Time and Date: Saturday, November 28 at 1:00 p.m. ET
Location: Rice Stadium — Houston, TX
Spread: Rice (-11.5)
ESPN FPI: Rice has 84.3% chance to win
All-time series: Series tied, 5-5
Last meeting: Rice 30, UTEP 16 — November 30, 2019
The last time Rice and UTEP settled it on the field at Rice Stadium, it was a historic victory for the squad from El Paso.
The Miners chalked up 20 consecutive losses heading into the game but bolted out to a 34-3 lead. Rice eventually provided a scare by cutting the deficit from 31 to 8, but UTEP prevailed and snapped the longest losing streak of the entire 2010s. Not only did the Miners shatter their own streak, but at the time, Rice became the new owner of the FBS’s largest skid with nine straight losses.
The Owls exacted revenge on the Miners last November in El Paso, but the series returns to the site of the memorable 2018 matchup.
Both Texas-based programs display similar trajectories. The Owls and Miners last qualified for bowl games in 2014 and have yet to finish above .500 since. In 2015, the C-USA West rivals each fell to 5-7 and have consistently registered between zero and four wins per season in each of the following years.
In 2018, Rice and UTEP each brought in a new coach to change the culture of the program and revert it back to its winning ways. The Owls hired Stanford offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren and the Miners brought in Kansas State offensive coordinator Dana Dimel. In year three, both teams are trending in the right direction, and one will be able to secure a .500 overall record after Saturday’s showdown in Houston.
One issue — this game is likely going to feature a downpour and potential thunderstorms.
Keeping the foot on the gas
Rice (1-2, 1-2 C-USA) has scored first in all three of its game this season. The Owls led Middle Tennessee 6-0, Southern Miss 16-0, and North Texas 10-0 before allowing its first point. But what separates a victory from a defeat for Rice depends on how the Owls handle the second and third quarters. Against Middle Tennessee and North Texas, they lost those two quarters by a combined score of 48-14, which heavily factored into the losses. Third periods have particularly been a struggle for Rice this year and the team has contributed a collective seven points in the third frame this season.
One of Rice’s major issues which has swung games this year is the lack of ball security. The Owls are tied with UCLA for fourth in the country in fumbles per game with 1.7. In all three contests this year, Rice has muffed a punt and the other team has capitalized with points stemming from the turnover.
“We know that turnovers are going to make a difference in Conference USA games, especially ones on the road where you’re evenly matched,” Bloomgren said. “I’ve never been a part of having three games in a row where you muff a punt. That is a horrible thing to be a part of. At the end of the day, we just have to make the decision that if we can’t cleanly catch it, then we just have to get the heck away from it.”
Air attack and sacks
Rice’s 2020 passing attack is a much more formidable unit than its predecessors in the Mike Bloomgren era. TCU transfer quarterback Mike Collins has been on a tear since he put on an Owls uniform and he is one of four FBS quarterbacks (along with Grayson McCall, Ian Book, and Kaleb Eleby) with as many as 10 touchdown passes with as few as one interception.
“Last year we were kind of in and out of quarterbacks,” wide receiver Jake Bailey said. “This year, Mike’s been really consistent and it’s been really fun getting in a rhythm with him and getting on the same page. He’s a pro. He takes every day seriously, wants to get better, wants to work, and it’s inspiring.”
Collins threw for a season-high 327 passing yards at North Texas last week and delivered two touchdown passes. Even with a successful day from Collins in the pocket, the passing attack suffered one major setback. The offensive line allowed seven sacks, preventing Rice from getting into an offensive rhythm and forcing the team into numerous down-and-distance scenarios. The seven sacks are more than double the amount Rice yielded in its first two games.
“We didn’t do a very good job protecting Mike on the field on Saturday, and he still wanted the ball in his hands,” Bloomgren said. “He was not towering or asking us to call runs. He wanted the ball in his hands and he wanted to win the game. That’s the mindset of a champion and that’s what we all want around us.”
UTEP is currently producing 1.7 per game, and nearly half of the Miners’ sacks are attributable to defensive end Praise Amaewhule. He chipped in 3.5 sacks earlier this season against Louisiana Tech, and Rice’s offensive line must target their blocking schemes to lock down the sophomore from Katy, TX.
“I see an improved team on defense. I see defensive linemen that are getting off blocks and a commitment to running to the football,” Bloomgren said. “When you see those things, you know they are getting coached well and doing some of the things that are changing a culture.”
