Date: Saturday, September 28, 2019
Kickoff Time: 6 p.m. CT
Location: Houston, Texas
Stadium: Rice Stadium
Series Record: La Tech leads 8-4
Betting Line: La Tech -8.5
While Rice sits at 0-4, the Owls have played the toughest schedule of any team in Conference USA thus far. Furthermore, Rice’s losses to Army and Baylor were by just a single score. The Owls held Baylor to 21 points just a week after the Bears posted 63 on UTSA.
To put Rice’s non-conference schedule into perspective, look at the SP+ rankings of its opponents. Army is 70, Wake Forest is 40, Texas is 19, and Baylor is 25.
SP+ puts Louisiana Tech at 92.
Louisiana Tech’s offense had a slow start to the season, but has seemed to improve each week. In last week’s conference opener against FIU, the Bulldogs scored on nine of their 12 possessions, including every possession in the second half.
Tech has also scored a non-offensive touchdown in each of the last two games, both coming from the efforts of Amik Robertson. His pick six against Bowling Green gave Tech a lead it wouldn’t relinquish, while his onside kick return sealed the win against FIU.
One of the keys to this game will be the turnover battle. While that is often a cliched thing to say, consider that Rice has only turned the ball over twice through its first four games, and has yet to throw an interception. The Owls’ defense have forced three. Tech has turned the ball over six times, although three of those came against Texas in week one. Tech has also forced five turnovers, including at least one in every game.
In other words, Rice protects the ball, but doesn’t take it away. Tech has been somewhat loose with the ball, but has been better at taking it from the opponent.
To be fair to Tech’s offense, though, both of J’Mar Smith’s interceptions were tipped passes. Last week’s pick resulted from a pass that bounced into the air off a defender’s foot, so that can hardly be considered part of a trend.
Something else to watch will be if Rice tries to convert on fourth down. The Owls are 3/6 so far on fourth down, but the Tech defense has held opponents to 4/13. The Bulldog defense has given up yards, but has mostly been able to hold strong when it needed to do so. They lost some of that last week, and will be hoping for a better performance in Houston.
From a personnel standpoint, Tech spreads the ball around more than Rice. The Bulldogs have three players with 30 or more rushes and five players with 10 or more receptions. Rice only has one player with over 30 rushes and only three with 10 or more receptions.
Rice quarterback Wiley Green was injured against Wake Forest, but returned last week. He shared playing time with Tom Stewart against Baylor, but is listed alone atop the depth chart this week. Still, all three of Rice’s passing touchdowns have been thrown by Stewart, so don’t be totally shocked if both end up playing.
Rice leans heavily on Aston Walter in the run game. The senior has 56 carries for 181 yards and a touchdown. His 56 carries accounts for about 42% of Rice’s rushes, so expect to see plenty of Walter.
Tech running back Justin Henderson had a breakout performance last week and now leads the team in both rushing yards and touchdowns. He had more yards against FIU than he had all of last year, making him the surprise weapon so far for the Bulldogs.
All in all, this game is a hard one to read. It would be easy to say the 3-1 team should win easily against the 0-4 team. But don’t be surprised if Tech finds it a little tougher to score than it has the past two weeks. The question will be how Rice’s offense fairs against the Tech defense.
Tech’s defense has had to bail the Bulldogs out a few times over the past two years. If they wish to avoid the upset in Houston, they may have to do so again in what could be a fairly low-scoring game.