Author’s Update — 11/6/2020 at 11:24 a.m. ET
Saturday’s game between Rice and UTSA has been postponed due to COVID-19 related issues within UTSA’s program.
Both universities with work with the C-USA in attempt to reschedule the game. Rice added postponed games from October against Marshall and UAB to its schedule in December earlier in the week. Now, the only shared open date for both programs is the weekend of the C-USA Championship Game, which transpires Saturday, Dec. 19 — a possible scheduling date if neither team qualifies for the conference title.
If the game is not rescheduled, this will be the first time UTSA did not square off against Rice since the Roadrunners joined the FBS in 2012.
Time and Date: Saturday, November 7 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Location: Rice Stadium — Houston, TX
Spread: Rice (-5)
ESPN FPI: Rice has 66.5% chance to win
All-time series: UTSA leads, 5-3
Last meeting: UTSA 31, Rice 27 — October 19, 2019
Rice won the initial three meetings in the in-state rivalry, from 2012-14. The Roadrunners are victors of each of the last five including a back-and-forth showdown in San Antonio last October. Most games between the C-USA West opponents are low-scoring with four of the eight matchups featuring under 28 combined points.
The Owls return home to Houston after their biggest statement victory of the Mike Bloomgren era. Rice pummeled Southern Miss 30-6 in Hattiesburg, MS, last Saturday, holding an opponent out of the end zone for the first time in six years. The 24-point margin of victory is Rice’s largest over an FBS team since the 2014 Hawaii Bowl and largest over a C-USA opponent since November 2013.
A new era of Rice offense
There is a stark contrast between Rice of years past and present-day Rice, and that difference resides on the offensive side of the ball. In Bloomgren’s first 25 games on campus, Rice only scored 30 or more points twice. Through two games in 2020, the Owls have reached that threshold both times, averaging a remarkable 32 points per game — nearly doubling the 17.9 scoring mark from a season ago.
Bloomgren attributes the revamped offensive production to his graduate transfer quarterback Mike Collins.
“Mike is the biggest change,” Bloomgren said. “It’s the best play we’ve had out of a quarterback in our time here. He was 12-of-17, but he was so efficient and there were three balls in the game that I thought were as big time as any that I’ve been around. Two rolling to his right, one on a designed naked to his right... and then the one to Trammell in the fourth quarter for our last touchdown was as well-placed of a ball as you can do on that concept.”
Collins has back-to-back 4-touchdown games through the air, something that hasn’t been done in a Rice uniform since Chase Clement in 2008. Collins’ 242 and 233 yard outings are higher than any quarterback attained in the 2019 season. After a 2/10 start in his first game, he eased into the role and has completed 28 of his last 42 attempts (66.7%). He attacks downfield well and completed three passes of 25 or more yards last Saturday, adding a dimension which was missing from Rice’s offense in 2019.
The title for C-USA’s best receiver may belong to Austin Trammell. The senior wide receiver guided Rice to a go-ahead drive against Middle Tennessee by catching a bomb on 4th and 24, following it up with a 25-yard touchdown reception, and finishing the trilogy by scoring on the 2-point conversion. Against Southern Miss, he was borderline unstoppable with seven receptions, 143 yards, and three touchdowns.
UTSA will have its hands full when guarding the talented route runner. Last October, Trammell attained his season-high in receptions against the Roadrunner defense, catching nine passes for 75 yards. The senior was one of three players to catch a pass for Rice last week, and the 109.5 yards per game receiver will be a key cog in Rice’s offense this weekend.
Defensive improvement from Game 1 to Game 2
The rust was present in the Owls’ opener on the defensive side of the ball. Rice allowed 40 points to Middle Tennessee in a heartbreaking overtime loss — breaking a 13-game streak of holding conference opponents under 40. But the aggressive, run-stopping Rice defense from 2019 made a triumphant return against Southern Miss in a performance better than ever before.
Rice stifled the Golden Eagles to 100 rushing yards at 3.6 yards per carry, forcing a fumble and turnover on downs when defending rushing plays. Linebackers Blaze Alldredge and Antonio Montero have been overwhelming for opposing running backs, recording 21 and 17 tackles on the season, respectively. This Saturday, the competition ramps up for Alldredge, Montero, and the run defense when facing UTSA running back Sincere McCormick, who leads the FBS with 921 rushing yards.
“Coach Bloom talked to them a lot about improving from Week 1 to Week 2 and I thought they did that. In Week 1, I don’t think we played very well defensively in situational football — on 3rd down and 2 minutes,” defensive coordinator Brian Smith said. “We’re doing a good job up front stopping the run and that’s making things a lot easier for us on the back end.”
Facing a stellar receiving trio at Southern Miss, Rice’s cornerbacks showed noticeable improvement from the opener to the second game. The secondary sliced the opposing passing output in half from 333 to 169. Miles McCord earned the game ball for recording an interception and tackle for loss, leading the young cornerback group in the road victory.
“Miles McCord played really well,” Smith said. “He got an interception and was physical in the run game which is something that we’ve challenged him with. You’re starting to see his confidence level start to grow. When you’re playing cornerback and playing back there in the secondary, confidence is a big thing.”
Rice will be without starting safeties George Nyakwol (shoulder) and Naeem Smith (hamstring) for the UTSA game, so the secondary must continue to sustain its level of play from Southern Miss when battling Joshua Cephus and the Roadrunner receiving group.
