- Time and date: Saturday, October 22 at 3:00 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPN+
- Location: Joe Aillet Stadium — Ruston, LA
- Spread: Rice (-3)
- ESPN FPI: Louisiana Tech has 55.4% chance to win
- All-time series: Louisiana Tech leads, 9-5
- Last meeting: Rice 35, Louisiana Tech 31 — November 27, 2021
- Current streak: Rice, 1 (2021)
Setting the scene
Rice and Louisiana Tech both look to get back on track after watching their perfect C-USA records unravel in Week 7. In the final edition of the Owls vs. the Bulldogs as a C-USA matchup, a win would work wonders for both teams’ bowl eligibility status. Louisiana Tech has not lost in Ruston in 2022 while Rice has yet to win away from its hometown heading into Saturday’s matchup.
Rice Owls outlook
Rice (3-3, 1-1 C-USA) looked the part of C-USA dark horse contenders. The Owls upended UAB and bounced to an immediate 14-0 advantage over Florida Atlantic on the road last week. But the offense couldn’t sustain that firepower for the final three quarters, as the Owls from Boca Raton methodically erased the deficit and handed Rice its first conference loss since last November. The Owls next opportunity to recover from the heartbreaker transpires in Ruston, where they hope to snap a 5-game road losing streak.
“Our confidence is never wavering,” cornerback Sean Fresch said. “Our confidence is never wavering. We faced these guys last season, a few of the guys are still there, so we took that win home. That does nothing but boost our confidence. Coming back to their turf, they’ll be a little hungry to get a win off of us. It will always be a challenge but we’re working hard every single day.”
This Rice offense has shown more explosive potential than the previous iterations in the Bloomgren era. And even in a frustrating Week 7 outing, some of this explosiveness was on display as the Owls posted a quick 14 points on the board with a series of deep passes from quarterback TJ McMahon to wide receiver Brad Rozner. McMahon has provided Rice with some of the program’s best quarterback showings in the half decade with two 300-yard showings this year, but this week, he’ll aim to rebound from a 10-of-28 outing at Florida Atlantic which featured three second half interceptions.
“On offense you almost always need all 11 people doing their job and that’s why I think about it as a constructive progress,” Bloomgren said. “When you talk about why things aren’t successful, if one of those dudes does not do their job, it’s hard to be successful. How to calm TJ down, everybody do their job. Go ahead and make every catch especially if he puts it in your area, in your hands. For the running game, you talk about ways to take pressure off a quarterback, it’s having an effective running game and we haven’t been able to do that.”
As Bloomgren stated, Rice could fix many offensive issues it faced last week by establishing a respectable run game. The Owls typically pride themselves on ranking in the nation’s upper echelon in the time of possession metric, but they were beat at their own game last Saturday when Florida Atlantic’s offense hogged up 22 minutes of clock in the second half alone. Fielding the 97th ranked rushing offense in the country, Rice needs a spark on the ground, and perhaps increased utilization of Cameron Montgomery (7.8 yards per carry on 27 attempts) can help the Owls in this department.
“We need to make sure we’re being efficient in the run game,” Bloomgren said. “When we can consistently get four and five (yards), it opens up more opportunities for Cameron to have the 60 or 80-yard run we know he’s capable of. When you can move the sticks and stay ahead of the sticks on first and second down, it’s just more at-bats. And every time we put the ball in Cam Montgomery’s belly, we got a chance for it to go the distance.”
Rice’s defense has been forceful at times this year, holding Louisiana to 175 yards of offense and suffocating UAB’s rushing attack to 118 yards when its average stands at 243 per game. The Owls certainly pulled out enough stops to beat Florida Atlantic last week, but there are still aspects Bloomgren hopes to improve on defense. If Rice wants to attain its goal of producing a shutout, the Owls need to limit the 4.6 yards per carry they allow while also playing a greater hand in the turnover game.
