- Time and Date: Saturday, October 2 at 6:30 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPN3
- Location: Rice Stadium — Houston, TX
- Spread: Rice (-1.5)
- ESPN FPI: Southern Miss has 64.8% chance to win
- All-time series: Southern Miss leads, 6-5
- Last meeting: Rice 30, Southern Miss 6 — October 31, 2020
Owls offensive breakthrough
Rice finally edited the win column last Saturday night in its home Stadium. After withstanding a brutal non-conference schedule featuring Arkansas, Houston, and Texas, the Owls regrouped to defeat Texas Southern of the FCS, 48-34. The 48 points scored double Rice’s entire output from its first three games.
Rice asserted itself from the opening play of scrimmage — a 73-yard touchdown pass from Jake Constantine to Cedric Patterson III. The Owls also scored via a 64-yard rush from Jordan Myers to add explosiveness to an offense which only manufactured one 40-yard play in its first three showings. Prior to Week 4, Rice managed just seven points in its nine previous quarters, but Saturday resulted in the program’s highest point total since October 2016.
“Just the feeling of excitement,” offensive tackle Jovaun Woolford said regarding Rice’s sudden offensive explosion. “A lot of times offensive linemen, we have our entire face covered by a 350 pound man while you’re driving with all of our strength. So when you look up and try to find out where the ball is and you see it flying down the field, that definitely gives you a huge confidence boost.”
Recovering from Bama
Similar to Rice, Southern Miss finished non-conference play at 1-3 with its lone victory transpiring against FCS competition. But the Golden Eagles’ last opponent could not possibly differ more than Rice’s Week 4 matchup. Southern Miss faced the daunting task of entering Tuscaloosa, AL for a non-conference matchup with Alabama. During the Golden Eagles’ visit to Tuscaloosa, the Crimson Tide attached a milestone to their 63-14 victory — winning their 100th consecutive game against an unranked opponent. Even after a deflating 49-point loss to the No. 1 team in the country, the Golden Eagles’ first-year head coach remains in high spirits about the program he inherited last December.
“Like the good Lord tells us, we remain positive in our confident hope,” Southern Miss head coach Will Hall said. “We’ve got so much hope still left in the season, we’ve got so much hope for this program and where we’re heading. Just to see the strides that (quarterback) Ty (Keyes) made and our O-line made against a great football program.”
Almost no team in the country can replicate the skill and coaching of the Alabama dynasty. But some coaches can model gameplays based on Alabama’s execution. The Crimson Tide’s annihilation of Southern Miss has done favors for Rice, as Bloomgren and his personnel aim to emulate snippets of the Crimson Tide’s gameplan in preparation for Southern Miss.
“There was great film for us to watch,” Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren said. “Alabama’s got great coaches, they were able to get a great gameplan together, and I think that’s great for all three phases of our ball to watch how Alabama attacked them. There’s also the reality that they played a physical bunch so I’m sure there’s some ouchies going on at their place. I know after you play those guys, a lot of times, you’re a little banged up.”
Rice has already trotted out three different starting quarterbacks four games into the season. Wiley Green started the opener in Arkansas but is currently sidelined with an injury sustained from Week 3. Nebraska transfer Luke McCaffrey handled No. 1 QB duties in Weeks 2 and 3 after demonstrating strong adaptation to the playbook, but McCaffrey also suffered an injury in Week 3, paving way for Jake Constantine to see his first FBS action.
The Weber State transfer started Rice’s victory over Texas Southern and became the sixth different quarterback to log a win in the Bloomgren era. After an efficient 18/23 showing with 271 yards last weekend, Constantine appears slated to start the C-USA opener.
“As we continue to get reps, I believe Jake is gonna get better and better,” Bloomgren said. “I certainly thought he had a good game Saturday minus just a couple plays and that’s what we’ll continue to work with him on.”
However, McCaffrey checked in for five productive rushing attempts last week and we could see a similar division of duties between Constantine and the former Cornhusker.
The quarterback carousel is a familiar concept to Southern Miss too. After sophomore Trey Lowe started the Golden Eagles’ first two games of 2021, the role transitioned to Ty Keyes for Weeks 3 and 4. Keyes was an esteemed recruit coming into Hattiesburg, ranked as a 4-star prospect by ESPN and dubbed as the No. 7 dual-threat quarterback in the country. It’s no surprise Hall was awestruck when Keyes made his collegiate debut and decided to invest in the true freshman’s future.