Through eight games, consistency has been hard to come by for Jeff Traylor’s Roadrunners. To be fair, that is a hard thing to accomplish when you’ve had four different quarterbacks attempt at least 25 passes.
While many programs across the nation have seen their rosters ravaged by Covid-19, the Roadrunners have instead struggled with traditional injuries, leaving Frank Harris and Jordan Weeks as the only remaining available quarterbacks on the roster with Division I experience. Josh Adkins and Lowell Narcisse both brought a vertical flair to the offense thanks to their passing prowess, and UTSA saw their absence severely limit the Roadrunners’ offense last week against FAU as the Owls loaded up the box and dared Frank Harris to win the game with his arm — a challenge the junior was unable to meet.
By completely selling out to prevent the run, FAU was the first opponent on UTSA’s schedule to really shut down the nation’s leading rusher Sincere McCormick. The explosive sophomore has amassed 171 carries through eight games, all without a bye week to give his body some rest. That’s a lot of punishment to take, so it will be interesting to see if McCormick loses any of his speed or power as this long season for UTSA drags on.
If UTSA is to rebound from their worst offensive performance of the season, they’ll need to clean up their pass protection after permitting five sacks against FAU last week. After finally getting their offensive line nearly 100% healthy, UTSA had to swap starting center Ahofitu Maka and starting right guard Kevin Davis due to a hand injury which prevented Maka from snapping the ball. This subtle change made a big difference for UTSA, as FAU was able to bring several successful blitzes right through the middle of the offensive line. UTSA should be a bit better in that regard this week, either thanks to Maka’s hand healing, or Davis getting his groove back at center after playing guard the past two seasons.
With the offense struggling a bit, UTSA’s defense continues to play solid football. The Roadrunners have held their last five opponents under 30 points, continuously improving their performance in the secondary.
A big reason for UTSA’s improved play in the secondary has been the rapid development of safety Antonio Parks and cornerback Ken Robinson.
Parks joined the program in 2019 after playing cornerback at Arizona for two years. After recording 10 tackles in 11 games last season, Parks has taken a big step forward in his senior season. With 33 tackles, 4 TFL, a forced fumble, and a game-winning interception to his name, the 5’9” defensive back has flourished since being placed in a starting role. Expect to see him continue to develop as his comfort level at the safety position catches up with his athletic ability.
Another breakout candidate, Ken Robinson missed the first three games of the season before playing his way into starting snaps in week six. Robinson was regarded as one of the starters coming out of fall camp, so getting him back on the field was a huge boon to the Roadrunner secondary.
The redshirt freshman has track speed, and plays much larger than his 5’11”, 170 pound frame. Despite the late start to his season, Robinson has totaled 17 tackles, one tackle for loss, and a forced fumble. Robinson is still looking for his first interception of the season, but with his tendency to blanket receivers that pick shouldn’t be too far away.
Players to Watch
Jordan Myers, TE, Rice: Myers is Rice’s Swiss army knife. Primarily a tight end, Myers lines up at wide receiver, fullback, halfback, and even fields punt returns. He led the Owls in receptions in the season opener and is frequently utilized to move the chains in short yardage situations. In four carries this year, he has recorded three first downs, assisting Juma Otoviano and Khalan Griffin in the C-USA’s third ranked rushing attack.
Ikenna Enechukwu, DE, Rice: While Rice presented a stout front seven in 2019, getting to the quarterback was an issue which prevented the unit from achieving its full potential. This year, Enechukwu has been a major disruptor on the defensive line, and while he has yet to record a sack, he applies considerable pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Enechukwu, who repeatedly dominated preseason scrimmages, was a reserve to start the season on the depth chart but now is listed as a potential starter for UTSA.
Brendan Brady, RB, UTSA: Sincere McCormick is obviously going to get the bulk of the carries for UTSA, but if Brady is able to spell McCormick for stretches then it will make the Roadrunners’ offense much better. Brady rushed for 52 yards on 11 touches in week one but was held out with injury until last week. Brady made a diving touchdown catch out of the backfield that was unfortunately called back due to a hold. The former Rice commit has the talent to make a huge impact if his health holds up.
Jamal Ligon, LB, UTSA: The Roadrunners are pretty thin at linebacker, with Jamal Ligon holding down the middle of the defense as a true freshman. Ligon has flashed sky-high potential this season, but we’ve also seen his lack of experience be exploited. The converted tight end/defensive end will likely be the focal point of UTSA’s defense as Rice looks for a potential upper hand in the run game.
Steve Helwick: Rice found its groove in the second half of Middle Tennessee and a quadruple doink is the only thing which has prevented a 2-0 record. The Owls have a very manageable schedule and after last week’s two-sided dominance at Southern Miss, I wouldn’t be surprised if they ran through the rest of their opponents. Rice has the tools to limit Sincere McCormick and Frank Harris from going berserk in the running game, and I trust the Mike Collins-Austin Trammell connection to give Rice an offensive edge in Houston this Saturday. Prediction: Rice 27, UTSA 16
Jared Kalmus: Eight straight weeks of hard-fought football games are taking their toll on UTSA, as this team is in desperate need of a respite. They probably won’t find one against a physical and well-coached Rice team. UTSA’s defensive line should match up pretty well against Rice’s bruising run game, but I’m not confident in the Roadrunners’ ability to generate big plays on offense to match the chunk yardage that Mike Collins and Austin Trammell will inevitably find through the air. Prediction: Rice 27 UTSA 20