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2021 Week 9 Preview: North Texas Mean Green @ Rice Owls

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The Owls aim to sustain momentum after upsetting UAB as a struggling North Texas team visits Houston.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 21 Rice at North Texas

Game Notes

  • Time and Date: Saturday, October 30 at 2:00 p.m. ET
  • Network: ESPN3
  • Location: Rice Stadium — Houston, TX
  • Spread: Rice (-2.5)
  • ESPN FPI: North Texas has 56.5% chance to win
  • All-time series: North Texas leads, 6-5
  • Last meeting: North Texas 27, Rice 17 — November 21, 2020
  • Current streak: North Texas, 1 (2020)

Setting the scene

In 2023, this may be an AAC rivalry, but it’s currently 2021, and this matchup will transpire with C-USA signage on the field. North Texas visits Rice in hopes of ending its 6-game skid and earning its first C-USA victory of the season. The Mean Green handled the Owls last year in Denton, but Mike Bloomgren’s team is starting to pick things up. Rice shocked UAB as three-touchdown underdogs last Saturday in Birmingham and look to generate a third C-USA win in four games when North Texas visits Rice Stadium.


Rice Owls outlook

In Week 7, Rice suffered a 45-0 defeat to UTSA in a lifeless offensive showing, but the Owls responded with resiliency and maturity. Seven days later, that same squad went into Birmingham and knocked off the reigning C-USA champions by handing UAB a 30-24 loss — the Blazers’ first conference blemish of 2021.

By generating 30 points, the Rice offense put together its most productive performance of the year vs. FBS competition. Quarterback Wiley Green, the Week 1 starter, returned to the lineup to replace the injured Jake Constantine. Green’s days as an Owls starter date back to his true freshman 2018 campaign, but you won’t find a better showing than his performance last Saturday. Green completed 17/22 passes for 205 yards and three touchdowns in the victory. Riding the momentum of last week, Green is set to make his third start of the season.

The Owls are fresh off of attaining significant winnings at the gridiron casino. Rice gambled on five fourth downs against UAB and converted all five. Each possession involving a fourth down conversion ultimately led to a touchdown. The Owls consistently dominated short-yardage situations and they currently rank second in the C-USA with a 70 percent fourth down success rate.

Rice’s offense is also benefiting from the return of its premier deep threat, August Pitre III. After recording 97 yards and a touchdown down the seam in the opener, Pitre missed the team’s next four matchups. Last week, he picked up where he was pre-injury and bolstered Rice’s verticality on offense with six receptions, 108 yards, and a touchdown.

On the defensive side of the ball, Rice hasn’t been consistent this year but the team has shown some of the flashes of brilliance exhibited in prior seasons under defensive coordinator Brian Smith. The Owls notably picked off Southern Miss four times and recorded five sacks in their last showing at Rice Stadium, but followed up the performance by allowing 45 points through three quarters to UTSA. Somewhere in the middle lies the UAB game, where Rice allowed significant yardage but forced a pair of turnovers and stepped up in crucial third down situations.

Naeem Smith is the primary name to watch on this veteran unit. The strong safety recorded a sack and interception last weekend and the Owls are 3-0 since 2020 when he forces a turnover. Forcing takeaways is one of the primary needs for this defense as Rice has fallen from producing 1.8 per game in 2020 to 1.3 this season.


North Texas Mean Green outlook

North Texas enters its in-state rival’s house riding a 6-game win streak which stands as the program’s worst since the Dan McCarney era in 2015. The Mean Green have failed to topple an FBS opponent this year, but signs of progress were evident against a solid Liberty team last Saturday.

Seth Littrell’s team held a 26-14 lead well into the third quarter, but the Flames responded with three touchdowns in a nine minute span to put the game away. The bright spot for North Texas in another frustrating defeat was the ability to pressure the backfield. The Mean Green racked up six sacks on an offense led by talented dual-threat quarterback Malik Willis — a potential day one NFL Draft pick this spring.

Nose tackle Dion Novil is the plug in the middle which sparks the dominance in the trenches. Novil collected 1.5 sacks last week, and he has presented issues to Rice in years past. Last November, Novil collected eight tackles and one sack while forcing two fumbles in the Mean Green’s 27-17 victory in Denton. Saturday will mark the First Team All-C-USA selection’s fifth matchup against Rice, and he’ll be pitted against a line which allows over 2.7 sacks per contest.

The Mean Green defense posts similar numbers to that of Rice. Both units rank in the bottom 12 in scoring defense, although North Texas allows roughly 2.4 fewer points per game. North Texas is able to generate most of its stops by meeting opponents in the backfield. One of the Mean Green’s most redeeming qualities is their ability to churn out tackles for loss, and they’re tied at 24th in the country with 6.3 per contest.

Offensively, Austin Aune looks destined to maintain the starting quarterback role. Aune lit up Missouri’s defense in Week 6 with 305 yards and four touchdowns, albeit two interceptions. With three 300-yard games last season, it is apparent that North Texas can generate significant offense with the junior under center. His mobility has improved as well, but in order to lift the Mean Green to the next level, the interceptions must be limited. North Texas and Rice have both been turnover prone squads this year, tying for 13th in the FBS in most giveaways in 2021.

In the run game, DeAndre Torrey has been the main workhorse for the Mean Green. The longtime contributor has fielded at least 20 handoffs in all but one game this year. With three 100-yard performances under his belt this fall, Torrey ranks eighth in the FBS in rushing yards. When the running back faces the Owls, he’s often in for stellar showings. He rushed for 130 yards and three touchdowns in 2018 and added 102 yards and a score in last year’s meeting.


Prediction

The last two meetings between the programs led by Mike Bloomgren and Seth Littrell have resulted in lower-scoring defensive slugfests. With both offenses averaging under 24 points per game in 2021, this year’s matchup should continue to follow the trend.

When taking a strong glance at Rice’s schedule, the Owls have fallen hard in their losses, but they’ve fallen to tough competition. Rice lost to 7-0 UTSA, 6-1 Houston, and dropped a pair of games against Arkansas and Texas — arguably the best 3-loss teams in the country. The statement UAB win invokes confidence that this Rice team can down most non-UTSA competition in the conference.

North Texas is still searching for its FBS win, and while flashes of promise were shown against Missouri and Liberty, North Texas hasn’t proven the ability to sustain that promise through all four quarters like Rice did in Birmingham.

The Owls’ renewed offensive life will push them past the Mean Green in a low-scoring bout to set their record to .500 for the first time all season.

Rice 23, North Texas 14