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2021 Week 8 Preview: Rice Owls @ UAB Blazers

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The Owls attempt to recoup from the UTSA shutout against a stout UAB defense.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 05 Rice at UAB Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Game Notes

  • Time and Date: Saturday, October 23 at 3:30 p.m. ET
  • Network: ESPN+
  • Location: Protective Stadium — Birmingham, AL
  • Spread: UAB (-23)
  • ESPN FPI: UAB has 96.3% chance to win
  • All-time series: UAB leads, 6-3
  • Last meeting: UAB 21, Rice 16 — December 12, 2020

Future AAC rivalry

Rice and UAB were admitted as future members of the American Athletic Conference on Thursday along with Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, and UTSA. With realignment officially in the works, the longtime C-USA rivalry between the Owls and Blazers will prolong in the AAC as the teams prepare to jump conferences.


UAB’s unique uniforms

This Saturday is a special one for the Blazers. It marks homecoming week and the third-ever game at the newly-constructed Protective Stadium. But most importantly, it is the fifth annual Children’s Harbor game for UAB, and each player will wear the name of one of the clinic’s patients on the back of his jersey. This collaborative effort by UAB and Children’s Harbor is one of the great traditions of college football that often flies under the radar.

“We add the Children’s Harbor element, and when we start talking about playing for somebody other than ourselves — which is really what this is all about — and we’ve said that about UAB football since we’ve started because we’re a product of people believing in us and fighting to bring us back,” UAB head coach Bill Clark said. “We’re playing for the names on our back even more so than the name on our front. Knowing who these folks are we’re playing for, I don’t think we’re gonna let down.”


Different sides of the shutout

Last week, Rice became the third FBS team this season to suffer multiple shutouts. After getting blanked 58-0 by Texas earlier in the season, the same recurring issues struck the Owls’ offense in a 45-0 drubbing at the hands of UTSA. The Owls did not attain more than 13 yards on a single play, and they failed to cross the UTSA 47-yard line once in a disastrous offensive showing. Last time Rice came off a shutout, the Owls’ responded with their highest point total since 2016. But instead of an FCS opponent waiting in the queue, it’s defending C-USA champion UAB.

“UAB is a dominant defense. They are a really good defense. They’re gonna make us earn everything,” Rice head coach Bloomgren said. “Now, can we go light up the scoreboard? Yes we can and we need to, but it’s going to require really good play out of our quarterbacks. I think we were something like 5 percent efficient on our passes thrown the other day, and that’s not gonna get it done. That allows people to load the box with an inordinate amount of people and if you can’t punish them when you do that, then playing offense in the modern era is tough.”

Facing UAB’s defense is not an optimal method for teams hoping for an offensive resurgence. The Blazers are coming off a shutout victory of their own, annihilating Southern Miss 34-0 in Week 8 to pitch their second shutout of the season. Defense has been the identity of the UAB program since its return from the ashes in 2018, and this year’s group is no exception. Three C-USA opponents have tested their metal against UAB and only 20 combined points were recorded by those teams.

“I expected a dogfight and then when you come in at halftime and you’re up like that, it’s a strange feeling,” Clark said about the Southern Miss game. “We have a lot of confidence and we’ve got to stay humble and keep working.”


Quarterback rotations

Both C-USA teams have started multiple quarterbacks this season, and the injury bug is no stranger to either program. Starting signal callers for Rice and UAB went down in last week’s outings, but the statuses vary for the upcoming matchup in Birmingham.

Rice quarterback Jake Constantine, the team’s starter since Week 4, suffered a non-contact injury in the second quarter of the UTSA game and did not return. Constantine’s status for Saturday is unknown, but Bloomgren stated the injury is not season-ending. Luke McCaffrey checked in for the remainder of the contest and he brings four games of starting experience — two at Nebraska, two at Rice this season — to the position. If Constantine is not available, the dual-threat McCaffrey (43 pass attempts, 26 rush attempts in 2021) would be the Owls’ option at quarterback.

“Non-contact injuries are always scary because you don’t know what they are and what’s causing the inability to perform but the imaging says it should be okay,” Bloomgren said about Constantine’s injury. “We’ll see when we can get him back out there and we’ll prepare other people to be able to come in and do their job if he cannot.”

Meanwhile, UAB starter Dylan Hopkins left the Southern Miss game for precautionary reasons, but “he’s going to be fine,” as Clark stated in his weekly press conference. Tyler Johnston, the Week 1 starter and No. 1 QB for the 2020 C-USA title team, saw his first action since Week 3 in relief of Hopkins to preserve the victory. However, it appears Hopkins is slated to make his fifth consecutive start when the Owls visit Protective Stadium.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 02 Liberty at UAB
Dylan Hopkins has completed 60.8 percent of passes this season, collecting 10 touchdowns compared to just two interceptions.
Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Rice isn’t as familiar with Hopkins, but the Owls’ defense is fully aware of Johnston’s capabilities. Last December, Johnston sealed the C-USA West for UAB with his rocket arm, connecting on 63 and 42-yard touchdown passes in the third quarter. He averaged over 24 yards per completion by finding his receivers on islands in man coverage.

