After an 0-9 start with many close heartbreakers, Rice finally learned how to win last November. The Owls ended Mike Bloomgren’s second year at the helm by winning three consecutive games to piece together the program’s longest winning streak since 2014.
Now, Rice aims for another goal which hasn’t been attained since 2014 — finishing with a winning record. With a veteran defense returning to campus, a transfer quarterback ready to ignite the offense, and a group of players with a strong understanding of Bloomgren’s system, the Owls can pose as legitimate C-USA contenders in 2020. It will be an abbreviated season, but Rice is currently favored in all six matchups so there is sense of promise exuding from Southeast Texas as football season approaches.
The road back to the gridiron
For all C-USA teams slated to play in the fall of 2020, the Owls will be the last team to take the field. Rice originally delayed its season until Sept. 26, but concerns about COVID-19 and the need for improved rapid testing delayed practices in mid-September. Without a substantial amount of practices to be game-ready in early October, the Owls’ Oct. 3 game against Marshall and Oct. 10 game against UAB were postponed with no official makeup dates announced.
Now, Rice opens at home Saturday against Middle Tennessee. There will be a stark variance in 2020 in-game experience in the Owls’ season debut, considering the Blue Raiders have six games under their belt already. But after a month of practices following the delay, Rice is finally in physical condition to throw on the pads and begin another football season.
Rice’s offense was a work-in-progress in its 3-9 campaign last season. The Owls registered under 18 points per game, ranking 123rd in the country in that regard. Moving the ball downfield was one of the Owls’ glaring issues. Rice started three different quarterbacks, and only once did a quarterback eclipse 200 passing yards in a game — Tom Stewart threw for 222 yards and three touchdowns in the Owls’ first win of the season at Middle Tennessee. Stewart, the primary starting quarterback from last year, is gone but Rice has a promising graduate transfer quarterback lined up as the successor.
Mike Collins joined the program last December after transferring from TCU, where he started four games. He competed against redshirt freshman JoVoni Johnson in a position battle in fall camp and was officially named the starter on Saturday, Oct. 10. Bloomgren saw a lot of promise on film when recruiting Collins in the transfer market, but the senior has performed above expectations since joining the Owls’ quarterback room.
“You watch what he did at TCU when he’s playing teams like Oklahoma and you get excited because he doesn’t look out of place — he looks like he’s giving a Big 12 team a chance to win against Oklahoma,” Bloomgren said. “He has probably exceeded what we’ve seen on film. If he can play this way in football games, I think we’re all gonna have a lot of fun Saturdays because he’s a guy whose elevated our offense and keeps elevating his own play.”
Collins faced the challenge of adjusting from a spread, 4-receiver scheme at TCU to Bloomgren’s pro-style offense at Rice. Moving 260 miles south within the Lone Star State, Collins looks to find success under center as a full-time starter under a new scheme.
“It was definitely an adjustment in the spring with the whole operation of everything,” Collins said. “Coming into the spring, your head’s kind of spinning running a whole new offense. At TCU, I had no job in protection and now I’ve gotta be able to protect myself and make the right checks and everything.”
He will be operating without the team’s leader in receiving yards and touchdowns from a year ago. Due to a recent surgery, 2019 All-C-USA honorable mention wide receiver Brad Rozner elected to opt of the season. Rozner materialized into the team’s top deep threat last season, so that void will have to be filled by another receiver on the depth chart. August Pitre III is the likely candidate, ranking third on the Owls in receptions and yardage last season.
But even with the absence of Rozner there’s veteran experience at the receiver position. Austin Trammell, the team’s return specialist and receptions leader from 2018 and 2019, provides a reliable set of hands to the offense. The senior captain has been Rice’s go-to on tunnel and bubble screens over the past two seasons, and his veteran leadership should be instrumental in elevating the rest of the inexperienced receiving corps.
Another one of Collins’ targets poised for a breakout season on the Owls’ pro-style offense is tight end Jordan Myers. The former running back corralled a career-best 16 receptions in 2019, good for 123 yards. But Myers is more than a pass catcher. He was a valuable contributor on special teams and a solid run blocker, allowing him to receive high praise from Bloomgren entering his senior year.
“If you don’t know how I feel about Jordan Myers, let me tell you. He can do everything and everything well, and he showed us that again,” Bloomgren said after a practice earlier this month.
Rice’s running back depth took a major hit this offseason, as the team’s three leading rushers from the position graduated since the conclusion of 2019. The ground game will be headlined by Juma Otoviano, who made appearances in three games toward the end of last season. Otoviano ranked third on the team in rushing as a freshman in 2018 with 364 yards at a 5.6 yards per carry rate.
Rice traditionally spreads with the wealth in the run game without a workhorse running back, so freshman Khalan Griffin may also make a splash at the position after many valuable showings in practice over the past month.
“I don’t know if there’s anything typical about this kid,” Bloomgren said of Griffin. “He’s got a lot of juice that people feed off of in the huddle. He’s got a magnetic personality and is not afraid to use his voice. The way he speaks with his pads means the most to me. He runs violent, he runs angry every time he gets the ball, and he’s been great with ball security.”
