The C-USA West is wide open and the Rice Owls proved they will be a factor in the competitive division race after the best performance of the Mike Bloomgren era.
After suffering a heartbreaking double overtime loss to Middle Tennessee in its season opener, an inspired Rice team entered Hattiesburg, MS, fixated on correcting the errors from a week ago. Bloomgren always emphasizes that the biggest jump in improvement is from game one to game two. That accelerated improvement was on full display in a 30-6 victory at Southern Miss — the program’s largest margin of victory over an FBS team since the 2014 Hawaii Bowl.
In the Bloomgren era at Rice (1-1, 1-1 C-USA), the defense always builds the foundation of success. That was the case Saturday as the unit shut down the Southern Miss (1-5, 1-2 C-USA) offense, a group which entered Saturday’s game averaging 30 points per game. A statement was made on the opening possession when Southern Miss cruised into the red zone but Rice recorded a vital stop on 4th and 2.
The Owls were especially sound in tackling their opponent, and they rarely let Golden Eagle ball carriers escape contact. The linebacking group led the way as usual, with Antonio Montero registering a team-high 10 tackles and Blaze Alldredge adding eight.
Even with the return of star wide receiver Tim Jones (entered Saturday averaging 149.5 receiving yards per game), the Golden Eagles didn’t reach the end zone once. Two second quarter field goals were responsible for their entire scoring output, and one of them was courtesy of a Rice muffed punt. Southern Miss committed three first half turnovers and Rice exchanged those miscues for 16 points.
Rice played solid defense in a handful of C-USA games last year, but the x-factor which makes the Owls a conference sleeper is their improved offense. After only breaking the 30-point barrier once last season, Rice has crossed that threshold two times in two outings.
TCU transfer quarterback Mike Collins sliced and diced the Southern Miss defense for four touchdown passes, the same number of touchdowns he fired a week ago. But this time, he his model accuracy complemented his scoring output. He completed 12 of his 17 attempts while averaging over 19 yards per completion.
Collins only connected with three different targets Saturday, and he performs best when aiming toward senior wide receiver Austin Trammell. The star wideout caught seven passes for 143 yards, and he exited Hattiesburg with a hat trick of touchdowns. Trammell jump-started the scoring barrage by catching an out route toward the sideline and dusting his defender, winning a footrace en route to a 72-yard touchdown.
The senior captain continued by out-muscling a Golden Eagle defender on a curl route and taking it in for a 13-yard touchdown in the second quarter. Then, in the final seven minutes, he put the finishing touches on the blowout with a 14-yard reception in the end zone.
On top of a successful demonstration through the air, Rice held firm in the run game. Redshirt sophomore running back Juma Otoviano recorded his first 100-yard rushing game since the 2018 finale against Old Dominion, while freshman secondary halfback Khalan Griffin provided a solid 41 yards off the bench. With an effective rushing attack and success through the air, Rice’s offense feels like a potent two-dimensional attack for the first time since the mid-2010s.
After Louisiana Tech’s overtime victory over UAB on Saturday, every C-USA West team has chalked up at least one loss in conference play. Under its second interim coach of the season in Tim Billings, Southern Miss picked up its second conference loss. The Golden Eagles are a rare program with four non-conference games on their 2020 schedule, and they will take a rest from C-USA play against FCS foe Northern Arizona next Saturday.
After dismantling Southern Miss on the road, Rice fully understands its balanced group is capable of competing for a division title. The Owls looked rusty defensively in their bizarre season debut loss to Middle Tennessee, but those imperfections were corrected and sharpened in a long-awaited blowout win. Rice aims to sustain the momentum from Hattiesburg when UTSA visits next Saturday.