- Time and date: Saturday, November 12 at 2:00 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPN+
- Location: Houchens Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium — Bowling Green, KY
- Spread: WKU (-13)
- ESPN FPI: WKU has 90.9% chance to win
- All-time series: WKU leads, 3-0
- Last meeting: WKU 42, Rice 21 — November 13, 2021
- Current streak: WKU, 3 (2015-21)
Setting the scene
The Rice Owls (5-4, 3-2 C-USA) crave bowl eligibility. No active player on the roster has qualified for the postseason in an Owl uniform. Rice owns the longest bowl drought in the C-USA, most recently attaining a bowl bid in 2014. But Saturday is an opportunity to snap that streak and play late December or early January football for the first time in the Mike Bloomgren era.
Rice doesn’t have an easy path to get there, though. The three remaining C-USA teams hoping to obstruct the Owls’ from win No. 6 are the three teams situated above Rice in the conference standings. They’ll travel to Western Kentucky this Saturday to battle the Hilltoppers, which already attained bowl eligibility for the third time in three full seasons of the Tyson Helton era, excluding 2020 where bowl eligibility rules didn’t apply.
Oh, and Big Red is on WKU’s helmet this week for the first time in school history. The Hilltoppers’ creative team released an entertaining video to commemorate the historic moment.
Western Kentucky will debut these sweet helmets featuring mascot “Big Red” Saturday vs. Rice pic.twitter.com/NZ4C9DfXDv— Brett McMurphy (@Brett_McMurphy) November 10, 2022
Rice Owls outlook
Rice bounced back from an alarming home loss to Charlotte with a poised crunch time win over UTEP. With 25 seconds remaining in a tie ballgame, head coach Mike Bloomgren elected to win with his offense rather than settle for the field goal. TJ McMahon delivered a 23-yard dime to the end zone to a spot where only wide receiver Brad Rozner could snag it.
Rice’s 37-point offensive outburst certainly inspired confidence throughout the team, which needs to carry that momentum into a difficult environment in Bowling Green, KY. In order to replicate an offensive showing like that, the Owls will need another stellar outing from McMahon, who has been Rice’s most explosive quarterback in quite some time. With a 334-yard outing last Thursday, McMahon is the first player in the program to eclipse the 300-yard passing barrier three times in a single season.
The coaching staff’s confidence in the first-year starter increases every week, and that expands to the run game. More designed runs are called for McMahon, and he has produced 135 rushing yards in his last three contests after generating just 34 in his first six. Although his frequent risk-taking in all facets of the offense has its benefits, Rice needs McMahon to limit the interceptions, as he ranks second in the FBS in the category with 12.
The quarterback is equipped with a deep receiving corps, highlighted by Rozner, the recipient of last week’s game-winner. After missing essentially two seasons, Rozner has been on a tear in his return to the gridiron with five 100-yard outings and a team-high eight touchdown receptions this season. But defenses need to focus on more than just the Biletnikoff Watchlist candidate, as Luke McCaffrey also presents a danger to opposing secondaries. The former quarterback is three games removed from a 10-catch, 171-yard explosion at Louisiana Tech, and his unique playmaking ability thrusts him into the wildcat role several times per game.
Rice’s rushing offense currently relies on a two-back system between program veterans Juma Otoviano and Cam Montgomery, who have been Owls since 2018 and 2017, respectively. Otoviano set a new season-high versus UTEP with 65 yards, and the longtime halfback averages an impressive 6.3 yards per carry this year. The 5’5” fleet-footed Montgomery is Rice’s home run threat in the backfield, ripping for four 30+ yard runs this year. While more consistency is desired in the run game, the Owls’ have shown enough promise in that aspect to field its best scoring offense since 2012.
The Owls started the year with a more potent defense, but the ability to generate stops has lacked in the last three outings. Rice’s last three C-USA foes averaged 42 points per game on the unit, and amending the team’s 91st ranked rushing defense is certainly a focal point. The Owls recently returned inside linebacker Myron Morrison to the lineup, which should help improve this area. Morrison has been a tackling machine this year with 38 takedowns and four backfield stops in his last four starts.
