We’ve heard the phrase “unprecedented times” on countless occasions over the last several months.
Rice and Southern Miss prepare to settle a C-USA West battle in Hattiesburg, MS, this Saturday afternoon, but both programs have witnessed an unfathomable occurrence over the past week. For Rice, the team’s game-winning field goal attempt last Saturday resulted in a “quadruple doink”, colliding with the uprights four times before falling out. Middle Tennessee won in double overtime.
Meanwhile, Southern Miss already moved onto its third coach of the season. Jay Hopson stepped down from his head coaching role one game into the year and 30-year old co-offensive coordinator Scotty Walden assumed interim duties. Walden then tested positive for COVID-19 and missed last Saturday’s game against Liberty. But Walden’s absence will be extended from one game to perpetuity after news broke Tuesday that he accepted a head coaching job at Austin Peay in the FCS.
Former defensive coordinator Tim Billings took the head coaching reigns in Southern Miss’ 56-35 defeat at Liberty. Billings now retains the role for the foreseeable future after Walden’s sudden departure.
Fixing defensive errors
Rice isn’t too familiar with the concept of the offensive shootout in the Mike Bloomgren era. The Owls’ hadn’t witnessed a game as high-scoring as their 40-34 loss to Middle Tennessee in C-USA play since Nov. 11, 2017 vs. Southern Miss. Rice played sound defense throughout 2019 while allowing under 24 points per game against conference opponents. After dropping its opener in shootout fashion, Rice needs to eradicate the defensive rust in preparation for Southern Miss.
“There’s not a lot of things you can do to prepare for the speed of the game,” outside linebacker Blaze Alldredge said. “Coach Bloom always says the biggest jump in improvement goes from week one to week two, and I have to agree with him and I think we’re gonna see that.”
Containing Middle Tennessee on 3rd and long scenarios was the most problematic aspect of Rice’s season opening loss. The Blue Raiders converted all all three 3rd downs with 10 or more yards to go, averaging nearly 28 yards per play in such situations.
“We didn’t get off the field on 3rd and long, and that was a big deal,” head coach Mike Bloomgren said. “That’s obviously very disappointing when your defense plays so well on the base downs and you can’t get off the field. We’re addressing it in every way that we can and part of it will be getting more people back on the back end.”
The unavailability of starting safeties Naeem Smith and George Nyakwol in the opener certainly affected Rice’s execution in coverage. Smith has been out with a hamstring injury for three months and is listed as day-to-day. After finishing fifth on the team in tackling and tied for first in the interceptions department in 2019, Smith’s potential return could play a vital role in Hattiesburg for a veteran defense returning nine of 11 starters.
One of those familiar starters, outside linebacker Blaze Alldredge, delivered a statement in his season debut by registering 13 tackles and a clutch sack on third down in overtime. Despite the individual accomplishments, Rice allowed its most points to a C-USA opponent since 2018 and Alldredge hopes the defense applies mistakes caught on film to the upcoming game.
“We talked about the long third downs we gave up,” Alldredge said. “What really hurt us is that we approached it with the mindset that we can give up some yards, but we can’t give up the big shot. That’s just the wrong mentality for us to have. That’s not who we are. We’re aggressive, we’re dominant, and just taking our foot off the gas pedal at all is just not who we are.”
M.M. Roberts Stadium in Hattiesburg holds sentimental value to Alldredge. It’s where the All-C-USA linebacker made his first start back in 2018. In the contest, he registered nine tackles and intercepted a pass. Alldredge is still awaiting his first interception since that late September day.
The Owls did not manage an interception in Week 8 and finished in the lower quartile of the FBS in that aspect last season. Turnovers go hand-in-hand with pressuring the quarterback, but improvement in the pass rush was evident Saturday. Only eight teams finished with fewer sacks per game than Rice in 2019, but the Owls produced three sacks against mobile quarterback Asher O’Hara. Rice hopes its elevated defensive line production can sustain and affect the turnover battle this weekend.
“Trey Schuman, Kenneth Orji, and Garrett Grammer all stepped up with sacks and I think that’s a step in the right direction,” Alldredge said. “A mentality of relentless pursuit and passion after the passer is what we need and I think it’s going to result in more turnovers and a better result on third down for us.”
This upcoming matchup features two defenses allowing at least 40 points per game, but there’s one major difference. Rice has a limited sample size of one game, while Southern Miss’ woes have accumulated over a span of five contests. Of all teams with multiple games under their belt, the Golden Eagles’ 43.2 points yielded per game are the fourth highest in the FBS.
Southern Miss allowed Liberty quarterback Malik Willis to enjoy a near-perfect offensive performance last Saturday. Willis accumulated 442 total yards of offense and seven touchdowns in the 56-35 result.
“Too many explosive plays, gave up too many missed tackles early,” defensive coordinator Tony Pecoraro said of the Liberty result. “As far as playing the run game, I thought we did decent but the quarterback scrambles and too many plays on the back end resulted in too many points.”
The Southern Miss defense has performed below expectations this season, but the Golden Eagles allowed just six points in their 2019 meeting with Rice. The Owls pro-style offense may not be the most explosive in the conference, but the Rice’s balanced attack showed increased signs of potency in its opener. However, it is just one game of film and much still remains to be discovered about the Owls. Southern Miss began its 2020 campaign Sept. 3, while Rice opened Oct. 24, creating a major discrepancy in the amount of tape available on each program.
“It is what it is. It’s 2020, man!” Pecoraro said. “We’ve really gotta do a good job of looking at last year’s film. It’s the same coordinator. It’s the same head coach. Philosophically, they’ll probably be very similar.”