Part of adjusting to the collegiate level involves facing intense challenges from opposing defenses. In Keyes’ first start, Troy sacked him nine times and picked him off twice. But the freshman shook off the letdown to produce two touchdown passes against Alabama. Through every trial, Hall’s faith in his talented young quarterback hasn’t wavered.
“It’s pretty normal, it happened last year with us at Tulane,” Hall said. “Young kid comes in in the middle of a game, plays well Then he gets his first start, doesn’t go good. Then he starts kind of resetting himself and understanding what college football is about. You saw that against a tremendous opponent and he just really raised his game and played well.”
Keyes amassed 41 rushing yards on an Alabama defense which normally bottles up quarterbacks behind the line of scrimmage. From his natural abilities on the field to the sheer effort he puts in at practice, Coach Hall is aware that Southern Miss has a potential star on its hands in Keyes.
“I think everybody wants to compare him to somebody from here from the past. I’d say his style is more Brett (Favre) than anybody, because he’s a gunslinger,” Hall said. “He’s going to run around and make plays with his feet. He really trusts his arm and his natural ability and he loves football. He was up here until 9:00 last night, we started the day at 6:30 yesterday morning. Like I said, the future is bright, he’s doing everything he’s supposed to be doing.”
Correcting the defensive downward spiral
In the Bloomgren era, the foundation of Rice’s success has resided within the defense. Last season, the Owls finished 12th in scoring defense and even registered a shutout when registering a ranked Marshall squad. Through four games, the defensive potency has presented a stark contrast to the 2020 numbers. Only two programs in the country allow more points per contest than the 43.5 Rice permits.
Stopping the run has been the Owls’ primary issue, and they’re currently situated in the bottom 10 in the FBS in that department. Rice proved in the first half of the Arkansas game that defensive firepower still lurks within the unit, and now, it just has to be unleashed again.
“The first four games, in terms of the other years I’ve been year, we’ve done a better job getting to the quarterback, but we still need to work on all four of us keeping contain,” defensive end Ikenna Enechukwu said about defensive line adjustments. “We’re gonna stop the run. That will just open up a lot more for our defense to make plays. Then we’ll be looking like how we did — or how we are, because we are the same.”
Allowing 34 points to Texas Southern wasn’t the promising sign of a turnaround Rice hoped for, but the coaching staff believes many lapses shown Saturday were fixable. In a twist of events, smoothing out the typically-stout defense will be the Owls’ primary focus after finally making strides on the offensive end last week.
“Defensively, we made a lot of adjustments during the game,” Bloomgren said. “We were really close on a lot of things but kind of a step behind on getting those things done. I don’t think it’s anything we can’t get fixed this week and that’s what we’re working towards. (Defensive coordinator Brian) Smith is doing a great job with the whole defense, getting everybody on the right page, and we’re gonna try to get out there and look like our defense for 60 minutes. That’s the goal this week.”
Countering Southern Miss with “Intellectual Brutality”
Rice lives by the mantra “Intellectual Brutality,” and fittingly, the Owls pride themselves on physicality in both sides of the ball. Rice’s classic offensive scheme utilizes fullbacks, under-center snaps, and two tight end concepts more than any other team in the C-USA.
And although the unit hasn’t played to standard this season, the defense is typically aggressive around the line of scrimmage as well. Members from the 2020 Southern Miss roster certainly remember Rice’s physicality in the 30-6 result last October. This will be Hall’s first taste of Rice, but he understands the dogfight he is preparing for on both sides in the trenches.
“They play extremely hard, one of the hardest playing teams I’ve ever coached against,” Hall said. “They get after you on defense, they’re hard hitters, they really come after you to try and stop the run. Offensively, they’re extremely physical, they play a lot of tight ends and come at you. They’re built kind of like Stanford was back in the (Jim) Harbaugh days.”
Rice is a team that prefers to ground the ball, but if there’s one area of expertise on Southern Miss’ defense, it’s countering opposing halfbacks. The Golden Eagles rank 19th in the FBS in preventing the run, stifling opponents to 85.5 yards per game and 2.7 yards per attempt.
