- Time and Date: Saturday, November 20 at 4:00 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPN+
- Location: Sun Bowl — El Paso, TX
- Spread: UTEP (-9)
- ESPN FPI: UTEP has 77.0% chance to win
- All-time series: Rice leads, 15-8
- Last meeting: Rice 30, UTEP 16 — November 30, 2019
- Current streak: Rice, 1 (2019)
Setting the scene
Rice and UTEP never met in 2020. Minutes before the originally scheduled kickoff, COVID cancelations postponed the contest and the Texas-based C-USA programs never made it up. Now, the Owls and Miners converge in West Texas for their first duel since 2019.
UTEP (6-4, 3-3 C-USA) clinched bowl eligibility in a hurry with a surprising 6-1 start, securing two more victories than it had from 2017 to 2020. However, the luster has worn off as the schedule has ramped up and the Miners have been on the losing end of three consecutive contests. That seventh win has been hard to come by, but if claimed Saturday, UTEP clinches its first winning season since 2014.
Rice (3-7, 2-4 C-USA) is also in the midst of three straight losses, but unlike the Miners, the Owls won’t have the luxury of bowl eligibility this year. However, Rice has been known to finish seasons strong even when a bowl bid is off the table. Mike Bloomgren’s team responded to an 0-9 start to 2019 with three consecutive wins, including a 30-16 victory in the season finale in El Paso.
Rice Owls outlook
Rice is the only C-USA team to defeat three-time defending West champion UAB this season, but unfortunately for the Owls, the team wasn’t able to build off that massive upset. Since stunning the Blazers in Birmingham, Rice is 0-3 with a pair of overtime losses and a three-touchdown loss to WKU.
The Owls are in desperate need of another momentum-building win. Rejuvenation of the offense could go a long way in putting this program in the right trajectory as 2021 winds to a close. When Rice strikes first, good things happen. Rice is a perfect 3-0 this year when it scores first and 0-7 when the other team notches the initial points.
The Owls offense had plenty of positives from its last outing vs. WKU which could assist the early scoring effort. Rice posted 504 yards on the Hilltopper defense, signifying its highest output this season against FBS competition. Quarterback Jake Constantine also shattered his career-best with 380 passing yards. However, five turnovers — two occurring inside the WKU 30-yard line — stalled the Owls’ scoring opportunities.
Rice ranks 19th in the country in turnovers committed per game, so aversion to risky throws is needed to allow this offense to blossom to its full potential. Constantine won his first two starts of the season by completing more than 70 percent throws, and emphasizing that accuracy is one element that can get the Owls back on track.
Wide receiver Jake Bailey is currently on an offensive tear while establishing valuable rapport with Constantine. Stepping up in a shorthanded receiver room, Bailey posted 143, 143, and 80 yards in his last three showings, summing up to 22 receptions over the time span. Bailey’s emergence as a viable No. 1 receiver has allowed the offense to exceed 20 points in four consecutive weeks after crossing that barrier just twice in the first six contests.
Another promising development of Rice’s offense in recent weeks is the arrival of running back Ari Broussard. The sophomore has crept into the lead halfback role and the results have been kind to Rice’s ground-based offense. Broussard rushed for 186 yards and two touchdowns two weeks ago in Charlotte and followed it up with 60 yards last Saturday.
While the ground game takes shape, stopping the run has also been an improved feature of Rice over the past few games. Charlotte was only able to obtain 57 rushing yards on 2.7 per carry while WKU accumulated 92 yards on a 3.7 average. For the second straight game, the Owls will operate without their veteran leader Antonio Montero manning the inside linebacker position but other names have stepped up to counter opposing halfbacks. Kirk Lockhart has noticeable shined from the “viper” (hybrid linebacker/safety) position in the past two outings with a team-best 18 combined tackles over that frame.
UTEP Miners outlook
UTEP fell to North Texas last Saturday as the Mean Green’s Ethan Mooney delivered a game-winning field goal in the final seconds. The Miners offense was sporadic in defeat, and although explosiveness was present at times, there was no consistency. UTEP punted eight times and threw one costly interception which caused the team to trail by double-digits heading into the fourth quarter.
In order to rebound at the Sun Bowl, the Miners need to recapture efficiency in the passing game. Quarterback Gavin Hardison completed just 48.6 percent of his attempts during the Miners’ three-game skid. The inability to connect with regularity through the air has caused UTEP to lurk in the cellar of the FBS when it comes to third down conversion rate. The Miners successfully move the sticks in these situations 33.6 percent of the time, good for 12th in the C-USA and 114th overall.
Still, Hardison and the passing game have their moments. UTEP is tied for 12th in the country in 50+ yard plays, and the quarterback’s arm is to thank for many of those. Last week, he connected with star wide receiver Jacob Cowing five times to produce 174 yards. Cowing eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark despite having only 51 receptions due to his home run play potential — averaging 21.5 yards per catch. Seven of his 10 performances this season have crossed the century mark, so the offense should focus on making it eight when he faces the nation’s 109th ranked passing defense.
UTEP’s split backfield may not generate as much electricity as the Hardison-Cowing duo, but the Miners have been steady on the ground in November. Ronald Awatt, a member of the roster since 2017, is finally seeing his long tenure in El Paso come to fruition. Awatt enters Saturday coming off consecutive 80-yard games for the first time in his college career. Third-year freshman Deion Hankins will serve as Awatt’s complement in the run game, aiming to continue UTEP’s streak of six consecutive games with 100 team rushing yards.
There’s no question where to find the most lethal weapon on the Miner defense. Strong defensive end play has been a key factor in guiding UTEP back to bowl eligibility, and sophomore defensive end Praise Amaewhule is the ringleader of it all. Amaewhule holds 11.5 tackles for loss to his name this season to go along with 5.5 sacks. The Katy, TX native is no stranger to causing havoc around the line of scrimmage, batting away six passes and forcing three fumbles to complete an All-C-USA worthy résumé. But he isn’t the only star on the line. Jadrian Taylor boasts a team-best 6.5 sacks from the other defensive end spot this year, allowing UTEP to become lethal at the line of scrimmage.
If you want to get in the general ballpark of the point total in this game, look at the C-USA results for Rice and UTEP. Both programs have an affinity for lower-scoring affairs in the 20s, and Saturday should follow that trend.
A stark contrast in the strength of non-conference scheduling is responsible for the difference between these teams’ records, but Rice and UTEP are rather evenly matched. Both teams commit turnovers at a relatively high rate, average similar rushing stats, and manufacture sacks at a similar rate. However, the primary differences which favor UTEP are the ability to limit the run, the knack for producing explosive plays via Jacob Cowing, and pass protection.
Rice won’t go down without a fight and the Owls should control a huge chunk of possession time. But the Miners prevail in a close one at the Sun Bowl and clinch their first winning season since 2014.
Prediction: UTEP 27, Rice 20