- Time and Date: Saturday, September 3 at 6:00 p.m. ET
- Network: Pac-12 Network
- Location: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum — Los Angeles, CA
- Spread: USC (-32.5)
- ESPN FPI: USC has 96.1% chance to win
- All-time series: USC leads, 2-0
- Last meeting: USC 24, Rice 0 — September 18, 1971
- Current streak: USC, 2 (1948-71)
Setting the scene
The aura at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum just feels different this time around. USC completed perhaps the most impressive coaching hire of the past decade, snagging Lincoln Riley from a perennial College Football Playoff contender in Oklahoma to Pac-12 territory. Riley’s entrance concocted a palpable hype among Trojan faithful, hoping the new coach can resurrect the program to the prestige it enjoyed in the mid-2000s.
On the other sideline is a coach well-acquainted with the California weather. Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren traveled to the Coliseum many times as a Stanford assistant from 2011-17. After defeating USC on five occasions at his former stomping grounds, he looks to replicate that feat with a Rice squad labeled as heavy underdogs.
Opponents off-guard in Owl openers
Rice lost each of its last three openers in the Mike Bloomgren era, but the Owls have run through challenging opponents in Week 1 competition. In 2019, Rice faced an Army team coming off a 70-14 bowl win over Houston and a season-ending AP No. 19 ranking, but the Owls were unfazed by a 22.5-point spread and came within one touchdown of upending the Black Knights.
Last season, the Owls entered Fayetteville, AR with a halftime lead over the hosting Razorbacks and secured a 10-point advantage in the third quarter. Still, an improved Arkansas squad which finished 9-4 got the best of Rice in the end. The opener still demonstrated Rice’s ability to muck up a game schematically and sneak up on an unsuspecting opponent.
“In all three phases, our coordinators have given us great plans in those games,” Bloomgren said. “I think we’ve got brilliant coordinators. When you give (defensive coordinator) Brian Smith and (offensive coordinator) Marques Tuiasosopo more time to work on you, they’re gonna find things... We feel like we have a great plan in this one too.”
Rice’s most recent victory over an FBS team in a season opener transpired in 2008 when the Owls demolished SMU, 56-27, so an unwanted streak 14 years in the making is on the line when they take the field in Los Angeles. With a slew of key contributors returning from injury, Bloomgren hopes that replenished health plays a difference in results.
“I don’t think anybody has any idea what our team looks like right now,” Bloomgren said. “If they haven’t been to our practices, if they haven’t watched our scrimmages, I don’t think they understand what a healthy (quarterback) Wiley Green and healthy (free safety) George Nyakwol mean to this football team. And then you bring up (nose tackle) De’Braylon Carroll, who missed the entire season last year. You bring up (wide receiver) Bradley Rozner, who missed all but two quarters last year. We’re different.”
LAnd of Lincoln
USC finished its 2021 season at 4-8, marking the Trojans worst record since 1991. Head coach Clay Helton was fired after a 42-28 jackhammering from Stanford in Week 2, which was more lopsided than the scoreboard suggested. USC proceeded to lose three additional games by 16 points, including a 62-33 decimation from UCLA in a rivalry game. So how is USC ranked No. 14 in the 2022 preseason AP Poll?
Much of it has to do with the belief in head coach Lincoln Riley, who unexpectedly departed from Oklahoma in late November after guiding the Sooners to three College Football Playoff appearances and one New Year’s Six bowl victory in five years at the helm. The 38-year old never lost more than two contests in a season at Oklahoma, and he looks to replicate that elite level of success at a school which only has one top 10 finish in the past 10 seasons.
He also aims to bring his signature air raid scheme that thrived at Oklahoma to the Pac-12.
“Our defensive secondary is going to be challenged,” Bloomgren said. “It’s Lincoln Riley. It’s air raid. It’s all these great receivers and Caleb Williams, so there’s gonna be those challenges down the field. And the thing you can never sleep on with a Lincoln Riley offense is how well they run the counter play. You look up at the end of games and they have 200, 250 yards rushing.”
