When Rice and Middle Tennessee take the field Saturday in Houston, it will be unlike anything we’ve seen in the modern era of college football.
Middle Tennessee is already on the back-end of its schedule. The Blue Raiders (1-5, 1-3 C-USA) have played six games in 2020 with half of their conference games behind them. Meanwhile, Rice is set to make its long-awaited season debut in its latest start since 1912, the University’s first year in operation.
“I don’t know if it’s ever happened in college football before,” Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren said. “I don’t know which side of it is an advantage. We’ve got six games of film to watch on them. They’ve got zero on us. They don’t really know a lot about a lot of our personnel, some new cogs we put into this operation.”
Even though the lack of film Middle Tennessee has to study on Rice is disadvantageous for the Blue Raiders, they hold valuable in-game experience, a luxury yet to be enjoyed by the Owls.
“You say the biggest games you get in a year are game one to game two, and all the experience of playing those games,” Bloomgren said. “That’s an advantage for them, but the advantage for us would be that we’ve had so much time to talk about those situations and really hone in and walk through things that we’ve never been able to before, and we’re pretty healthy.”
The first two games of the season proved to be valuable learning experiences for Middle Tennessee. The Blue Raiders lost their initial matchups by a combined score of 89-14 before regrouping to show a competitive spirit on the field. In games 3-5, all were decided by three points or fewer, and the Blue Raiders came out with a much-needed victory over FIU. But the September version of Middle Tennessee returned last week, squandering a 7-point halftime lead to lose 31-7 in the final 60 minutes.
“We’ve got a good team. We’ve got good leadership on this team. This is a team that cares,” Middle Tennessee head coach Rick Stockstill said. “They’re not just going through the motions. They hurt like everybody does, they’re disappointed like we all are, but they come to work every day. They fight their guts off, we’re just not playing great right now.”
Back to November in the film room
With limited film from the 2020 season, Middle Tennessee has revisited the tape from the Nov. 19 game against Rice from a year ago, a 31-28 loss in Murfreesboro, TN.
“Last year, they were really big and physical defensively and they got a lot of good players back on that side of the ball,” Stockstill said. “They’ve also got a lot of new players on their team but we’ve got to be ready to make adjustments. You don’t know what you’re gonna get and they’ve got six games to study on us.”
Seeing Middle Tennessee back on the schedule invokes delightful memories within Rice’s locker room, however. After an 0-9 start to 2019, the Owls defeated the Blue Raiders to earn their first win of the season, which launched a 3-game win streak to finish the year. But the victory almost ended in disaster as Rice nearly let a 31-14 halftime lead evaporate in the final minutes. Rice hasn’t lost since.
“They did some great things defensively,” Bloomgren recalled on Middle Tennessee’s adjustments in last November’s matchup. “They made a couple adjustments and they played better and we played worse in that half. Part of it was on me. We were up 31-14 at half, I constricted things a lot for (offensive coordinator Jerry) Mack, and they hit a couple big plays, 31-28. The bottom line is we made plays in the 4-minute mindset to win the game and come out victorious.”
Hoping for a successful launch in Houston
One of the heroes from last year’s game will not be suiting up for Rice this season. Wide receiver Brad Rozner caught three touchdowns in his 130-yard outing against the Blue Raiders last November, but he elected to opt out of the season due to surgery. This forces senior wide receiver Austin Trammell to step up as the only returning starter at the position, and he will work closely with TCU transfer quarterback Mike Collins. Collins will be the sixth different quarterback to start in the season opener for Rice in six seasons, hoping to improve upon Rice’s 118th ranked passing offense from 2019.
Collins should receive the comfort of protection in the trenches in his Owl debut. The Rice offensive line returns four players that started a game in 2019 and adds graduate transfer Jovaun Woolford, who attained all-conference honors at the FCS level. As a strong run blocking unit last season, the Rice offense hopes the continuity of the unit can bolster the run blocking and pass protection in 2020.
“Whenever you get four, five guys that have played a lot of football together, you’re feeling like you got a chance to control the line of scrimmage,” offensive coordinator Jerry Mack said. “That’s where we’re at this year. These guys have really been in the system and they have a chance to go out there and make a difference.”
The most experience in Rice’s on-field personnel is on the defensive side of the ball. The Owls return nine starters from a year ago, including the entire secondary. Rice’s defense shined in 2019 with top 50 ranks in the scoring defense and rushing defense, elevating its play against C-USA opponents to allow just 23.4 points per game in league play.
While many facets of Rice’s defense excelled last season, the Owls still struggled assembling a pass rush and forcing turnovers. Rice checked in at 118th nationally in sacks per game and 121st in takeaways recorded. There has been considerable growth from the defensive line in camp, and the staff is excited about breakout players who can solve the Owls’ pressure issues.
“Kenneth Orji, another player who started for us last year, came on late in the year and he may be the most improved guy on our defense,” defensive coordinator Brian Smith said. “And maybe the biggest surprise for us has been Ikenna Enechukwu, who has had an outstanding training camp.”
