Date/Time: November 6, 2021 (3:30 PM ET — 2:30 PM CT)
Location: Jerry Richardson Stadium — Charlotte, NC
Vegas Odds: Charlotte -6 via BetMGM
TV: ESPN+ (Analyst: Reginald Walker Jr. — Play-by-Play: Bobby Rosinski)
Setting the scene
Rice and Charlotte have not squared off on the gridiron since the 2016 season, and the Owls have won the only two meetings in history. It’s not a typical C-USA crossover matchup as the two campuses are separated by over 1,000 miles. Yet, these two teams are slated to remain conference mates for the foreseeable future after official admission into the American Athletic Conference in October.
Bowl eligibility remains alive but at risk for both teams heading into the final stretch of the season. Charlotte’s incredible start has been blemished by consecutive blowout losses, and the 49ers enter Saturday at an even 4-4. Rice is one game behind at 3-5, following up its signature win at UAB with an overtime shortcoming against North Texas. With both teams situated at 2-2 in conference play, one will turn that into a winning record after Saturday’s showdown in Charlotte.
Charlotte 49ers outlook
Jake Auten: Weeks removed from a 3-1 start to the season and its first win over a Power Five team in program history, the Charlotte 49ers look to right the ship and break up the black clouds that seemed to darken the Queen City skies above them the entire month of October.
An offense that hasn’t stayed in the groove and a defense that can’t stop the bleeding, putting together two consistent halves of football remains an issue as Charlotte’s managed to be outscored 75-2 combined in the second half of its four losses. The Niners’ victory over FCS foe Gardner-Webb on September 11 still stands as the only true bell-to-bell performance, having surrendered over 400 yards of total offense to every other opponent on the schedule.
Getting the ringleader Chris Reynolds back into a place where he can play the game comfortably will be a focal point this week, having missed last week’s trip to Western Kentucky due to an injury to his throwing hand. As our correspondent Joe Londergan mentioned previously in his recap last week, WKU broke a streak of 12 straight games where the Charlotte offense had recorded a passing touchdown. Texas A&M transfer James Foster was serviceable in his absence yet it was clear that executing certain aspects of the offense wasn’t an option as the team went heavy on the ground.
Don’t be surprised to see Charlotte lean on the ground game again this week, which on paper could set them up for a productive day against an Owls defense ranked 112th in the country against the rush. The backfield tandem of Shadrick Byrd and Calvin Camp both sit in the top fifteen rushers in the league in terms of average rushing yards per contest.
Honing in on the defensive side of the ball, it’ll be interesting to see how this unit responds after watching Bailey Zappe sling the rock at will to the tune of 393 yards and four scores, putting an even greater emphasis on just how much this unit has failed to regain their form from the beginning of the year. 20 touchdowns have been scored through the air on the 49er defensive group, tied for the fifth-worst total in the country with fellow division foe Florida International. The 3,582 total yards surrendered through eight games is the team’s worst statistical output since 2014, its second year in existence as a FCS independent.
To avoid raining on the parade even further with statistics that just cause headaches, stylistically there isn’t many ways that Rice can slash and dash this unit down the field. The Owls don’t present a formidable run game, so if Charlotte can play up on receivers and keep Jake Constantine from finding multiple targets, keeping the flood to a minimal drip shouldn’t be an issue.
Rice Owls outlook
Steve Helwick: The momentum Rice accumulated from a landmark upset over UAB diminished just seven days later. The Owls returned back to Houston and missed the opportunity to claim a .500 record. Rice became the first FBS team to fall to North Texas in 2021 in a 30-24 overtime disappointment. Rice failed to hold a lead the entire game and despite a valiant 89-yard game-tying drive in the final minutes, the run defense couldn’t contain the Mean Green in overtime.
Rice took a severe blow early in the North Texas game by losing starting quarterback Wiley Green. Head coach Mike Bloomgren stated this week that he “would anticipate (Green) being out for the season at this point” and the reins will be handed to Jake Constantine. Constantine already started three games this season including the Owls’ first two wins of the year. Despite a slow start offensively last week, Constantine rebounded to lead Rice to 21 second half points by means of his 242 passing yards — the highest any Owl quarterback has posted on FBS competition in 2021.
In the Bloomgren era, Rice’s identity has become a team that prefers to ground the ball and consume clock, but recently, the Owls’ run game isn’t producing its desired numbers. Collectively, the team hasn’t generated more than three yards per carry since its Oct. 2 matchup against Southern Miss. However, Charlotte allows more rushing yards per game than all but 15 FBS teams, so Rice will hope to find more success with Jordan Myers and Khalan Griffin on the ground in this one.
Rice’s skill position players in the passing game have stepped up in a major way recently. Jake Bailey consistently made diving catches and drive-saving plays in a 10-catch, 143-yard showing last Saturday, while Myers added a season-high 88 yards. When it’s time to come up clutch on a drive, Rice delivers without hesitancy, and this can often be attributed to the playmaking of the receivers. The Owls have converted all nine fourth down attempts in their last outings, ranging from halfback pile dives on 4th and 1 to heaves downfield on 4th and 10.
On the other side of the ball, Rice’s defense didn’t produce an optimal showing against North Texas, and the Mean Green were able to ground the ball without issue to close that game. Opposing offenses are experiencing less success against Rice when they test the air, and the Owls have allowed the third fewest passing touchdowns in the C-USA. In order to get back in the win column, Rice’s defense desperately needs to produce havoc plays. Against conference competition, the Owls are averaging 0.5 sacks and zero takeaways per game in losses and 4.0 sacks and three takeaways per game in wins. Rush and coverage work together, and if they work well enough against Charlotte, that’s the formula to improving to 3-2 in C-USA play.
Jake: The spread sitting at Charlotte -6 doesn’t seem egregious to me, as both teams are essentially the Spider-Man meme just pointing at each other in awe of the similarities. Atrocious losses, signature wins, less than stellar defenses with nowhere to go but up. If we’re grading the last few weeks objectively Rice has a solid chance at victory, especially considering how they looked on the road against UAB. That being said, Charlotte heads back home to a sold-out crowd looking to watch this team cap off their homecoming festivities. If either program wants to make a postseason appearance this game cannot be dropped, so expect an underrated and enthusiastic battle on a packed C-USA weekend slate. Give me Charlotte, 27-24.
Steve: Which version of Rice is going to come out? History suggests we’ll figure that out after the first few possessions. The Owls have won every game this year when they’ve scored first and lost every game when the other team garners the initial points. So, it’s an understatement to say hot starts are crucial for the Owls. As mentioned earlier, another commonality of Rice victories can be found in a defensive box score — getting to the quarterback and forcing turnovers. Opportune turnovers are of utmost importance to get the offense going, because consistent movement of the chains on long drives hasn’t been witnessed this year. Charlotte’s offense has been statistically more productive, and the balance the 49ers bring to the unit should allow them to snap their 2-game skid. Charlotte 27, Rice 20