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2021 Week 2 Preview: Houston Cougars @ Rice Owls

The crosstown rivals battle for the Bayou Bucket for the first time since 2018.

NCAA Football: Houston at Rice Maria Lysaker-USA TODAY Sports

Game Notes

Time and Date: Saturday, September 11 at 6:30 p.m. ET

Network: CBS Sports Network

Location: Rice Stadium — Houston, TX

Spread: Houston (-8)

ESPN FPI: Houston has 71.4% chance to win

All-time series: Houston leads series, 31-11

Last meeting: Houston 45, Rice 27 — September 1, 2018

Bucket list item

This isn’t an ordinary non-conference game. There’s never anything ordinary about a football game when a trophy is on the line or when the opponents hail from the same city. Rice and Houston have battled for the Bayou Bucket since 1971 when the sister schools were pitted as rivals in the Southwest Conference. Fifty years later and conferences apart, the rivalry still prolongs with the same prize handed out to the victor.

“It means a lot to the universities but it means a lot to the city,” Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen said at the Bayou Bucket Luncheon. “This game should be played every year. I was disappointed it wasn’t on the schedule in 2019. This is one we’ve been looking forward to as a program.”

The bucket has been Houston’s property for almost a decade. The Cougars currently ride a 5-game win streak in the series and the Owls haven’t triumphed in the rivalry game since 2010. For Rice, reclaiming the trophy and the city is a focus for a program fixated on a statement victory in the home opener.

“Being a Houstonian, I really look forward to this game,” Rice free safety George Nyakwol said. “It’s about time we take this win and say that we own the city of Houston because we do, but we haven’t been able to get the win just yet, but this week we will.”

Week 1 shortcomings

The Bayou Bucket rivals both had early strangleholds on their opponents to usher in the 2021 seasons. In fact, Rice’s trip to Arkansas was a mirror image of Houston’s showing against Texas Tech. The Owls led the Razorbacks 17-7 and the Cougars led the Red Raiders 21-7 in the early third quarter. Then, with around eight minutes left in the third quarter, their opponents caught up with a momentum-swinging touchdown — a touchdown which would activate a second half scoring barrage. Arkansas finished off Rice on a 31-0 run which was the same scoring run Texas Tech utilized to upend Houston.

“Going into the fourth quarter tied up — obviously a lot of excitement — but in watching film what I came to realize was the opportunities we didn’t capitalize on in the first, second, and third quarter really could have put the game away,” Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren said. “We’re gonna work to maintain our intensity, maintain our poise, find a way to finish, and play 60 minutes of consistent and smart football.”

Running nowhere

Bloomgren is not shy about his preferred offensive style at Rice. The fourth-year head coach often reiterates the goals of his offense as “pound the rock, control the clock” — a strategy which propelled Rice to finish second in time of possession in 2020. But the rushing offense hit a stone wall against Arkansas. The Owls converted 39 rushes into 81 yards and barely grazed above two yards per carry. Rice didn’t break a run longer than seven yards, and the execution in the backfield must change in order for Bloomgren to master his offensive philosophy.

“Offensively, it comes down to everybody. It comes down to coaching decisions in terms of what was called, but it comes down to offensive linemen and tight ends finishing their blocks a little bit better,” Bloomgren said. “It comes down to running backs taking the true track they’ve been coached to do and not getting sped up just because the lights are on. And it comes down to them lowering their pads and feeding somebody their pads, and making sure even if they get hit at two yards, they fall forward for four and it’s an efficient run.”

As dreary as Rice’s rushing attack fared, Houston wasn’t a cut above in Week 1. The Cougars were plagued by their own ground game after cashing in 35 carries for just 77 yards against Texas Tech’s defense. Houston’s sixth-year running back Mulbah Car led all rushers between the Owls and Cougars last week by attaining 37 yards on 13 attempts.

“I think it will be real important to stop the run because teams like this, they want to run the ball,” Nyakwol said about Houston’s offense. “They have good athletes on the outside and in the slot, but they want to run the ball, so if we make them run the ball and become one-dimensional, it will be better a game for us.”

Rice FS George Nyakwol missed the entire 2020 season due to injury, but he made a triumphant return to the lineup with 4 tackles at Arkansas.
Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Green pastures for Rice, Tune up time for the Cougars

Rice did not announce its starting quarterback until fourth-year veteran Wiley Green took the field for the opening series in Arkansas. The incumbent split time with newcomer Luke McCaffrey at the position, but neither quarterback won the job convincingly Saturday. Green completed 12/15 passes for 152 yards, adding in one touchdown and three interceptions. McCaffrey completed 5/10 passes for 75 yards. Each quarterback’s mobility was bottled up by Arkansas’ front seven, so no edge was evident in that department. Heading into Week 2, Bloomgren plans to implement a similar quarterback rotation.

“Both of those guys have the ability to lead a college football team, and we’re gonna see who gives our team the best opportunity to go forward is,” Bloomgren said. “Neither of them performed to our standard. Neither of them graded out in the 80th percentile winner range where we want them to... The results weren’t there on Saturday in terms of what our goals are for that position.”