“I don’t think the offense changes too much whether its Dylan Hopkins or Tyler Johnston,” Bloomgren said. “It hasn’t changed. They’re gonna be in the pistol, they’re gonna hand off the wide zone, and they’re gonna take shots. That’s one thing over time Tyler Johnston has done a great job of is hitting those shots, and I’ve got all the respect in the world for him because he’ll drop back there, wait it out and absolutely javelin that thing down the field.”


Coaches’ opponent previews

Many coaches point to Rice’s stylistic approach to the game when preparing to face the Owls. Rice displays a bevy of looks on offense and this versatility is something opponents must prepare for on film. With frequent substitutions and a gamut of formations from empty sets to bunch looks with multiple tight ends, Rice’s unique schematics present new looks for opposing defenses and even offenses. UAB took over a half last year to solve Rice before delivering a 21-16 victory in Houston.

“We’re not looking at records or what happened in the last game, we know Rice is very well coached,” Clark said. “They do a lot of different things offensively and defensively. They’re probably one of the hardest teams in our league to prepare for. We had 40-something formations in the last three weeks from their offense. Defensively, they’re very very multiple, and solid in the special teams.”

UAB served as Rice’s season finale last December, and the Owls are more than acclimated to the success of Clark’s program. The Blazers’ defense has caused plenty of issues for Rice in recent meetings, causing the Owls to generate just four touchdowns in the prior three meetings. Bloomgren aims to end his skid against the defending C-USA champs and lead his program to its first win over UAB since 2013, but he understands the challenge the Blazers present.

“They do an unbelievable job in all three phases. Offensively, they run the wide zone play incredibly well and throws shots, and they hit those shots. Defensively, they’re a normal UAB defense. Their nose guards are gonna be 6-foot tall and they’re gonna be 340-something pounds, their outside backers are gonna be 6’7”, 260, and you watch them in warmups and they all look the same. They got DBs back there who play the game the way it’s supposed to be played in the run game.”


Players to watch

Ari Broussard, RB, Rice: The sophomore halfback from New Orleans looks to be expanding his role in the Rice offense. Broussard first burst onto the scene last December when serving as the lead back in the program’s landmark upset over No. 15 Marshall. He stood one yard away from tying that career-high last week in San Antonio, when he attained 61 yards on 10 carries against UTSA. For an offense which prefers a heavy dosage of ground attack, Broussard should see a fair share of reps along with Jordan Myers and Khalan Griffin in the backfield.

Naeem Smith, SS, Rice: Smith is one of the veteran leaders on this Rice defense, and he lays down the hammer when pitted against ball carriers. The hard-hitting safety ranks second on the team in tackles, only trailing inside linebackers Antonio Montero. Smith also excels in coverage. He currently has one interception and four pass breakups this season. After UAB succeeded with the deep ball in the 2020 matchup, Smith’s deep zone coverage will be an asset Rice needs in order to thwart the Blazers’ passing game.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 19 Rice at UTSA
Naeem Smith has recorded at least five tackles in all six games this season. While he has yet to record one this year, his first career sack occurred in Birmingham in 2019.
Photo by Daniel Dunn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Trea Shropshire, WR, UAB: If the ball winds up in Shropshire’s hands, odds are that he is nowhere near the first down marker — instead, he’s way past it. UAB’s viable deep threat should play a pivotal role against a defense which has allowed many big plays this year. Shropshire is averaging more than 22 yards per catch for the second-straight season and over 38 percent of his receptions have attained more than 30 yards. Johnston connected with him on a 54-yard play in the prior meeting at Rice, so evidence of home run play potential resides within the junior receiver.

Noah Wilder, ILB, UAB: UAB is essentially Linebacker U of the C-USA. Last season, the Blazers’ unit was led by Kris Moll Jr., but he transitioned to safety during the offseason and has not played since Week 3 due to injury. Now, it’s Wilder’s turn to lead the unit and he’s done a standup job with a team-high 42 tackles — including 14 last week at Southern Miss. Wilder registered 1.5 sacks and scooped up a fumble recovery last time the Owls visited Birmingham. As the leader of the nation’s 26th ranked run defense, he’ll hope to sustain his level of play and force the Owls into another brutal offensive performance.


Prediction

Rice appeared to be turning the corner after stringing together consecutive wins heading into the bye week. Suddenly, the Owls feel at square one again after a 60-minute offensive struggle inside the Alamodome. Rice only attained 36 passing yards and 66 rushing yards in the shutout, and improving those numbers against a defense as refined as UAB’s will be a daunting task. The Owls must rely on a strong defensive showing of their own — similar to their 4-interception, 5-sack performance against Southern Miss — in order to pull off the upset in Birmingham.

UAB has shown the ability to fluctuate throughout the year, and if the offense stalls for long periods of time, the defense can show fatigue. That happened in lopsided losses to Georgia and Liberty, and the Blazers allowed numerous big plays in such defeats. However, UAB’s defense is perfectly manufactured to handle an offense like Rice’s, and the lack of explosiveness from the Owls should help UAB improve to 4-0 in conference play. The Blazers will move one step closer to their fourth consecutive C-USA West title.

Prediction: UAB 27, Rice 9