It’s a new era of Rice football from an aerial standpoint. While quarterback Mike Collins did not enjoy an ideal start to his Owls’ debut — connecting on two of his first 10 attempts and hampered by an interception — he rebooted in the second half and provided the best passing performance by a Rice quarterback since 2018.
“I think I got a little overexcited going into the game and just tried to do too much instead of taking what they were giving me,” Collins said. “Unfortunately I didn’t put us in position to win the game, but this week I will.”
An Owl quarterback eclipsed the 200-yard single game passing mark on one occasion in 2019. Collins managed to total 242 yards through the air while firing four touchdowns, the most a Rice quarterback has delivered since 2016. The TCU transfer completed 16 of his final 25 passes, spearheading a 15-point comeback to take a lead on the Owls’ final possession in regulation. Despite Collins stating the offense left too many points on the board, he guided Rice to its highest scoring output in the Mike Bloomgren era.
Southern Miss will have starting quarterback Jack Abraham back in the mix Saturday. Abraham missed last Saturday’s game at Liberty due to contracting COVID-19. In his place, Tate Whatley started and completed 15/26 passes for 188 yards in the 21-point loss. Abraham, one of the most accurate passers in college football, is planning a return to the field and hoping to build on the fireworks show he created at North Texas in his most recent showing. Still, the starter has yet to be determined but Southern Miss is confident in either signal caller taking the field in Hattiesburg.
“We’ve got two guys, whatever their statuses are this week, that we can move the ball with and give us a chance to win a football game,” offensive coordinator Matt Kubik said.
Skill Position Stars
There is no shortage of capable skill position players in this matchup.
Rice senior wideout Austin Trammell wasn’t targeted once in the first half of the Middle Tennessee contest. On the final drive in regulation, he took complete charge of the game and handed Rice its first lead of the second half — a 34-31 advantage with less than a minute left. Trammell out-ran the coverage on a 48-yard reception on 4th and 24. One play later, he adjusted mid-play to a lob toward the end zone, stepping in front of Middle Tennessee defenders to corral a 25-yard touchdown. Then he capped off his proficient stretch by catching the 2-point conversion pass from Collins.
“He can practically do anything,” Collins said of Trammell. “The 2-point play, I knew he was gonna be open. I knew he was gonna be in the right spot — the same thing on the touchdown play too. It’s huge being able to rely on a guy like that and I know Southern Miss is probably gonna have a plan from him.”
Rice’s receptions leader from the opener was its Swiss army knife. Jordan Myers lines up all over the field — at his primary position of tight end, at wide receiver, and even as a running back in short-yardage situations. Myers caught six passes on seven targets Saturday and rushed for two first downs in power running schemes.
“Jordan plays on every special teams, he’s been voted a captain by his peers on our team and that should tell you alone how special this team feels Jordan is,” Bloomgren said. “In addition to catching all those things, making unbelievable blocks on the perimeter, being selfless on special teams and making play after play, he’s also diving over the top and selling out with his body on short-yardage and goal line situations.”
On the other side, Southern Miss is loaded at wide receiver. Reigning All-C-USA selection Tim Jones hasn’t played since Sept. 19 due to a hamstring injury, but Jones averaged 149.5 receiving yards per game in limited action. His likelihood to return to the lineup increases with each passing week, but Southern Miss has enjoyed a formidable duo of junior college transfers in Jones’ absence. Jason Brownlee is the dangerous deep threat with team-highs in yards (415) and touchdowns (4), while Demarcus Jones ranks first on the team in receptions and serves as a lethal weapon in on screens.
“When Tim went down, they were looking for someone to step up and take advantage of the opportunity, and that’s what I had to do,” Brownlee said. “I try to make the best of it until Tim comes back.”
Southern Miss is also experiencing more success with the rushing attack in recent weeks. Freshman halfback Frank Gore Jr. has improved from week-to-week. After 79 combined rushing yards in his first three games, Gore exploded for 209 yards on 5.5 yards per carry in his past two games.
“He’s probably the oldest true freshman I’ve ever been around in terms of his work ethic, how he handles preparation in practice,” Kubik said. “He’s just got a natural feel for those little creases... He’s not physically the biggest back in the world but he’s tough to tackle and does a great job running behind his pads.”
Time and Date: Saturday, October 31 at 3:00 p.m. ET
Location: M.M. Roberts Stadium — Hattiesburg, MS
Spread: Southern Miss (-1.5)
ESPN FPI: Southern Miss has 50.9% chance to win
All-time series: Southern Miss leads, 6-4 (Golden Eagles have won 5 straight)
Last meeting: Southern Miss 20, Rice 6 — October 26, 2019
Southern Miss presents a lot of offensive firepower, but Rice holds the superior defense in this contest. The score will meet somewhere in the middle in a back-and-forth track meet.
Rice’s key to the game revolves around the turnover battle. The Owls lost 3-1 in that area last week and must focus on elevating pressure on Southern Miss’ quarterbacks in order to amplify the takeaway count. Southern Miss’ key involves moving away from the run to open up the passing game. Rice may not allow the Golden Eagles’ running backs to produce at a high rate, but Middle Tennessee proved picking apart the Owls’ secondary can pave a pathway to victory.
Rice’s offense is miles improved from last year, and it should be able to go punch-for-punch with Southern Miss. Alldredge and the Owls’ front seven are an aggressive group and will be the deciding factor this Saturday.
Prediction: Rice 31, Southern Miss 28