Despite a Week 1 struggle, there is more clarity in Houston’s quarterback situation. Clayton Tune has the keys to the offense for the third-straight year, but the Cougars are hoping for a bounce-back performance from the veteran. Tune was phenomenal through the air and with his legs during the first two possessions last Saturday, but his early heroics were quickly forgotten after firing four interceptions — one which turned into a pick-six. Tune will remain Houston’s starter this week, hoping to revert to his play from the beginning of the 2020 season.

“Everything on their offense starts with Clayton Tune,” Bloomgren said. “He doesn’t get enough credit for how athletic and how fast straight-line he really is. When he’s on, he’s lit up the scoreboard. When he’s thrown it to his team and done some good things, they’ve got to be excited about that.”

Defensive breakdowns

Both Houston-based programs brought the heat defensively in their openers — for at least a half. The Cougars significantly hoarded the time of possession in the first half, and when their defense took the field, they suffocated Texas Tech to just seven first half points. The Owls did more of the same, entering halftime in Fayetteville with Arkansas’ tangible success limited to seven points on the scoreboard. But early defensive dominance did not translate into a win for the Cougars nor the Owls.

“I think we played a really great game through three quarters, but giving up 21 in the fourth was really tough and that’s kind of where the game went,” Nyakwol said. “Had we had six plays gone our way defensively, I think the result would have been a lot different.”

The tide turned rapidly as both Rice and Houston yielded 31 unanswered second half points to their opponents. But both defensive lapses can be attributed to offensive failures, namely turnovers. Houston and Rice both tossed three second half interceptions last week, providing their opponents with opportune field position to cash in on numerous occasions.

“From an offensive perspective, that was one of the worst halves I’ve ever been a part of,” Holgorsen said after the Texas Tech game per Joseph Duarte of the Houston Chronicle. “I admit that. I own that. We’ll work hard on trying to fix that.”

Matchups to watch

Houston relies heavily on its receiving corps, especially wideout Nathaniel Dell (7 receptions, 80 yards, 1 touchdown vs. Texas Tech) and tight end Christian Trahan (6 receptions, 42 yards). They’ll test their metal against a Rice secondary that just produced impressive results in SEC country. The Owls limited the Razorbacks to completing 12 of 21 passes and cornerback Sean Fresch snagged an interception in the loss. Bloomgren attributes the tremendous showing of the secondary to the established safeties on the roster.

“I thought the secondary play was incredible and I think it does come back down to those three veteran safeties — the comfort they have and the skills that the have. Whether you’re talking about Treshawn Chamberlain, George Nyakwol, or Naeem Smith, the comfort that they give those young corners out there — that’s part of the hidden magic,” Bloomgren said.

NCAA Football: Texas Tech at Houston
Houston WR Nathaniel Dell is the Cougars’ most dangerous skill position player. He led the team in 2020 with 29 receptions and 428 receiving yards.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

On the other side of the field, the Owl receivers were able to create openings deep downfield against Arkansas’ corners, and four of Rice’s 17 completions went for at least 20 yards. August Pitre III is emerging as the team’s premier deep threat after corralling 97 receiving yards and a touchdown in Fayetteville. Pitre and the receiving corps will have their hands full against a talented cornerback group in Damarion Williams and Marcus Jones. Jones thrived from the cornerback spot with six tackles last week, but he is especially intriguing due to his presence in all three facets of the game.

“No. 8 is an incredible player, an incredible athlete — whether they’re having him return kicks, whether they’re having him play some offense, or whether they’re having him in corner — he’s just a playmaker,” Bloomgren said of Jones, who racked up All-American punt returner honors in 2020.

Analysis and prediction

The gap between Rice and Houston at the moment is certainly closer than it was when the teams last collided in 2018.

The Owls may not win every ballgame, but they almost always succeed in making opposing offenses play an ugly brand of football for at least a half. After last week’s offensive debacle for the Cougars, they may fall victim to the trap of Rice’s defense in the early going.

Defensive firepower has never been the question for Rice, which did not allow a single first quarter point a season ago. But similar to previous seasons, the Owls demand more offensive production in order to turn close calls into wins. After averaging roughly two yards per rush and completing less than 50 percent of passes on Arkansas’ defense, it is clear that there is more work to be done within that unit.

Concerning Houston’s offense, Clayton Tune likely won’t throw four interceptions this time around, and his mobility adds an element to the offense which should favor the Cougars. Rice struggled to contain Arkansas’ mobile quarterback K.J. Jefferson a week ago, allowing him to scamper for two touchdowns and considerable yardage with his legs. If Tune keeps Rice honest in the contain, that should elevate his comfort in the pocket and he’ll get back into the groove as a passer.

This one will remain close through the third quarter, but Houston eventually pulls away to maintain the Bayou Bucket for the sixth-straight meeting.

Prediction: Houston 28, Rice 16