‘This is what I’m gonna do to get there.’”
Bloomgren said, however, he expects Marshman to see some on-field action in the opener.
Rice’s wide receiver depth took several hits this offseason. While junior captain Austin Trammell (62 receptions, 632 yards in 2018) is back in the offense, the Owls are dealing with inexperience at the rest of the position. Junior Aaron Cephus was suspended from the program indefinitely in July and junior Rhett Cardwell has been ruled out of Week 1 with an injury. Those absences create opportunities for JUCO recruit Bradley Rozner and 2018 scout team member Robert French to earn starting roles to kick off the new year.
Rice’s receivers will see a lot more targets than Army’s wideout counterparts, but that doesn't mean Rice can condense its gameplay.
The triple option offense isn’t the only challenge Jeff Monken’s team is presenting. The Black Knights’ defense finished eighth nationally in yards allowed per game and 10th in points allowed per game in 2018. By often dominating the time of possession battle, Army wears out opposing defenses while keeping its own unit fresh. No team is safe. Even with Heisman quarterback Kyler Murray leading the charge, Oklahoma only posted 21 points on the Black Knights’ defense last fall.
Leading the unit is middle linebacker Cole Christiansen, who invaded backfields for 12 tackles for loss last season.
“Their defense is outstanding because they bring extreme pressure from the field, then they bring internal pressure, then they bring it from the boundary,” Bloomgren said. “They make you ask a lot of questions, ‘Is this a good play?’ even if you can’t see X, Y, and Z coming. You can’t waste plays against this team. They get you negative plays, make you go 3-and-out, and then you may not have the ball for 12 minutes.”
Army is heavily favored over Rice in West Point, but the Black Knights were in Rice’s position just three seasons ago coming off a 2-win season. Army immediately righted ship, qualifying for a bowl game before stringing consecutive double-digit win seasons together. Bloomgren looks at that transformation as a guide to what Rice’s future could entail.
“There’s a lot of things, when I look at them and what their program’s done on film, it’s a lot of what I want people to think and say about our program,” Bloomgren said. “The discipline that they have, the physicality they play with, the fact that they’re the team that nobody wants to play.”
Time and Date: Friday, August 30 at 6 p.m. ET
Network: CBS Sports Network
Location: Michie Stadium — West Point, NY
Spread: Army (-22.5)
ESPN FPI: Army has 95.6% chance to win
All-time series: Rice leads series, 4-3-1
Last meeting: Army 49, Rice 12 — October 7, 2017
Rice is still very much a work in progress. The Owls opened 2018 with a clock-expiring victory over Prairie View A&M of the FCS, but Army is a different caliber and one of the toughest teams to defend in college football. The brutal non-conference schedule gives Rice no favors early on, and luckily for Bloomgren and Co., this is the only game the Owls play away from Houston until October.
For Army, expect another stellar rushing performance by Hopkins, as well as strong contributions by running backs Connor Slomka and Kell Walker. Rice’s run coverage is probably the strength of the defense, as the team’s best defenders — Adams and outside linebacker Blaze Alldredge — both excel in that facet. But Jeff Monken’s triple option has compiled a 21-5 record in the past two seasons with many of those wins coming as dominations.
Prediction: Army 42, Rice 10