- Time and date: Saturday, October 15 at 6:00 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPN+
- Location: FAU Stadium — Boca Raton, FL
- Spread: Florida Atlantic (-4)
- ESPN FPI: Florida Atlantic has 73.2% chance to win
- All-time series: Rice leads, 2-1
- Last meeting: Florida Atlantic 42, Rice 25 — November 5, 2016
- Current streak: Florida Atlantic, 1 (2016)
Setting the scene
It’s been six years since the most recent matchup between the Owls and Owls. The C-USA interdivisional opponents don’t typically cross paths, but they will one final time with C-USA patches on their jerseys.
A lot has changed since the last battle of the Owls. Florida Atlantic (2-4, 1-1 C-USA) is on its fourth head coach since that matchup and the program brought two C-USA titles back to Boca Raton since its 42-25 win over Rice in 2016. Meanwhile, Rice (3-2, 1-0 C-USA) has not attained bowl eligibility since the teams last met in Houston six years ago, but this year’s squad brings a winning record and newfound hope into FAU Stadium.
Rice Owls outlook
It’s a new era of Rice Owls football. Rice remains in search of its first bowl invite since 2015, and this is the most promising start the team has concocted in the past seven years. The Owls hadn’t been above .500 through five games since their 2013 C-USA championship season, but the team enjoyed a highly successful 4-game stretch in the city of Houston — faring 3-1 with statement wins over Louisiana and UAB. Now, they aim for their first road victory since last October.
“The new trick for us that we’re trying to get done is to find a way to go on the road and earn a win, so that’s the challenge we presented to our guys,” head coach Mike Bloomgren said. “I think our team’s excited. We’re all excited for this trip to Boca Raton and we understand what we’re up against.”
Rice earned a fulfilling week of rest after knocking off UAB in the Lone Star State on Oct. 1. The Owls used that extended time to study an unfamiliar opponent which it hasn’t faced in the Bloomgren era, understanding that Florida Atlantic enters Saturday with the same advantage of a Week 6 bye.
“The challenge from me to the staff is to understand FAU is on their bye also,” Bloomgren said. “Anything that’s hurt us this year on any of the three phases, they’re going to do. We have to understand that so we better like our answers and understand how we’re gonna solve those issues going forward. And by the same token, we’ve been studying their film and the things that attack them and hurt them.”
One of the issues Rice looks to hash out is pass protection. For an Owl offense airing it out more than usual, providing ample protection to their quarterback is of utmost importance. Currently, Rice is tied for 24th in the country in most sacks allowed per game at 2.80. The Owls have adapted to several injuries and absences on the offensive line this year and alleviating pressure can also limit interceptions, as Rice ranks ninth in the FBS in most interceptions thrown.
“Those guys are fighting their butts off for me up front,” quarterback TJ McMahon said. “They’re doing everything they can. I appreciate everything that they do for me. We’ve had to plug in some different guys but I think the guys have all come in and they’ve done their job and they’ve executed well. Everybody’s earned my trust.”
Aside from the Owls’ interception numbers, the passing game has made conspicuous improvements from the prior year. McMahon became the first Rice quarterback to deliver back-to-back 300-yard games since 2014 and he has multiple outings with 3+ touchdowns this year. Operating with a potent receiving corps featuring Luke McCaffrey and Brad Rozner, the McMahon-led aerial attack is averaging 231 yards per game — the team’s most since the aforementioned year of 2014. This sudden spike in passing protection has allowed the coaching staff to become more comfortable with the ball in McMahon’s hands in tightly-contested finishes.
“It’s nice. It allows me to sleep pretty good,” Bloomgren said. “With the game on the line, we called a pass. It didn’t go the way we wanted it to so TJ took the sack. He did the absolute right thing to keep the clock going and we trusted him completely to do that. The biggest word is the trust and consistency and continuity from me and all the guys around him right now. It’s really nice.”
While Rice’s offense looks more refined than recent iterations, the Owls still possess plenty of firepower on the defensive side of the ball. The points allowed per game statistic doesn’t quite do the unit justice as five defensive touchdowns have been scored on Rice this year. But this unit stifled Louisiana to 175 yards of total offense and limited UAB’s powerful rushing attack to 118 yards on 41 attempts. Florida Atlantic’s offense utilizes a complex run game with a handful of motions and misdirections, but the Rice front seven led by Ikenna Enechukwu and Myron Morrison (4.5 tackles for loss apiece) will be up for the task to win this matchup.
