Time and Date: Saturday, December 12 at 1:00 p.m. ET
Location: Rice Stadium — Houston, TX (fans permitted for first time this year)
Spread: UAB (-7)
ESPN FPI: UAB has 69.7% chance to win
All-time series: UAB leads, 5-3
Last meeting: UAB 35, Rice 20 — October 5, 2019
Current series win streak: UAB, 2
UAB Blazers outlook
UAB (4-3, 2-1 C-USA) is one victory away from its third consecutive C-USA Championship Game appearance. After not fielding a football team in 2015 and 2016, Bill Clark continues to take his reborn Blazers to new heights, and he’s on the fringe of securing the program’s fourth consecutive winning season since the 2017 return.
When the Blazers line up for the opening kick Saturday, it will be their first game action in 42 days. UAB has not played since the final day of October, when it squandered a 14-point fourth quarter deficit and dropped a heartbreaker to Louisiana Tech in double overtime. That stands as the team’s lone conference loss in 2020, and the Blazers are in a win-and-in scenario this weekend for the C-USA title game. Should UAB fall on the road to Rice, UTSA (7-4, 5-2 C-USA) will represent the West division in the conference championship against Marshall.
No team has ever appeared in three consecutive C-USA Championship Games, but UAB is aiming to make history this Saturday after owning the West crown the past two seasons. Despite having four fewer conference games in the books than UTSA, the Blazers can regroup after a six week hiatus and achieve one of their preseason goals.
“Our team is ready to go and play,” Clark said. “It is what it is, as we all say now. All we have asked for is a chance to play for this third straight west division championship.”
With conference championship hopes on the line, UAB will walk into battle shorthanded with roughly 40 scholarship players suiting up.
“Probably twelve guys that start or play a lot,” Clark said on how many absences there will be this weekend. “I have said this before, in a normal year, that is a big deal. You lose those depth guys with the opt-outs and some of those. That is what makes it tough.”
One of the primary absences is standout wide receiver Austin Watkins, who leads UAB in receptions and yards this season.
“I was very disappointed that we couldn’t finish up with just a few weeks left,” Clark said. “With that said, what a great job he did for us. Just to see him grow as a player and as a person who came and worked hard for us, who trained, who competed. I am hopeful for his opportunities as he moves forward. I know he is going to get those. I wish him nothing but the best.”
The Blazers will turn to Myron Mitchell as the lead wideout to bolster the receiving game. Mitchell impressed early in the season with a season-high 117 receiving yards against Miami (FL). After two combined catches in UAB’s last two games, Mitchell aims to ramp up his own production and shine in Watkins’ absence.
He’ll be working in conjunction with either Bryson Lucero or Tyler Johnston III at quarterback. Johnston started the first two games of the season but suffered a shoulder injury in mid-September. While Lucero has started every game since, Johnston saw a considerable amount of snaps in the Oct. 31 matchup with Louisiana Tech. Both quarterbacks have been practicing and will be available for Saturday’s high stakes C-USA clash.
Overcoming Rice defense
Faced against an undefeated, unblemished Marshall team without a close game on its résumé, Rice’s defense did the unthinkable. The Owls shut the Thundering Herd out in Huntington, WV, and forced five interceptions in the 20-0 victory. Now, UAB must face the relentless defense coming off one of the best performances in college football all season.
“Their defense is probably as good as we have seen,” Clark said. “They play hard. They are good tacklers. They play a lot of man coverage and look a lot like us.”
The Owls field one of the top defenses in college football by a variety of metrics. They rank 14th in fewest points allowed per game, 17th in fewest first downs allowed, and create turnovers at the sixth highest rate in the country. The unit always starts out on fire, allowing zero combined points on opponents’ opening drives this year.
Rice’s run defense hasn’t been shakeable due to the prowess of its front seven, but UAB presents a viable counter in running back Spencer Brown. Brown entered 2020 as the all-time leading rusher at UAB and the senior is thriving once again in the backfield with 10 rushing touchdowns and four games of over 120 yards this season. This will be Brown’s fourth battle against the Rice defense, and he had his way in 2017 with 140 yards and three touchdowns on the Owls. The veterans on the Rice defense understand Brown’s legacy at his university and the danger he represents in the rushing attack.
“Spencer’s so talented,” Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren said. “We’re gonna have to do an unbelievable job corralling that dude. Luckily, I have all the confidence in the world in our D-line and our linebackers. But it is a great challenge because he’s a great back.”
Rice outside linebacker Blaze Alldredge will have a must-see matchup with Brown. Alldredge is one of the premier linebackers in the FBS and the reigning C-USA Defensive Player of the Week, recognized for 10 tackles and one interception against Marshall.
“I think the biggest thing I see when I see that I won that award is that we had a dominant team win,” Alldredge said. “I’ve had better individual performances but it doesn’t mean anything when you get the W.”
Strong safety Naeem Smith is another key cog in Rice’s defense. After sitting nearly the entire season with a hamstring injury, the senior made a triumphant return to the gridiron with a pick-six and three tackles at Marshall. Smith’s entrance into the lineup improved the pass defense last week and UAB’s quarterbacks must be wary of the ballhawking safety.
“I’m so excited my roommate Naeem was able to come back and make some history for us,” Alldredge said. “He’s just a perfect personification of what we want to be about here. The guy works harder than anybody I know, never complains, and has been a really big piece in this defense that we’ve been missing.”
