- Time and date: Thursday, November 3 at 7:00 p.m. ET
- Network: CBS Sports Network
- Location: Rice Stadium — Houston, TX
- Spread: Rice (-3.5)
- ESPN FPI: Houston has 63.9% chance to win
- All-time series: Rice leads, 15-9
- Last meeting: UTEP 38, Rice 28 — November 20, 2021
- Current streak: UTEP, 1 (2021)
Setting the scene
Rice and UTEP is one of the longest standing annual rivalries in Conference USA. Save for 2020, when the matchup got canceled on gameday due to positive COVID-19 cases, the Owls and Miners have squared off every year dating back to 1999.
Heading into Thursday night’s matchup in Houston, both the Owls and Miners have four wins on their plate. A triumph at Rice Stadium inches one of these Texas-based programs back to bowl eligibility, while a loss makes reaching the postseason incredibly difficult for both participants.
The city of Houston will be at the forefront of the sports world Thursday night, as the Astros participate in the World Series, the Texans host the Eagles on Thursday Night Football, and Rice plays host to the first non-MAC football game of Week 10.
UTEP Miners outlook
It’s been quite a roller coaster season for UTEP (4-5, 2-3 C-USA). The Miners haven’t strung together more than two wins or two losses in a row, experiencing highs such as knocking off 6-2 Boise State in 27-10 fashion and lows such as falling to 2-6 Louisiana Tech, 41-31. UTEP’s latest outing at Middle Tennessee pushed the Miners to five losses, so in order to compete in back-to-back bowl games for the second time in the last 60 years, Dana Dimel’s team must claim two wins in this final 3-game stretch of the season.
Even though bowl eligibility remains in question, there’s no question UTEP is in a far better place than it was two years ago when every win was a rarity. Now, the Miners win on a much more consistent basis, and that’s primarily due to an assertive defense. UTEP has a commanding presence on its front seven, led by the talented defensive end duo of Praise Amaewhule and Jadrian Taylor, as well as outside linebacker Tyrice Knight. Including these three stars, UTEP has five different players with 4.5 or more tackles for loss in 2022, led by Taylor’s 10.
Taylor also stands at the forefront in the sack department with 8.0, but the Miners have plenty of viable options when it comes to getting to the quarterback. Amaewhule, a First Team All-C-USA selection from 2021 has been susceptible to double teams, allowing other UTEP defenders to get their shine. Thanks to his attention-grabbing presence, emerging players like inside linebacker Cal Wallerstedt (5.5 sacks) and even strong safety Kobe Hylton (8.0 tackles for loss) are enjoying fruitful seasons.
With an aggressive play style within the front seven, it’s no question why UTEP ranks top five in fumble recoveries this year with 10. And although the Miners force an opponent completion percentage below 57 percent, they’ve had trouble snagging interceptions this year. When combining UTEP’s three interceptions in nine games with their high giveaway numbers as an offense, it creates a -5 turnover margin on the season.
Quarterback Gavin Hardison is one of the most fearless gunslingers in college football. He attacks downfield with plenty of high-risk, high-reward throws, and while that plays a role in UTEP’s turnover numbers, it also gives the Miners’ offense a necessary degree of explosiveness. Hardison must combat some of this risk, and in order to that, it starts with establishing a run game.
When the run game works fluidly, UTEP’s offense is at its best. All four Miners’ victories this season featured fewer than 30 passing attempts, while all five losses involved more than 30 (and four involved more than 40). Thus, it’s important for the backfield duo of Ronald Awatt and Deion Hankins to move the sticks early and prevent the Miners from falling behind. Hankins has been the hot hand recently, averaging 112 rushing yards in UTEP’s last three wins, but Awatt was the dominant force against Rice last year by crossing the century mark with over 13 yards per carry.
Rice Owls outlook
Rice (4-4, 2-2 C-USA) starves for bowl eligibility more than any team in the C-USA, remaining bereft of the honor since 2014. The Owls not only looked on track for bowl eligibility earlier in the season — they looked the part of C-USA contenders by taking out conference powerhouse UAB and convincingly defeating Louisiana in non-conference play.
So when the Owls fell to Charlotte at home in a 56-23 result, it was very alarming on many levels. Rice’s previously stout defense struggled to contain the air and the 49ers recorded seven consecutive touchdown possessions to blow the Owls out of the water and force them back to .500. After Charlotte averaged 13.4 yards per passing play and mailed five touchdowns on the Rice secondary, it’s clear that aerial defense is the top priority for Rice this week. Even factoring in that unwelcome showing, the Owls rank 38th in fewest passing yards allowed per game, so they’ll rely on cornerback Sean Fresch, strong safety Gabe Taylor, and the secondary to revert back to the norm against a UTEP offense which has an affinity for launching it deep.
Rice’s secondary certainly thirsts for more takeaways, as the Owls have collected just six interceptions in eight games compared to the 12 they have thrown to opponents. In order to amplify those numbers, Rice hopes to fortify its pass rush and limit Gavin Hardison’s time to make decisions. Outside linebacker Josh Pearcy and defensive end Ikenna Enechukwu lead the charge against a UTEP offensive line allowing 2.4 sacks per game this year, hoping to win the turnover battle after sitting at a -6 this season.
Taking care of the ball is essential for the Rice offense, which has lost two of its three games this year in 3+ interception performances. Quarterback TJ McMahon is similar to Hardison in nature, demonstrating explosive qualities in the pocket while also displaying a high-risk, high-reward nature with his throws. Still, Rice’s passing game has taken a considerable leap forward with McMahon at quarterback, and the junior has fired three or more touchdowns in half of his outings this year. Rice is well-equipped at the wide receiver position with Luke McCaffrey and Brad Rozner combining for seven 100-yard receiving games in 2022. The downfield playmakers have 613 and 579 yards, respectively, and McCaffrey is especially dangerous in this offense with his ability to thrive in wildcat packages.
Putting the former quarterback McCaffrey behind the center is one way to bolster the run game, and this is one element Rice really hopes to figure out on its quest to bowl eligibility. Cameron Montgomery and Juma Otoviano are getting more involved in the rushing attack, and while both backs thrived with impressive showings at Louisiana Tech, Charlotte sniffed out nearly every handoff in last week’s matchup. In order to thrive in this area of the game, Rice’s blockers must decisively win the battle against UTEP’s front seven because the Miners have several standout defenders capable of invading the backfield on a dime. Thus, Thursday will be a significant game for Rice’s veteran offensive line which features veterans familiar with UTEP including center Shea Baker and tackle Clay Servin.
Rice has shown the ability to play C-USA games in shootout fashion (defeated Louisiana Tech 42-41 in overtime) and in a low-scoring defensive slugfest (lost to Florida Atlantic 14-10). However, UTEP’s conference games are usually on the lower-scoring side as the Miner defense serves as a controlling factor.
Rice thrives when establishing a viable running game, and the lack of explosive gains from the running back room contributed to last week’s blowout defeat. The Owls need to get this unit going from the get-go, but the presence of Praise Amaewhule, Jadrian Taylor, and other studs in the UTEP front seven could force plenty of long distance situations on third downs.
The Owls’ defense has been typically stout this year with the exception of last week, so this one should feature under 50 points. But in the end, UTEP generates one extra stop and the Miners’ running backs guide one extra scoring drive to push the Miners on top in Houston.
Prediction: UTEP 24, Rice 21