The victories haven’t quite arrived for Rice (0-3) yet, but the Owls are in the final leg of one of college football’s toughest non-conference schedules.
Rice’s non-conference schedule is composed of four 2018 bowl champions which currently combine for a 9-2 record (with one-possession losses to LSU and Michigan). Wake Forest, Army, and Texas are in the past, but Baylor (2-0) is on the horizon. For the third week in a row, a Power 5 program takes a trip down to Houston for a shot at the Owls.
The Owls have struggled against established competition but with each passing program and each opportunity at tackling a tough opponent, Rice finds a little more about itself. In a 48-13 loss to Texas, the Owls recorded their first sack of the season and gave several difficult looks to Longhorns’ running backs early on in the contest. Tom Herman had high praise for Rice’s versatile defensive schemes, calling last Saturday “as mentally challenging of a game for our quarterback as he’s probably seen in three years” in terms of the blitz schemes and coverages defensive coordinator Brian Smith threw at Sam Ehlinger.
The scheme is in place, now Rice just has to execute. Despite Herman’s comments, Rice still allowed Ehlinger to complete 23-of-27 passes for 279 yards and three touchdowns. The Owls managed to hang within one score of pass-free Army. But after facing two of the nation’s top passers, it’s clear that there’s still work to be done in the secondary which has allowed nearly 600 yards and six touchdowns in its past two outings. The unit is one of 12 FBS programs still awaiting its first interception of the year.
Baylor enters Week 4 with the top scoring offense in the nation, posting 59.5 points per game. With an FCS team and UTSA as the Bears’ competition, the sample size remains small but Rice can watch plenty of film from its C-USA West rival. The Roadrunners yielded 368 rushing yards all game and 49 points through 40 minutes of action to Matt Rhule’s improving Baylor Bears.
Baylor quarterback Charlie Brewer has not been needed to pierce opponents through the air, although he has the capabilities of doing so. In his first year as the full-time starter, Brewer took home Texas Bowl MVP for lighting up Vanderbilt with 384 yards and managed to eclipse the 3,000 yard mark in his 13 games.
Running backs John Lovett and Trestan Ebner have carried the load for Baylor on the ground. Collectively, the Bears are averaging over eight yards per carry, but Rice should be the best run defense the Big 12 team has faced this season. The Owls have risen up to the elite ranks in the C-USA at stopping run. With a star defensive tackle in Myles Adams clogging the lane and a horde of forceful tacklers in the linebacking corps, Rice has invaded backfields this season with 18 tackles for loss (and only one being a sack). Blaze Alldredge (OLB), Treshawn Chamberlain (ILB), Antonio Montero (ILB), and Anthony Ekpe (OLB) each have between 19 and 21 tackles this season. The quartet has produced half of Rice’s stops behind the line of scrimmage, with Alldredge leading the way with 5.5.
Alldredge, the leader in overall tackles and passes defended, sports the most impressive résumé on defense this year by registering Rice’s lone sack and its lone fumble recovery.
Offensively, Rice hasn’t been as skilled as head coach Mike Bloomgren would like to see, but the Owls have shown flashes of potential in the running game. Nahshon Ellerbe opened the season with over 100 yards on nine carries versus Army before passing the baton to Aston Walter as the feature back. Walter rushed for 69 yards on Texas’ defense while serving as the team’s go-to threat by the goal line. His two touchdown receptions on swing passes finished the Owls’ only scoring drives last Saturday night.
Who will be under center at Baylor has yet to be determined. Graduate senior Tom Stewart improved over time in his first career FBS start against Texas, totaling 179 passing yards and two touchdowns on 52.2% accuracy. Stewart checked in Week 2 after starting quarterback Wiley Green suffered an ugly head-on collison near the pylon. But with Green’s post-injury tests coming back negative, Green may be cleared to play and could even start against the Bears.
Rice’s keys to the game
Keep playing mistake free football. One of these times, Rice’s ability to keep the ball in its hands is going to pay off with a victory. The Owls are one of 12 teams with one or fewer turnovers this year and one of 26 teams without a single interception. Rice’s play-calling in Mike Bloomgren’s pro-style offense has been conservative, often avoiding downfield throws in favor of screen passes and runs inside the tackles. But the Owls are executing without coughing up the ball, and Bloomgren’s “the ball is the program” mantra will pay off when Rice situates itself in a close game.
Increased zone defense is a must. So many times this season, Rice has been beaten in one-on-one coverage by opposing wide receivers. Wake Forest’s Scotty Washington and Texas’ Jake Smith utilized incredible athleticism to dominate this coverage and combine for four touchdowns against the Rice defense. The solution to losing these one-on-one battles is to keep the safeties back in deep zone. Brewer will take deep shots on Rice, and the Owls must have players ready downfield to prevent quick scoring drives and make the Bears’ work for their yardage in the trenches.
Feed Austin Trammell. Trammell is the Owls’ offensive team captain and most talented wide receiver. He is a frequent target of screen passes, and his crafty skill set lets him thrive in open field after screens. With a couple strong blocks, Trammell has shown the ability to convert quick slants and tunnel screens into big-play opportunities for Rice. The junior receiver has turned two of these plays into gains of 38 and 45 this season and should earn more opportunities at creating offensive momentum this Saturday night.
Time and Date: Saturday, September 28 at 7 p.m. ET
Network: CBS Sports Network
Location: Rice Stadium — Houston, TX
Spread: Baylor (-26.5)
ESPN FPI: Rice has 96.5% chance to win
All-time series: Baylor leads, 49-30-2
Last meeting: Baylor 38, Rice 10 — September 16, 2016
Baylor’s explosive offense is not the battle Rice needs to face after the 35-point loss to Texas. The Owls would match up better against a Power 5 team with more of a defensive identity, such as a Michigan State or TCU.
Charlie Brewer is set for a strong day through the air against a secondary which struggled stopping Jamie Newman and Sam Ehlinger. If Rice can stop this aspect of Baylor’s offense and hold its own in man coverage, the Owls have a shot at keeping this one close.
Rice still needs to establish an offense and score more than 21 points in a game. A strong day from Aston Walter should bolster the Owls offense into potentially their best performance of the season. Home-field advantage will help, but the Owls will have to open up the playbook and take more risks in the passing game in order to match Baylor’s juggernaut of a scoring machine.
Prediction: Baylor 49, Rice 17