Rice Owls outlook
Rice football is building something special. The Owls enjoyed their most significant win of the Mike Bloomgren era, knocking off undefeated Marshall on the road last Saturday. The 20-0 victory served as Rice’s first ranked win since 1997 and first shutout victory since 1995 — combine the two and it’s the Owls’ first shutout over a ranked opponent since 1960.
The Owls were named the FWAA Reveal Suits National Team of the Week as a result of their unforgettable performance.
“I’m proud of all those things, proud of what we did, proud of how we went out there and played aggressive and confident for four quarters,” Bloomgren said. “I thought we were exactly who we wanted to be, on brand — intellectual brutality — pound the rock, control the clock, and play great defense.”
After a landmark upset for the program, Rice can clinch its first season with a .500 or better record since 2014 if it knocks off UAB at home. This will be the second home game for the Owls this season, and for the first time, general attendance is permitted at Rice Stadium.
“There’s a lot of excitement around us,” Bloomgren said. “Right now, we can go 3-2 in our conference and be the third team in the West, and that would be a great step for our program.”
Building on signature victory
After shutting out Marshall, Rice is now cognizant that it can take down any team in its conference, especially considering the Owls were missing several key pieces for the game last Saturday.
“You’re going in to play the No. 1 team in the conference, No. 15 team in some of the polls in America without your starting quarterback, without your starting running back, and without your leading receiver,” Bloomgren said. “Our guys didn’t blink. They embraced the opportunity and saw the results right there. I asked them to have unwavering belief in themselves and each other, and that’s what you saw.”
While the focus remains on UAB this week, the Owls hope to direct the national attention into momentum needed to knock off UAB. After having zero wins against .500 and above teams since 2014, Rice can deliver two such victories in a two-week span.
“(Marshall) was an absolutely huge win, but we know that game, as good as we played, it won’t give us any points on the scoreboard, it won’t have any stops on defense or an interception,” Bloomgren said. “We have to go earn that this week and do the process that we know that works every day in practice to have the result we want this Saturday.”
What to expect offensively
Rice was forced to battle Marshall without its starting quarterback Mike Collins, primary running back Juma Otoviano, and star wide receiver Austin Trammell. The status of the triumvirate is unknown at the moment, but Rice was pleased by the performances of the players that stepped into those starting roles in the shutout last Saturday.
Through three games, Collins has been Rice’s best downfield passer in quite some time. The TCU transfer has 10 touchdown passes compared to one interception this season, issuing 327 passing yards in his most recent showing. If Collins is unable to return, JoVoni Johnson will earn his second consecutive start. The redshirt freshman displays impressive mobility and he perfected the screen game last week with 10 completions for 86 yards on 14 attempts.
“(Johnson) was a real field general. He came in, did everything that he needed to do, really got us right with all of our different assignments and making sure everybody was locked in and focused,” offensive tackle Jovaun Woolford said. “And also, he was a real contributor to that ‘juice’ factor.”
Otoviano, when healthy, has served as Rice’s workhorse back this year. He averaged nearly 100 yards per game in two appearances, but the Owls have been sharp at controlling the clock with a power running game in his absence. Halfbacks Khalan Griffin and Ari Broussard will split carries if Otoviano is sidelined again. Regardless of who is back there, the offensive line is fully confident that it can control the line of scrimmage against a worthy UAB front that forces 6.7 tackles for loss per game.
“Marshall had a great offensive line. UAB has a great offensive line. We’re gonna take the same things that we did last week, change up the scheme, and do the same thing this week,” Woolford said. “Whoever you put in front of us, that’s who we’re gonna go hit and we’re gonna go make it happen.”
In the receiving game, Austin Trammell presents a real challenge to UAB’s cornerbacks if he returns to the lineup. Trammell accumulated 335 yards on 20.9 yards per reception in three games, scoring three touchdowns in the process. Formerly a great option on screen passes, Trammell has expanded his range to become a lethal deep threat this season.
His partner-in-crime, wide receiver Jake Bailey, is molding into a strong second option. Bailey has 11 catches for 131 yards and one touchdown in his past two contests and was responsible for 70 percent of completed passes against the Thundering Herd. With limited receiver depth on Rice’s roster, Bailey lined up in many 1-receiver sets last week. If Trammell is unable to go, the Owls may revert to its classic power bunch formations.
“I lived that way for a couple years at Stanford,” Bloomgren said. “We didn’t have a whole lot of receivers on that field, hardly ever. Oftentimes, we didn’t have one receiver on the field. It’s a different world. It’s not exactly how we want to live, but we’ll take it. Whatever we’re dealt, we’re gonna do — that’s our job as coaches, to provide the best scheme possible.”
Rice has played well in the spoiler role in the Mike Bloomgren era. Last season, the Owls ended the bowl eligibility chances for North Texas and Middle Tennessee toward the end of the season, and last week, the Owls terminated Marshall’s New Year’s Six bowl hopes. With UAB playing for a conference championship appearance, Rice will turn to that role once again.
For just the second time this season, the Owls will play in back-to-back weeks. Last time they did, improvements were noticeable across the board, especially on the defensive end. After a stellar showing in the shutout win over Marshall, expect Rice’s defense to stay in that groove, especially against a potentially-rusty UAB squad that hasn’t taken the field in six weeks.
Prediction: Rice 27, UAB 23