Date: Saturday, November 19, 2022
Time: 12:00 PM (CT)
Location: Rice Stadium — Houston, Texas
Radio: Sports Map 94.1 FM (Rice); Ticket 760 AM (UTSA)
Betting Line: UTSA -13; O/U 60.5*
Rice (5-5, 3-3 C-USA). Last game: loss to Western Kentucky 45-10
UTSA (8-2, 6-0 C-USA). Last game: win over LA Tech 51-7
UTSA leads series 6-3. Last meeting: UTSA beat Rice 45-0
*Odds/lines subject to change. T&C’s apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details
Setting the scene
Rice and UTSA clash in a C-USA showdown between programs located in the two largest cities in the state of Texas. The series moves to Rice Stadium this year, after UTSA thoroughly handled the Owls in a 45-0 shutout last October at the Alamodome.
Postseason stakes are in play for both the Owls and Roadrunners, alike. For Rice, a win Saturday thrusts the program into its first bowl appearance since 2014. The Owls ride the longest bowl drought in the C-USA and fifth-longest in the FBS, so attaining this feat is essential for head coach Mike Bloomgren and his 5-5 Rice squad.
Meanwhile, UTSA has not slipped up once in C-USA play and a road win this weekend locks up homefield advantage for the C-USA Championship Game. Jeff Traylor’s team is tied with Troy for the fifth-longest win streak in the country, and they look to continue that trend as double-digit favorites in Houston.
Rice Owls outlook
Steve Helwick, Rice beat writer
Rice missed its first chance at cracking bowl eligibility by falling 45-10 to WKU last week. But if there’s one thing this year’s Owls squad has shown, it is impressive resiliency after a loss. Rice’s responded to each of its prior four losses in victorious fashion and the Owls have been sharp in their own nest for the most part — sporting a 4-1 record at home with wins over UAB and Louisiana.
Those aforementioned victories prove Rice can compete with established programs, and that is exactly what the Owls must do when a red-hot UTSA strolls into town. But in order to knock off the 8-2 Roadrunners, Rice cannot afford another disastrous showing in the turnover department. The Owls committed six turnovers last Saturday at WKU, and at a -12 on the season, they exhibit the second worst turnover margin in the country. At 25 giveaways, no team has coughed up the ball more often than the Owls this season, so ball security is of utmost importance Saturday — just like it was when UTSA defeated Rice 2-0 in the turnover battle last October.
Quarterback TJ McMahon exited in the first half of last Saturday’s game with an injury, and the junior did not return to action. Instead, third-string quarterback Shawqi Itraish earned his first substantial collegiate playing time at the position, faring 11-of-18 with 96 yards and two interceptions in the loss. Head coach Mike Bloomgren did not disclose this week’s starting quarterback, but he mentioned that Itraish took a lot a lot of reps with the first team early in the week. If McMahon is unable to go, Rice must replace plenty of its passing production as he is the first Owl quarterback since 2008 to eclipse 300 yards four times in a single season.
In the case that Itraish starts, the Owls will need a significant boost from their running game in order to ease in their quarterback. Cameron Montgomery has proven to be an explosive runner when treated to open space, and Juma Otoviano will be relied upon to pick up chunk yardage on the initial downs. There’s plenty of talent at receiver as Brad Rozner and Luke McCaffrey both display over 650 yards receiving and at least six touchdowns on their 2022 résumés. Both receivers are established downfield threats, but Rice must excel in the short-throw game as well in order to pick apart a talented UTSA secondary.
Defensively, Rice has usually been sound on first and second downs, but third downs are sometimes problematic for the Owls. Last week, WKU converted on 8-of-11 third downs attempts, dropping Rice’s third down defense to 110th nationally at a 42.7 stop percentage. They’ll be facing a UTSA team which is often money in such situations, and the Roadrunners check in at fourth in the country in third down conversion percentage at 53.6.