Trammell headlines injury report
Even in a limited three game sample size, Austin Trammell has been one of the most effective wide receivers in the C-USA this season. The centerpiece of Rice’s offense, Trammell has caught nearly everything thrown his way. The senior captain is averaging 20.9 yards per reception, 111.7 yards and two touchdowns per game. So far, the only thing that has stopped Trammell is an injury last Saturday, which kept him out of practice earlier in the week. He will be a game-time decision for Rice.
“He was a warrior. He didn’t want to come off the field. He made some big plays for us, even down the stretch,” Bloomgren said. “He’s gonna be a game-time decision. I would bet on him because I know him and I know who he is and how he’s built. If there’s any way he can go, I bet he will.”
If Trammell isn’t ready to go, then Jake Bailey may emerge as the team’s top receiver. He attained career highs with four receptions and 80 yards against North Texas, and he caught his second touchdown pass as an Owl immediately after vomiting on the sidelines. Bailey, a sophomore, credits Trammell’s leadership for his increased success on the field this season.
“My development has been at a good place and I really have a lot of people to thank for that,” Bailey said. “Austin Trammell, having a leader like that and a mentor to learn under, day in and day out, a guy to watch how to be a pro and how to practice every single day — it’s truly a blessing.”
Another notable name on the injury report is starting running back Juma Otoviano, who accumulated 195 rushing yards in his first two games this season. He missed the North Texas game due to injury and true freshman Khalan Griffin took over, producing 72 yards in his starting debut.
“We thought the best bet was to go with Khalan on the day and Khalan played pretty well, but we expect Juma to keep getting treatment and he’ll be ready to go Saturday as well,” Bloomgren said on Otoviano’s status.
Lastly, starting safety Naeem Smith is practicing for the first time since Rice resumed play in October. Smith ranked fifth on the team in tackles in 2019 and tied for first in interceptions, and his presence could bolster Rice’s defense even further.
“It’s always great to see a guy that had that big of an impact on our defense last year back in the fold,” Bloomgren said. “Will he be 100 percent? Will he be ready this weekend? We’ll see.”
With three wins, UTEP (3-4, 0-3 C-USA) already has its greatest win total since 2016. Two of the Miners victories are over FCS teams, but still, taking down lower division opponents is progress for a program that fared 2-34 from 2017-19.
On Nov. 14, UTEP played its first game in 21 days against fellow Lone Star State rival UTSA. The Miners held a 21-17 lead within a minute of halftime, but the Roadrunners poured on 35 unanswered points to preserve a blowout victory. It was UTEP’s worst conference loss of the season, but the results in the other C-USA matchups have been promising — the Miners played Louisiana Tech within four points and Charlotte within 10.
“Coach Dimel’s done a great job with those guys,” Bloomgren said. “They’ve played through adversity just like everybody in America. I talk to coaches during game week now. I never would have done that in the past, but we talk about injuries and COVID tests and everything else, trying to make sure we can play the game, and me and Dana are committed into trying to make this work.”
Quarterback Gavin Hardison is in his first season as the starting quarterback, and he continues to be the mainstay that role as the season tapers to a close. Hardison’s second-ever collegiate game was against Rice last November. Even though he finished a rough 11/24 on the afternoon, his accuracy and yards per attempt numbers have noticeably improved across the board during his redshirt sophomore year.
With Hardison under center and Deion Hankins leading the backfield, UTEP ranks 84th nationally in passing offense and 108th in rushing. They’ll face one of the better front sevens in the C-USA when traveling to Rice’s territory.
“Honestly they have every type of run you can think of, so we have to understand how to get off blocks and make sure you can get off the double team at different levels,” defensive tackle De’Braylon Carroll said. “Staying in your gap — that’s really gonna be the big thing this week is staying in our gaps and playing downhill.”
This one will stay close in the early going, but once Mike Collins enters a groove with his receivers, Rice will pull ahead and maintain its advantage. The Miners are 110th in the FBS in scoring, and there’s no guarantee UTEP (327 yards per game) will be able to compete with Rice’s offense (404 yards per game), especially if skill position stars Juma Otoviano and Austin Trammell make appearances.
Rainy weather conditions may slow things down through the air, but Rice’s linebacker-led defense can limit the Miners’ 108th ranked rushing offense. With Blaze Alldredge and Antonio Montero leading the unit, the Owls will have a bounce-back performance after the disaster at North Texas. Rice wins its second in a row over UTEP and improves to .500 with a two-score victory.
Prediction: Rice 27, UTEP 16