Wiley and the wily veterans
One advantage Rice carries into this matchup is a wealth of experience. Of all position groups, the Owls’ offensive line might be the most seasoned unit. Team captain Shea Baker enters his fifth consecutive year manning the trenches for the Owls, operating from the right guard spot. Rice also trots out a left tackle in Clay Servin, whose current streak of starts will extend to 26 Saturday. Then, center Isaac Klarkowski returns from a 2021 season-ending injury after recording 668 straight snaps beforehand.
“I think our offensive line is the best it’s ever been,” Bloomgren said. “You see what we’ve been able to do from an offensive line standpoint with an experience factor there. Shea Baker has played 2,784 snaps for the Rice Owls. I think he’s gonna break 2,800 in this game and it’s like, ‘Holy cow! That’s a lot of football!’”
After mixing the incumbent starting left guard Braedon Nutter and West Virginia transfer John Hughes at right tackle, not many teams can compete with Rice’s experience at the line of scrimmage. They’ll look to leverage that veteran presence against a USC defensive line which features Tuli Tuipulotu — the premier defender on the Trojans with 5.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in 2021.
“I’ll tell you what I don’t see — it’s a lot of defensive linemen’s hands in my face,” quarterback Wiley Green said. “(The offensive line) has done such a great job this fall camp. Shea Baker’s another one of those captains who steps up on the offensive line and then you’ve got veterans coming back like Klarky and Clay who are just taking another step in their development.”
The experience in Rice’s offense isn’t limited to up front — it’s essentially everywhere. Wiley Green won the starting quarterback job in fall camp, and he was a member of Bloomgren’s initial recruiting class in 2018. Green, an MBA student and an owner of a metaphorical doctorate degree in this offensive scheme, looks to use his newfound health and loaded receiving corps in order to churn out his best season yet.
Green’s receiving corps consists of Cedric Patterson III, who compiled nearly 600 receiving yards with a team-high six touchdowns in 2021, and Bradley Rozner who returns from two years of injuries after serving as the team’s supreme option in 2019. Well-traveled, experienced newcomers set to make immediate impact include West Virginia transfer Isaiah Esdale, Tulsa transfer Sam Crawford Jr., and Luke McCaffrey who transitioned from quarterback.
“It’s been an absolute blast to have those guys out there,” Green said. “They’re explosive. They make great catches. I’d like to say I throw the perfect ball every time, but it’s football and I may not, but those guys go up there and get it. A guy I want to mention is Luke McCaffrey, who goes out there and plays receiver and you get to see a bit of his explosiveness.”
One area on the defensive side of the ball which lacks veteran presence compared to the other units is linebacker. And due to the nature of NCAA’s targeting rule, Rice’s linebacking corps will operate without starter Myron Morrison in the first half due to being flagged for an illegal hit in the 2021 finale versus Louisiana Tech. Thus, other linebackers such as pass rusher Kenneth Orji and coverage artist Treshawn Chamberlain must step up early prior to Morrison’s return in the third quarter.
Rice’s pass defense was not its brightest spot last year and wound up ranking 123rd in yards allowed per game, but the unit was composed of a litany of freshmen. Now, those freshmen such as cornerbacks Sean Fresch and Jordan Dunbar turn into sophomores — much more acclimated to the speed and physicality of the collegiate game than they were last year when opening at Arkansas.
“There’s three or four corners where I don’t think anyone will know the difference,” Bloomgren said on the position’s increased depth. “We’ve got guys that are playing at a really high level like Sean Fresch. You’ve got Jordan Dunbar whose playing really good. Lamont Narcisse is a different player than he’s ever been. It’s just a really fun group right now in all phases.”