Both of the Owls’ biggest wins of the season came by virtue of the defense, so Rice certainly has the potential to control a game on this side of the ball. They’ll need a strong performance from Gabe Taylor — their do-everything safety with 48 tackles, six pass breakups, and two interceptions on the year. Also, containing UTSA quarterback Frank Harris and his mobility will be a challenge, so linebackers Chris Conti and Myron Morrison may be tasked with playing contain in order to limit the damage caused by the Roadrunners’ 10th ranked offense.
UTSA Roadrunners outlook
Sumner Macdaniel, UTSA beat writer
The UTSA Roadrunners put together their first complete game last week and all but guaranteed a spot in the conference championship. The team appears to be peaking at the right time for the Roadrunners to repeat as champions, with only two games left on the schedule. Going forward, UTSA will be looking to (1) avoid serious injuries, and (2) win at least one more game to lock down home field advantage for the championship game.
There is good reason to believe the Roadrunners can accomplish the latter. The final two games are against Rice and UTEP, who are a combined 9-11 on the season. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be easy. Rice comes into this matchup at 5-5, with wins against UAB, LA Tech, and Louisiana but they have also lost to Charlotte and were dominated by Western Kentucky. Basically, Rice can at times be inconsistent, but if the stronger Rice team shows up Saturday UTSA will have to be careful.
Additionally, the weather forecast on Saturday is set to be cold and raining — the same weather that hurt UTSA last year on the road in Denton. The Roadrunners have overcome poor play before, but if UTSA gets down early like they did last year against UNT then Rice will have more than a good enough chance to pull the upset.
That said, UTSA should still have the skill and talent alone to overcome mistakes. Freshman running back Kevorian Barnes has emerged as one of UTSA’s best offensive weapons of late and compliments the running style of Senior Brenden Brady well. Barnes is averaging over seven yards per carry while Brady has been the main goal line threat in the redzone. Together, the duo has accounted for nine touchdowns in the past four games, or more than two scores per game. Should the offense struggle on Saturday, expect Barnes and Brady to at least pace the rushing attack well enough to give UTSA a chance to win regardless.
Quarterback Frank Harris continues to play efficiently. Earlier in the season Harris was the primary scoring threat and kept the Roadrunners in every game. That reliance has become less needed in conference play as other players have stepped up but even so, Harris remains the key for success in UTSA’s offense. He threw for 216 yards and one touchdown in only 3 quarters last week against LA Tech. But before then, Harris was scoring at least twice per game, whether it was through the air or on the ground. Harris should continue that trend against Rice even if the Roadrunners can rely upon the running game more.
But UTSA has also taken a strong step forward on defense in spite of injuries to the star safety. Rashad Wisdom is out for the season and the defense continues to make big plays. In their last 3 games, the defense has forced at least one turnover, and had 5 turnovers against LA Tech. Senior Clifford Chatman and junior Jamal Ligon have stepped up in Wisdom’s absence and will be counted on going forward as UTSA looks to close out the season.
Helwick: While Rice has responded to losses in poised fashion this year, UTSA is unquestionably the strongest opponent on the schedule since the opener at USC. To make matters worse for the Owls, there is the possibility of operating without quarterback TJ McMahon, whose arm has been essential to maneuvering the most explosive Rice offense of the Mike Bloomgren era. Frank Harris is going to cause a myriad of problems for an Owl defense which is allowing 43 points per game across its last four contests. Rice desperately needs this one for bowl eligibility, but the Roadrunners storm into Houston with too much offensive firepower to contain. UTSA 38, Rice 10
Sumner: Last year the Roadrunners shut down Rice and won handily 45-0. That will likely not happen again, but much of the same talent from last year remains and should be enough to win even if mistakes are made. Weather was a big reason why UTSA dropped their lone season game against North Texas, and that same environment will exist on Saturday. Even so, head coach Jeff Traylor will likely have the team prepared to not repeat that performance, and even if the Roadrunners struggle their offensive talent alone should keep them in the game and give UTSA a great chance to win. UTSA 27, Rice 18