Opposing C-USA offenses lost their groove when pitted up against the Owls in 2019. Marshall and Southern Miss only scored 20 apiece, Seth Littrell’s air raid at North Texas managed just 14 points, and Louisiana Tech contributed just 17 points in regulation at Rice Stadium last fall. Rice even shut down Big 12 runner-up Baylor to only 21 points, in a defensive battle decided by one possession last September. Despite a 3-9 record, the Owls allowed under 26 points a game and finished 52nd in the FBS in scoring defense.
Rice is a viable candidate to have the best defense in C-USA in 2019, and nearly the entire unit is back. The Owls’ suffered two notable losses in defensive tackle Myles Adams (graduated) and defensive end/outside linebacker Anthony Ekpe (transferred to Ball State). Otherwise, the gang is back and ready to clamp up offenses again in 2020.
Rice does most of its defensive damage in the front seven. Outside linebacker Blaze Alldredge is the leader of that unit, and he’s one of the best defenders in all of college football. Alldredge appeared on every award watchlist a collegiate linebacker can attain (Bednarik, Nagurski, Butkus), and he is a well-deserving candidate. In 2019, Alldredge became accustomed to opposing backfields with 21.5 tackles for loss, a number which ranked second in the entire FBS. Alldredge’s 102 tackles were sixth in the conference, and he was the team’s leader in sacks in 2019 with four. Adding an element of coverage to his game is a focus of Alldredge’s this season, and Bloomgren has full faith in his skillset in that area.
“Blaze has been solid in coverage,” Bloomgren said. “There’s some backers that don’t run enough to cover so you blitz them. Blaze is not that case. Blaze can do it all on the defensive side of the ball for us. If you go back to his sophomore year... he made the bold statement, ‘I’m going to lead this team in interceptions.’ I do love any time he’s on the field because of the tempo at which he plays and the way he pursues the ball no matter what the play is.”
The team’s second and third ranked tacklers from 2019 will line up side-by-side with Alldredge. Inside linebacker Antonio Montero shined with 83 tackles and five tackles for loss in 2019 while outside linebacker Treshawn Chamberlain made his mark as a solid coverage linebacker and a capable run stopper.
There is no shortage of experience on the defensive line, even with the team’s star Adams moving on from the program. But more sacks will be demanded from the unit going forward. Rice finished 10th-to-last nationally in sacks per contest in 2019, but the solution to that issue should come in the form of Ikenna Enechukwu. After producing 4.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman, Enechukwu has taken major strides in practice to prove he’ll be a force as a sophomore, recording as many as eight sacks in a single scrimmage.
“I worked on a lot of moves and I know what my bread and butter is and at this point, I know exactly how I can get (to the backfield),” Enechukwu said. “My teammates can get more sacks too if I draw more attention to myself.”
In the secondary, the safety tandem of George Nyakwol and Naeem Smith features two formidable hitters. Nyakwol and Smith ranked fourth and fifth, respectively, in tackles last year trailing only the linebacking corps. The duo also combined for nine pass breakups and three interceptions and performed well in defending slot receivers and opposing tight ends. Rice’s pass defense allowed 242 yards per game last season, but the unit was solid at keeping opponents out of the end zone, yielding just 1.5 touchdown receptions per game.
The defense’s greatest setback in 2019 was the inability to produce turnovers. Rice was one of 10 FBS teams to record fewer than one takeaway per contest. The Owls averaged one interception for every two games they played and only recovered 0.4 fumbles per game. The offense will need turnovers for advantageous field position opportunities, and the defense has to crank up the aggressiveness in 2020 to ensure those momentum swings occur.
- Sat, Oct. 24 — vs. Middle Tennessee
- Sat, Oct. 31 — @ Southern Miss
- Sat, Nov. 7 — vs. UTSA
- Sat, Nov. 14 — @ Louisiana Tech
- Sat, Nov. 21 — @ North Texas
- Sat, Nov. 28 — vs. UTEP
Could Rice finish its 6-game slate undefeated? ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) likes the odds. The FPI currently projects the Owls to have a 60 percent chance or greater of winning five of six games on the schedule and a 51 percent chance of avenging Louisiana Tech on the road in Ruston. Rice hasn’t won more than three games since 2015, but the Owls are expected to end that streak even in a 6-game schedule.
Rice’s defense was potent enough for the program to win C-USA in 2019, but the offense lacked the production required. The Owls did not get blown out once in conference play, and a 35-20 road loss to UAB stood as their most lopsided loss to a C-USA opponent. Most importantly, Rice finally learned how to win games and established a winning culture at the end of the season. Although the pandemic has stifled a lot of the momentum, the 3-game streak from 11 months ago is alive and remembered by the veteran members of the team.
The Owls suffered through seven scoreless halves last season, and even without Rozner, that offensive futility is likely in the past. The unit should take a considerable leap forward with Collins at quarterback and growth from skill players including Otoviano, Griffin, and Myers. Bloomgren has improved the program in each of his two years as the head coach, and that trend will continue once again. With Alldredge and a stacked front seven leading the way, Rice finishes as one of the top two teams in the C-USA West and will compete with UAB for a spot in the C-USA title game.
Regular season prediction: 5-1