- Time and Date: Saturday, November 27 at 1:00 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPN+
- Location: Rice Stadium — Houston, TX
- Spread: Louisiana Tech (-3.5)
- ESPN FPI: Louisiana Tech has 70.2% chance to win
- All-time series: Louisiana Tech leads, 9-4
- Last meeting: Louisiana Tech 23, Rice 20 — September 28, 2019
- Current streak: Louisiana Tech, 6 (2014-19)
Setting the scene
The Rice Owls (3-8, 2-5 C-USA) and Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (3-8, 2-5 C-USA) share nearly identical journeys through the 2021 season. But one team will gain an upper-edge in the standings Saturday afternoon to conclude the year 4-8.
After a one-year hiatus due to a COVID-19 cancelation, the C-USA West foes resume their series for the first time since 2019, when Louisiana Tech edged Rice in an overtime thriller in Houston. It’s the final collegiate game for seniors across both rosters, so the programs aim to end on a high note and send them out in a celebratory manner.
QB injury situations
Rice has been hampered by recurring quarterback injuries all season. Last Saturday, Jake Constantine went down on a 3rd down scramble in the fourth quarter, marking the fifth instance of a Rice quarterback suffering a game-ending injury this season. Nebraska transfer Luke McCaffrey, who started two games in September, checked in to finish the evening. McCaffrey provides a differing skillset under center when compared to Constantine. More renowned for his rushing ability, McCaffrey averaged 10.8 yards per carry last weekend and finished the game with his first rushing touchdown since Week 4.
If Constantine is unable to go, McCaffrey will record his third start as an Owl when Louisiana Tech rolls into town. But Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren believes Constantine is making the necessary progress to suit up for his final collegiate game.
“We have some very different gameplans in place. We have a gameplan for Jake Constantine, we have a gameplan for if it’s Luke McCaffrey, we have some different people at quarterback options as well — some wildcat stuff that we’ve tinkered with throughout the year,” Bloomgren said. “My sense right now is Jake’s gonna try to play. It’s his last promised college football game. I think if there’s any way he can play, he will and certainly we wouldn’t put him out there if he’s not able to do the things we need him to do. I’d bet on Jake right now.”
Louisiana Tech is also dealing with quarterback availability issues. Former Oklahoma and West Virginia quarterback Austin Kendall suffered an injury in the Week 9 loss to Old Dominion. Freshman backup J.D. Head started the ensuing matchup against UAB, but injury struck him as well, causing Aaron Allen to become QB No. 1 on the depth chart. Allen started the Bulldogs’ two most recent outings, including a sharp 324-yard performance in the Week 11 win over Charlotte.
When it comes to Saturday’s quarterback situation, Louisiana Tech head coach Skip Holtz believes Kendall is advancing in the right direction prior to his senior year finale.
“Austin practiced (Tuesday) which is the first time he’s practiced since the ODU game. He went out there, he’s pushing it, he’s throwing every ball, he’s trying to throw with a sense of urgency and torque his body,” Holtz said. “We’re trying to see where he is, but from what I saw (Tuesday), I think he’s really close to playing... I’m just hopeful that his back holds up. He came back out of the working world to play again. I would love to see him have the opportunity to finish this thing out the right way and have a chance to play.”
The Owls’ injuries haven’t been limited to the quarterback position this year. Longtime wide receiver Brad Rozner, who opted out of the 2020 season due to surgery, went down in Week 1 and has yet to take the field since. Rice’s receiver depth also took a hit with a Week 1 injury to August Pitre III, who didn’t return until late October. Last week, Jake Bailey exited the game after registering a team-best 58 receiving yards in El Paso. Bailey recorded back-to-back 143-yard games recently, and if he is unavailable, Rice must continue its “next man up” philosophy in the position room to close out the season.
One emerging candidate to increase his production is New Mexico transfer Cedric Patterson III, who has found the end zone in three of his last four showings. Patterson has been a quick learner in the offense, and his intellect is a defining part of his profile as a student-athlete. He completed his undergraduate degree in two years at New Mexico and is currently enrolled in a challenging psychology master’s program at Rice.
“His contributions cannot be understated,” Bloomgren said of Patterson. “He is a big deal for our program right now. He’s part of what’s getting our passing game going. He has a good me-to-you factor with Jake Constantine... Every week, he’s so much better. What I see is a guy that’s growing at a really high rate.”
Louisiana Tech offense
Louisiana Tech produced bottom 10 rushing numbers in the FBS in 2020. But the arrival of Appalachian State transfer Marcus Williams Jr. elevated the Bulldogs by roughly 23 yards per game this season. Williams has caught fire as of late, scorching the Charlotte defense with season-highs 131 yards and four touchdowns two weeks ago. Holtz credits the in-season improvement of the run game to cohesive offensive line play.
“I think they’re really understanding what we’re trying to do in the run game at this point and some of the key factors that are going to make it work,” Holtz said. “In the past, we played too much like five independent contractors on the offensive line and those guys gotta be tied on a rope... I think they are really starting to take some pride in how they communicate, how they operate, the calls that they make, and it’s really been neat to watch that group of guys develop.”
With a hazy quarterback situation, the Bulldogs hope utilizing the strength of the offensive line to establish the run game will get the offense back in a groove. When it comes to the passing game, Kendall, Head, and Allen have all led Louisiana Tech to at least 38 points as a starter this year, so the Bulldogs have proven to light up the scoreboard with a myriad of different signal callers.
“We just gotta set a good run game and then open up the passing game with the run game,” guard Joshua Mote said. “We just gotta come out and play hard as a team. It’s the last one and we gotta play for the guys next to us, play for the seniors. I know if I was in their position, I would want guys to give it their all and play hard for me, so that’s what I’m gonna do for the seniors on the offensive line and the offense.”