“Our defense is very, very good,” Bloomgren said. “They’re gonna give us a chance in every ballgame we play. We also have a chance to take this defense to the stage of being elite and that’s what we’re challenging them to do right now is to get a shutout in this year. You look around Houston sports and you see what the Astros did the other day in shutting out the Mariners in 18 innings — so not for one game, but for two games, and that’s spectacular. That’s what we’re challenging our defense to do and I think we can do that.”
Louisiana Tech Bulldogs outlook
Louisiana Tech (2-4, 1-1 C-USA) returns home to Joe Aillet Stadium after winding up on the losing end of a 47-27 result against North Texas. The Bulldogs have been a different team at “The Joe” this year, where they boast a 2-0 record wielding an average of 46.5 points per game. Even though the offense clicked on the road last week, a lack of defensive execution prevented the Bulldogs from maintaining their perfect C-USA record in Week 7. Now, the team aims to show resiliency as a matchup with Rice looms.
“We try hard, but we’ve got to execute better,” head coach Sonny Cumbie said. “The midpoint of your season and what I want to find out about us as a program and a team is just our toughness, our ability to push through, and our ability whenever we find resistance and whenever we have things that are hard. Are we gonna tap out or are we gonna fight back?”
There are aspects in Cumbie’s first year at the helm that have sharply improved already. Ever since a Week 5 bye, quarterback Parker McNeil has taken on a different form. The former Texas Tech quarterback fired for a career-high 424 yards without a turnover last week to keep the Bulldogs’ new air raid offense afloat against North Texas, and in the prior week, McNeil tossed four touchdowns on another efficient 266-yard showing. With his talents on full display, the quarterback is having more fun than ever in the scheme which made Cumbie an attractive hire for Louisiana Tech.
“I love it. You can just sling it around and throw it,” Cumbie said. “It’s really fun and there’s a lot of freedom in it. It’s been a blast. It’s a lot better than handing the ball off 30 to 40 times per game.”
But in order to get the best out of their quarterback, adjustments needed to be made on the offensive line as seven sacks were surrendered in the loss at North Texas. More time for McNeil also translates to greater production for Smoke Harris and the receiving unit. Harris has been on a tear lately, capturing 10 receptions for a career-high 156 yards against North Texas. Getting more targets than ever, longtime Bulldog looks to build on this performance as he prepares to face Rice’s 22nd ranked passing defense.
“He’s really blossomed into what I’ve heard he was,” McNeil said. “I always saw it in spring ball and fall camp, I knew he was special, but me getting him the ball, I feel like I’ve helped him getting the shine and putting him in those spots and allowing him to do what he can do.”
Louisiana Tech’s defense will be without its star inside linebacker Tyler Grubbs for the foreseeable future. The 2021 All-C-USA selection ranks atop the Bulldogs’ tackle leaderboard with an average of nearly 10 per game. Without Grubbs in the lineup, tackling was a catastrophic issue for Louisiana Tech against North Texas. The unit yielded 475 rushing yards on 10.1 yards per carry to the Mean Green, repeatedly failing to wrap up rushers at first contact. The Bulldogs finished with zero sacks and two tackles for loss in the 20-point defeat, and igniting backfield pressure becomes a focal point without their best tackler.
“We’ve got to have guys that step up to replace that production. There’s no doubt, from a leadership standpoint and then from a pure production standpoint,” Cumbie said regarding Grubbs’ injury. “He was making a lot of tackles and did a great job in the middle. He was the quarterback of our defense but there’s other guys that have to emerge. The tackling was an issue last week. We delivered some physical hits but the guys we were tackling were big, physical running backs. Every team we play in this conference, that’s the consistency is they have big, powerful, physical running backs.”
Louisiana Tech’s offense is gathering momentum with the in-season progression of quarterback Parker McNeil. The Bulldogs still have plenty to figure out on the defensive side, and the magnitude of losing Tyler Grubbs cannot be understated. After Rice’s shortcomings offensively last week, the Bulldogs are an ideal opponent for solving issues in the run game.
Louisiana Tech’s offense should inflict enough damage to keep the Bulldogs in this game, but expect a bounce back performance by TJ McMahon and the Rice receiving corps to send the Owls back into +.500 territory.
Prediction: Rice 30, Louisiana Tech 24