While the secondary struggled against Charlotte two weeks ago, this position group has been very steady throughout the year. Rice only averages a hair over 200 passing yards per game as the team’s starting cornerbacks have seen a significant leap in production from their freshman to their sophomore seasons. Strong safety Gabe Taylor is another name of note in the secondary as the group’s most dynamic playmaker. Taylor has 44 tackles, five pass deflections, and a pair of interceptions as one of the most fearsome defenders in the C-USA.
WKU Hilltoppers outlook
WKU maintained its status in the C-USA race by throttling Charlotte on the road 59-7. That margin of victory put the Hilltoppers in exclusive territory with Alabama as the only teams to generate multiple 50+ point wins over FBS competition this season. The level of execution demonstrated in Charlotte is the firepower WKU will need for its remaining C-USA games this season, as any loss bars the Hilltoppers from their second conference championship appearance.
It’s no secret this team likes to do two things offensively — pile on the points and pass often. WKU is tied with fellow C-USA brethren North Texas at 17th nationally in points per game at 37.2. The Hilltoppers also drop back to pass at the eighth highest rate in the country, and due to quarterback Austin Reed’s efficiency and ability to stretch the field, they rank even higher in passing yards — situated third with 332 passing yards per game. Just like record-breaking quarterback Bailey Zappe in 2021, it is more common for Reed to churn out a 300-yard performance than fail to meet that threshold. The Division II transfer quarterback is fresh off his best showing off the season, posting 409 yards and six touchdowns in Charlotte, which are both season-highs.
WKU rotates mainly between empty sets and 10 personnel groupings, and there are four receivers which carry the bulk of the offense. Malachi Corley and Daewood Davis rank first and second on the roster in receptions and yards, while MAC transfer Michael Mathison and Jaylen Hall play important supporting roles as the third and fourth most frequented targets of Reed. All four receivers are above 35 receptions and 400 yards on the season, forcing Rice’s defensive backs to focus on a multitude of threats.
Although WKU doesn’t prefer to keep its offense grounded, it’s actually quite good at running the ball. Only 11 teams call fewer runs per game than the Hilltoppers, yet they are one of 28 FBS teams averaging five yards per carry or greater. Leading rusher Kye Robichaux hasn’t taken a handoff since Oct. 15, but after participating in warmups last Saturday, the 6.7 yards per carry running back could triumphantly return to the lineup this weekend. Recently, the team has leaned on Davion Ervin-Poindexter, who tallied 194 yards on 29 attempts in the three games without Robichaux.
Defensively, last week’s performance was a welcome sight to follow up what a was a disastrous Week 10 against North Texas. In the Hilltoppers’ last home game, they allowed 322 passing yards and three touchdowns on a 71.4 percent clip. Although pass defense has been a concern at times, WKU’s secondary was stellar on both sides of the North Texas game, holding UAB and Charlotte to a collective 24-of-36 passing with three interceptions.
Takeaways have been a common theme for this defense all season, and they are currently tied with Louisville at No. 1 in the nation in turnovers forced with 24. It’s a relatively balanced split between 13 interceptions and 11 fumble recoveries. Cornerback Upton Stout leads the pack with three picks, and the former North Texas defensive back has thrived as one of the team’s top corners in 2022. The other cornerback Kah
lef Hailassie has been extraordinary as well, leading the team with eight pass breakups in addition to two interceptions. Don’t be surprised to see Hailassie in the backfield on corner blitzes, as he currently has three sacks and eight tackles for loss in his second season playing for Helton’s squad.
While Hailassie is a significant contributor, the havoc in the backfield is mainly caused by outside linebacker JaQues Evans, who leads all Hilltoppers with 6.0 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss. Evans and crew produced the necessary pressure to win in Charlotte last week with five sacks as a team, but the lack of pressure in the North Texas game allowed the Mean Green passing attack to feast.
Both teams desperately need a victory to preserve C-USA Championship Game prospects. In this contest, we’ll see a lot of action between the passing offense. WKU has long been established as an aerial attack, and Austin Reed continues to push the program into the upper echelon of FBS offenses. Rice is rather new to the 300-yard passing territory, but quarterback TJ McMahon has made many crunch-time throws to his talented receiving corps this year to get the Owls into the win column.
The turnover battle will largely factor into this one, and although luck is a major factor when it comes to turnovers, Rice’s proclivity to turning it over and WKU’s ability to generate routine interceptions certainly favors the Hilltoppers. If that factors into the contest, WKU should have a favorable day at The Houch.
Prediction: WKU 35, Rice 24