They just moved to LA
The initiation of the transfer portal and the relaxation of transfer eligibility rules stirred up a new climate in college football. Not many programs took advantage of these changes like USC did this offseason. The arrival of offensive mastermind Lincoln Riley lured in players across the nation to restart their college careers in Los Angeles.
“We have to see individual players from the USC team, the few that are returning starters,” Bloomgren said on preparing for a team with a heap of transfers. “It’s not just people from Oklahoma that have come in. That’s a melting pot of college football. There’s a lot of new faces. We think we’ve got a lot in our building, but they’ve got a lot in their new building.”
Riley’s starting quarterback at Oklahoma, Caleb Williams, is the most notable of the transfers. The Second Team All-Big 12 selection was a dual-threat sensation as a true freshman, generating 21 passing touchdowns and six rushing touchdowns while limiting his turnover output with smart decision-making. With the quarterback-head coach combination still in tact, USC’s offense is set to look like a west coast version of Oklahoma.
“The best thing for us from a gameplan standpoint has mostly been Oklahoma,” Bloomgren said. “We’ve gone with the approach that Lincoln certainly knows what he’s gonna run offensively. Bringing Caleb there, there’s probably a lot of familiarity. When you hear them talk, there’s a lot of comfort in that system. That’s why watching the Oklahoma offense is so good for us.”
Williams’ primary offensive weapons all spent their 2021 seasons outside of Los Angeles as well. He reunites with former Sooner wide receiver Mario Williams, who captured 35 receptions as a true freshman in the Big 12 last year. Also, wide receiver Brenden Rice (Colorado), running back Travis Dye (Oregon), and running back Austin Jones (Stanford) transferred from within the Pac-12 to Riley’s refurbished program. But the weapon Rice must emphasize the most is reigning Biletnikoff Award winner Jordan Addison, who ranked fourth nationally with 1,593 receiving yards in 2021, guiding Pittsburgh’s high-powered offense to an ACC championship.
“He does a good job coming off the ball. He does a good job with his releases. He’s fast, he’s quick, but I know we’ve got guys like (strong safety Gabe Taylor) who look for challenges like that,” Rice free safety George Nyakwol said about Addison. “And myself, I look forward to challenges like this. But everyone’s beatable and this just comes down to us playing our best ball. He’s gonna make plays, but it’s on us to respond and keep the ship steered the right way and finish in the fourth quarter.”
Due to Riley’s stature as an offensive guru, it’s no surprise the most high profile transfers lie on the offensive side of the ball. But with new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch in town, USC added several potential defensive starter transfers as well. Outside linebacker Romello Height strolls into town from Auburn, former Freshman All-American Shane Lee enters from Alabama to play middle linebacker, and cornerback Mekhi Blackmon moves west from Colorado. All these new faces have one common goal in improving a defense which ranked 103rd nationally by yielding 31.8 points per game in 2021.
“Me and Coach Tui have played Alex Grinch a number of times,” said Bloomgren, who coordinated Stanford’s offense while Grinch served on Washington State’s defensive staff from 2015-17. “We know what his defense is. He’s not gonna get too far away with it. His thumbprint is pretty defined. He does a great job with movement. He does a great job with never letting things get out of control and outnumbered in the pass game. He always wants to be three over two in everything that he does.”
USC is one of the most difficult teams to project this season. The 2021 iteration of the team went 4-8 with a series of lopsided losses, but the grand entrance of Lincoln Riley, combined with immense offensive transfer talent such as Caleb Williams, Jordan Addison, and Travis Dye caused the Trojans stock to a point where it garnered a No. 14 AP Poll ranking.
Given that level of talent combined with Riley’s ability to elevate offenses, USC should be able to pile up the points in the opener. Rice has caused enough defensive havoc to challenge opponents like this for several few quarters, but the Owls require more explosiveness on offense in order to put up a full-fledged fight. For a team which ranked 107th in scoring a year ago with one of the lowest red zone scoring rates in the country, the margin of error remains slim in its venture to Los Angeles.
Prediction: USC 44, Rice 10