Outside linebacker Blaze Alldredge is the star of the defense after finishing second in the FBS in tackles for loss a season ago. The Bednarik, Butkus, and Nagurski Award watchlist member stuffed the run with a team-high 102 tackles in 2019 and is back for another dominant campaign in 2020.
“(Alldredge) is up for a lot of awards this year and deservedly so,” Smith said. He works hard and he’s a leader for us in terms of work ethic and guys follow what he does.”
The second and third ranked tacklers on the team (Antonio Montero and Treshawn Chamberlain) are also back in the linebacking corps, and the fourth and fifth leading tacklers (George Nyakwol and Naeem Smith) are set to start at safety.
“We have a lot of experienced players that have played before,” Smith said. “I thought we made big strides from our first year here to last year, and I’m looking forward to the same kind of strides this year.”
Midseason adjustments in Murfreesboro
Middle Tennessee’s midseason focus involves amplifying the passing game. The Blue Raiders often keep things near the line of scrimmage and have yet to open the offense vertically. They’ve averaged under eight yards per passing attempt in all six games, finishing with 5.7 yards per dropback against North Texas last weekend.
Starting quarterback Asher O’Hara electrifies defenses on a weekly basis with his rushing ability, but Middle Tennessee needs O’Hara to rekindle that magic from last season as a passer. O’Hara averaged 7.8 yards per attempt and delivered 20 touchdowns compared to eight interceptions in 2019. This season, those numbers are at 6.3 yards per attempt with nine touchdowns and eight interceptions. By calling more aggressive plays in aerial department, Stockstill hopes his talented quarterback can revolutionize the offense at the season’s midway point.
“As much as anything, we’ve got to get explosive games in the passing game,” Stockstill said. “It’s so hard going six, seven, eight yards at a clip. Eventually, you’re going to make a mistake. North Texas had 19 explosive plays and we had 10, and seven of ours were in the running game.”
If there’s one positive from this season, it’s that Middle Tennessee’s backfield is miles ahead of where it was a season ago. The Blue Raiders’ leading running back registered just 290 rushing yards in 2019. After a breakout Saturday from running back Chaton Mobley (14 carries, 156 yards, one touchdown), Middle Tennessee is confident it can build on his production from the North Texas game.
“We’ve just gotta keep him with the ball in his hand a let him do his thing because he’s a really special player,” quarterback Asher O’Hara said. “I’ll always tell him before the game, ‘Just keep being you because I believe in you,’ because I trust him.”
Mobley was preparing to line up as an H-back prior to the season. But with two of Middle Tennessee’s running backs opting out of the season, Mobley assumed the role as the feature halfback. Still, he gained valuable experience from his time as an H-back as a route-runner and it’s paying dividends in the passing game as he has two receiving touchdowns in 2020.
“That was definitely a big deal from when I was working with him as one of my receivers,” O’Hara said. “Now he’s back at his normal running back spot, but he’s still got all the traits of being a great receiver. I know whenever I can get the ball to him in the passing situation that he’s gonna make a play.”
After seemingly turning the corner on defense in games 3-5, Middle Tennessee will have to readdress that area after yielding a season-worst 52 points to North Texas. The Blue Raiders also must prepare to face a rather unique scheme in Rice’s pro-style offense. The Owls averaged just 17.9 points per game last year, but Middle Tennessee allowed them to register a season-high 31 last November. In the rematch, the defense hopes it can stifle the unusual packages Rice throws at it Saturday.
“They were actually just good at what they did,” outside linebacker D.Q. Thomas said. “It was a little power running style, a lot different from what we see game-by-game. In this game, if we go out and stop them from making big plays and stop the run, it will be a different outcome.”
Time and Date: Saturday, October 24 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Location: Rice Stadium — Houston, TX
Spread: Rice (-3.5)
ESPN FPI: Rice has 90.2% chance to win
All-time series: Rice leads series, 1-0
Last meeting: Rice 31, Middle Tennessee 28 — November 19, 2019
Even in an unpredictable 2020, there seems to be a glimmer of hope in Houston, TX — a feeling that Rice is finally turning the corner in the Mike Bloomgren era. Given the circumstances, there’s not a more favorable way to start the season than on home turf against a 1-5 opponent.
Rice has health and film study in its favor, as well as new personnel which opponents aren’t prepared to face at the moment. After an ongoing quarterback carousel in 2019, Mike Collins looks destined to take the offense to new heights. But where Rice will make most of its damage is on the defensive end, especially by limiting the Middle Tennessee run game.
Due to the nature of Rice games, expect clock to quickly eat up in this game en route to a low-scoring finish. The Owls will win to start 1-0 and improve to 2-0 against the Blue Raiders all-time, pushing Middle Tennessee to its sixth loss of 2020.
Prediction: Rice 28, Middle Tennessee 16