“I issued that challenge to our running backs and to the blocking unit — what a great challenge,” Bloomgren said about Southern Miss’ defense. “These are guys that’ve stepped up, they’ve tackled very well, they got a great scheme. Sometimes they’re moving, sometimes they’re outnumbering you at the point of attack.”
Grounding it with Gore
Frank Gore Jr. is unquestionably the most recognizable name on the Golden Eagles’ roster. The son of the third leading rusher in NFL history, the younger Gore is making a name for himself as a sophomore at the collegiate ranks. The Maxwell Award watchlist selection amassed 241 yards in his first two showings of the year. Surprisingly, his offensive touches declined in the past two weeks, but Southern Miss plans to prioritize utilizing their star halfback to a higher degree as C-USA play launches.
“There’s other ways to get Frank involved than just handing it to him,” Hall said. “We’ve got to find ways to run it, but also get him involved in the passing game, which we’ve done a good job of throughout the year. We didn’t get it to him too much last week, but he’s going to be involved in everything we do, not just the run game.”
Although Rice handled Southern Miss by a comfortable 24-point margin last Halloween, Gore attained reasonable success against the Owl defense. As a true freshman, he led all Golden Eagles with 71 yards on 11 carries, and Rice is well aware of the damage he is capable of inflicting.
“He’s a really talented player,” Bloomgren said of Gore. “He’s a guy that’s always going forward, always driving his knees forward, and certainly, he’s got good genes.”
Players to Watch
Jordan Myers, RB, Rice: Myers is labeled a “super senior” on this Rice squad and has been a program staple since first enrolling in classes in 2016. The most versatile player on offense, Myers lines up in a myriad of positions from halfback to tight end to slot receiver. Last week, he broke out for a career-high 160 yards as a rusher with four touchdowns in the contest. But his receiving contributions are just as important and he ranks second on the team this season with 15 receptions.
Antonio Montero, ILB, Rice: When it comes to countering Frank Gore Jr. and the Southern Miss rushing attack, Antonio Montero will play an essential role. The junior inside linebacker has collected team-highs with 33 tackles and 5.0 tackles for loss in 2021. Last season, Montero was highly responsible to holding Southern Miss to six points as the Owls’ tackle leader in the victory.
Grayson Gunter, TE, Southern Miss: Gunter’s first reception as a Golden Eagle transpired on Nov. 19, 2016. Fast forward five years later and Gunter is finally stepping up to become one of the key contributors on offense. He capitalized on playing time against Alabama to record three receptions for a career-best 61 yards. Through four games, he holds more receiving yards than anyone else on the roster. Once Keyes gets adjusted to the passing game, Gunter could play an increased role as one of his primary targets.
Malik Shorts, SS, Southern Miss: Shorts is far and away the most lethal player on the Southern Miss defense. He holds the title for most tackles on the team and serves as one of the premier stoppers in the Golden Eagles’ run defense. When defending receivers, there aren’t too many players more skilled in zone coverage. Shorts is tied for sixth in the FBS in pass breakups and he is one of two Southern Miss defenders to intercept a pass in 2021.
When the 116th and 122nd scoring offenses meet on the same field, expect points to be at a premium. Saturday’s C-USA opener shapes up to be a low-scoring game, signifying that either team has a chance to eke out a victory with one or two opportune plays. Winning the turnover battle should be of utmost importance in this matchup, as both teams strive for short field opportunities to gather momentum for their offenses.
For Rice to win this game, the Owls are going to have to replicate a passing performance similar to last week. The Golden Eagles limit the run better than any C-USA program save for UTSA. Thus, finding openings in the secondary should be a primary focus for Jake Constantine and his group of receivers.
On the other hand, Southern Miss must add the passing dimension to its offense. The Golden Eagles rank 120th in the FBS in average passing output, and Rice’s defense should be able to feast at the line of scrimmage if they remain one-dimensional. Getting Ty Keyes comfortable with checkdown throws and dump offs toward the sideline should be a point of emphasis for Southern Miss in order to add versatility to the offense and keep Rice honest defensively.
This is one of the tougher calls across the entire Week 5 slate, but I’ll predict the Southern Miss defense asserts its will on Rice’s ground game. The Golden Eagles leave Houston with a tightly contested victory via a strong rushing effort.
Prediction: Southern Miss 17, Rice 16