“I’m always going to start with the lines — our ability to stop the run, our ability to fit things properly with all the misdirection and eye candy in the background,” Bloomgren said. “Years ago, Brent Dearmon got all this credit for being an offensive genius. Listening to people who know him best, he doesn’t want to be one of these air raid gurus. He doesn’t want to throw the ball. He actually wants to create lanes to run the ball. He wants to run the ball down your throat, so that’s gonna be a big matchup for our run-stopping defense against their creative offense.”
Florida Atlantic Owls outlook
Florida Atlantic is similarly fresher for Week 7, enjoying its first bye week after six consecutive Saturdays of action. The Owls ride a three-game skid into their first C-USA matchup in Boca Raton since August, and they’ll hope the much-needed break can serve as an impetus to turn the season around.
“Mentally, I think our guys are in the right frame of our mind,” Taggart said in his weekly press conference. “Nobody here is happy with where we’re at when you look at our record and all. We feel and know we should be better than what our record is showing right now, but it is what it is. I think what’s important is that we recognize and understand how we got here and that we correct those things with these next six ball games to go, starting with Rice.”
Much of Florida Atlantic’s success is hinged on the play of starting quarterback N’Kosi Perry. The former Miami Hurricane is in the midst of his second year with the Owls, exhibiting a solid touchdown-to-interception ratio of 15-to-5 with three games featuring 3+ touchdown passes this season. Taggart and his staff hope for more consistent play from their signal caller, because when Perry is in a rhythm like he was at Purdue (230 passing yards, three passing touchdowns, 93 rushing yards), FAU’s offense elevates to another level, and everyone benefits — including the nation’s 26th-ranked run game led by tailback Larry McCammon III.
“We need our QB to be at his best when his best is needed, which is every ball game,” Taggart said. “This bye week was good for him to reevaluate some things, for us to reevaluate what we’re asking him to do, for him to go out and execute like we know he’s capable of doing, but we need for him to be on his ‘A’ game in order for our offense to flow like we know it can.”
Perry is able to thrive at a greater level this year due to the shield presented by the front five. After allowing over three sacks per contest in 2021, FAU’s offensive line has fortified itself into a juggernaut by surrendering just four sacks through six games. Considering the Owls air it out north of 34 times per game, the offensive line has asserted its dominance on hopeful pass rushers on a significant amount of snaps — serving as the strongest unit on this 2022 FAU squad.
“The consistency of their play up front has been the best on our football team,” Taggart said. “Coming in, we felt they were going to be the strength of our team and those guys are showing that. I think Coach (Ed) Warinner has done a great job in bringing those guys together. Those guys believe in each other and they do a good job taking care of the quarterback. We’ve made so much improvement on that part of it from last year to where we are at now.”
The Owls haven’t produced ideal results on the defensive side of the ball this fall, allowing 40 points or greater in three of their four losses. Overall, Florida Atlantic is situated at 101st in total defense with an allotment of 415 yards per game. Led by star safety Teja Young, who registered 11 tackles and a pick-six in his last outing, Florida Atlantic hopes to amplify its stop rate against a much-improved Rice offense which is more multiple than most C-USA opponents
“They give you a lot of different personnel groupings,” Taggart said on Rice. “When that happens, you have to be defensively locked in and understand who’s in the game and what they like to do out of those personnel groupings... That’s a little more challenging than playing a team that’s always going to be in, for instance, 11 personnel. You have to be sharp on who you have and how you match the personnel grouping that comes in, because you can’t play the same thing to every personnel grouping.”
Rice enters this game as the Vegas underdog, but the Vegas spreads haven’t come close to projecting this Rice season. Mike Bloomgren’s team faced double-digit spreads when hosting Louisiana and UAB, and both of those games swung into the Owls’ favor — despite rough first halves from Rice in both outings. This team is very sound defensively and the offense has an extra kick in explosiveness with TJ McMahon in the lineup and playmaking receivers at his disposal.
Florida Atlantic has struggled mightily on the defensive side since the Week 0 matchup with Charlotte, and the Owls defense has allowed 300+ on the ground twice and 300+ through the air twice, allowing teams to pick their poison. FAU certainly has offensive firepower to win this game with a strong rushing attack led by Larry McCammon and the mobile N’Kosi Perry. But overall, Rice’s edge defensively will allow the Owls from Texas to fly past the Owls from Florida.
Prediction: Rice 30, Florida Atlantic 27