Rice exhibits a veteran-laden defense, but one of the most important contributors on this unit has a freshman designation. Gabe Taylor, the brother of the late, legendary Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor, is continuing the family’s football legacy in Houston. Taylor has played a consistent role in the turnover department with two interceptions, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery this season, and he ranks first on the Owls with 40 solo tackles.
“Gabe’s so exciting and his future is so bright. I think he wants to be an All-Pro, an All-Conference, an All-American right now, and there’s things that he does in his game that are at that level,” Bloomgren said. “The way he gets the ball out, the way he creates turnovers — whether it’s punching the ball out, whether it’s picking off that pass in the second quarter (vs. UTEP). I think Gabe is playing better every game and I think he’s growing every game and gosh, I’d hate to put a ceiling on him.”
Another emerging talent on this defense is outside linebacker Josh Pearcy. Rice’s linebacker depth has been thinned this year as a result of injuries to veterans Antonio Montero and Treshawn Chamberlain. But Pearcy has filled those shoes with 52 tackles and 3.5 sacks, and the former high school track star impressed his own teammates last Saturday with a DK Metcalf-esque chasedown tackle in the UTEP game.
“I was impressed but I kind of expected it,” wide receiver Cedric Patterson III said, referencing Pearcy’s chasedown sequence. “I saw him run all spring. We knew he had the speed but I’m glad people from another college can see what a freak he is athletically.”
Louisiana Tech defense
Louisiana Tech is coming off its roughest defeat of the season. The Bulldogs allowed 35 points to a Southern Miss team that played without a quarterback on its depth chart. Louisiana Tech became the first FBS team to fall to the Golden Eagles this year, and to make matters worse, it was a 16-point decision. After a concerning showing against the C-USA’s worst scoring offense, the Bulldogs hope to shore things up before battling Rice’s offense, which sits second-to-last in points per game in the conference.
Southern Miss completed 8/13 passes for 110 yards and three touchdowns on Louisiana Tech. Holtz believes the secondary contesting the Golden Eagles’ 50/50 balls would have made a stark difference in the result, and that is a point of emphasis for the team heading into Houston this Saturday.
“We’ve got to do better because in a game like that, if you knock those three balls down, that’s 21 points — that’s a pretty big difference in a football game when you’re looking at a 35-19 game,” Holtz said.
Despite struggles in the secondary, Holtz saw sustainable promise from his young defense in the loss. No Bulldog left more of an impact than freshman inside linebacker Tyler Grubbs. The New Orleans native led the team in tackling, registered three tackles for loss, and laid out several hits to force three Southern Miss turnovers.
“I thought guys like Tyler Grubbs was all over the field. He had 13 tackles, he was awesome, he was responsible or involved in all three turnovers in some way, shape, or form,” Holtz said. “There’s gonna be some mistakes made when you’re playing with younger players, but the positive note is the upside all these guys are gaining with all this valuable experience, you’re only going to get better as you go into each and every year.”
Finishing on a high note
Louisiana Tech is used to finishing seasons strong, but it’s program tradition to have a trophy waiting at the end of its season finale. This will be the first time since 2013 that the Bulldogs conclude their campaign without a bowl game. Holtz is no stranger to finishing the year strong, as he won six consecutive bowls from 2014 through 2019. Even without tangible hardware on the line, Louisiana Tech aims to capture a win for the seniors and to manufacture a positive springboard into the 2022 season.
“As disappointed as I am for the seniors that we weren’t able to continue that bowl streak and keep this going in 2021, I’m also that encouraged for the future for these young players,” Holtz said. “This last game is as much a kickoff for 2022 as it is to send the seniors out the right way on 2021. This has an opportunity to go a long way. This is our bowl game.”
Annual bowl trips aren’t the norm for Rice at the moment. Not a single player on the Owls’ roster has ever qualified for the postseason while donning the navy blue and silver. Rice’s last bowl appearance was 2014, but the Owls still know how to finish seasons on a high note. In the Bloomgren era, Rice won its 2018 and 2019 season finales and the team hopes to improve to 3-1 in such games under the fourth-year head coach.
“It’s at home and it could give us three wins at home on the year, which could be a heck of a deal,” Bloomgren said regarding Saturday’s finale. “The other thing is going back to these seniors and what they’ve put in — the blood, sweat, and tears through the years, and us wanting to send them out the right way with a victorious locker room.”
Injuries, specifically in both quarterback rooms, create an unpredictable atmosphere for Saturday’s finale. The coaches suggested that Jake Constantine and Austin Kendall could return for their final collegiate games after returning to practice this week, and both transfer quarterbacks may have the opportunity to end their journeys on a high note.
For Rice, the key is making the first mark. The Owls are 3-0 this year when scoring first and 0-8 when the opponent does. Rice must force early stops and string together a promising first quarter drive in order to establish momentum at home. The Owls have run the ball better lately, but C-USA offenses have succeeded most against Louisiana Tech through the air. Cedric Patterson III and August Pitre III will be called upon to make home run plays for the Rice’s offense.
Louisiana Tech’s defense has forced turnovers at a high rate, but the offense also commits them with regularity. After giving the ball away five times vs. Southern Miss, the Bulldogs must establish better ball security against Rice. Limiting turnovers should work wonders for Louisiana Tech because Marcus Williams Jr. has performed well in the run game recently. The Bulldogs (27.7 points per game) have shown better ability to inflict damage on the scoreboard than the Owls (20.3 points per game), so as long as the ball isn’t coughed up an excessive amount of times, Skip Holtz looks bound to finish another season in triumphant fashion.
Prediction: Louisiana Tech 26, Rice 20