- Time and Date: Saturday, September 17 at 7:30 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPN+
- Location: Rice Stadium — Houston, TX
- Spread: Louisiana (-12)
- ESPN FPI: Louisiana has 79.3% chance to win
- All-time series: Louisiana leads, 3-2
- Last meeting: Louisiana 18, Rice 3 — September 23, 1989
- Current streak: Louisiana, 2 (1988-89)
Setting the scene
The campuses of Rice and Louisiana are separated by only a hair above 200 miles. Yet, Saturday night at Rice Stadium will mark the first meeting between the C-USA and Sun Belt opponents since 1989. Both teams are coming off convincing Week 2 wins and look to build additional momentum as the season enters full swing.
Rice hopes the confidence gained from a 52-10 thrashing of McNeese and the backing of a home crowd will be enough to become the first team to defeat Louisiana since September 2021, while the Cajuns aim to keep their winning ways alive under first-year head coach Michael Desormeaux.
Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns outlook
They lost head coach Billy Napier, a significant portion of the coaching staff, their starting quarterback, and two fourth round NFL Draft picks. Yet, the show still goes on in Cajun country. Louisiana holds the FBS’s longest win streak at 15 consecutive games, and it’s not particularly close as Clemson ranks second on an 8-game streak.
The Ragin’ Cajuns haven’t lost since the 2021 opener at Texas. Saturday night in Rice Stadium marks the program’s first trip to the Lone Star State since that game, but they enter as considerable road favorites over the C-USA squad.
“Billy Napier did an unbelievable job building that program, in many ways from the ground up, and it doesn’t seem like they’ve missed a beat,” Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren said. “They’re coming in here 2-0 and a lot of the same schemes on both sides of the ball, a little bit different on special teams, but they’re doing a nice job in every phase of the game.”
At quarterback, Louisiana has presented two options through two games and that trend may continue in Week 3. Chandler Fields is expected to make his third consecutive start and the redshirt sophomore has excelled with five touchdowns and zero interceptions on 40 attempts. Fresno State transfer Ben Wooldridge has checked in for several series in both games so far, and through 24 attempts, his numbers similarly stand out. Wooldridge has two touchdowns and zero interceptions on a 79 percent completion rate this year.
“They got two talented guys,” Bloomgren said. “One maybe throws the deep ball a little bit better than the other one, but one came in the game the other day and went 10-for-11. I’m not sure what they’re gonna do there.”
In the Napier era, the Ragin’ Cajuns’ offensive signature was the run game, but this year the bulk of the production has been largely through the air. Still, the running back room returns a viable option in Chris Smith, who led the roster with 855 rushing yards in 2021 while serving as a recurring option in the receiving game. Smith receives support in a split backfield with Terrence Williams, who is producing a team-high 91 yards this season with an increased presence in the lineup.
“They do some stuff in the run game with the speed sweep action, some misdirection,” Bloomgren said. “We just gotta be great with our run fits. If we can be great with our run fits and out-physical them — beat them at their own game — then we’re gonna be just fine on that side of the ball.”
Louisiana’s defense has been immune to dry spells thus far, preventing both of its two opponents from scoring multiple times in a single quarter. Led by defensive end Zi’Yon Hill-Green, the team has applied copious pressure on quarterbacks, panning out to 2.5 sacks per game.
“They’re a classic 3-4 team that’s gonna play three or four quarters and they’re gonna try to get great extension,” Bloomgren said. “They’re gonna be blocked until they’re not and shed you out of their gap. Then the next snap they’re gonna line up, and on the snap of the football they’re gonna move, and it’s a violent, aggressive movement. And they got some really good players up front.”
The unit also creates abundant interception opportunities on the back end. Only four teams have picked off more passes than the Ragin’ Cajuns so far, and one of them is USC which intercepted Rice four times in the opener. Reigning All-Sun Belt cornerback Eric Garror is one of five different Cajuns to record a pick this season, but his role in the secondary isn’t the only concern he presents to Rice. Garror also operates as a master punt returner and already accumulated his second career punt return touchdown this season.
Rice Owls outlook
After suffering a 66-14 loss to USC in the opener, Rice needed a dominant performance like the one it enjoyed in Week 2. The 42-point triumph over McNeese signified the Owls’ greatest margin of victory of the Bloomgren era, and most importantly, it restored confidence in a team that needed a spark.
“It was a great bounce back game, especially from Week 1,” Rice wide receiver Brad Rozner said. “That Week 1 performance wasn’t our best footing, so we really needed that Week 2 game to show people who we are. That Week 1 game wasn’t who we wanted to represent as the Rice Owls.”
Quarterback injuries were a major obstacle Rice had to overcome in 2021, and that unfortunate trend sustained into 2022. Wiley Green won the job in fall camp but suffered an injury in the opener at USC which has kept him sidelined since. In the Trojans’ house, TJ McMahon checked in relief of Green and tossed three interceptions in a 5-minute span.
But with a full week of practice as the No. 1 QB under his belt, McMahon stepped into the starting slot for Week 2 and produced one of the most impressive Rice quarterback performances of the past five years — 274 yards, four touchdowns, and zero interceptions on a 20-of-29 showing.
“The one thing that was great to see was TJ’s performance,” Bloomgren said. “Some people thrive as a backup quarterback but I don’t know if anybody really does in their first at-bat or second at-bat, getting thrown into a game like that where you haven’t had the prep... I think he did prepare in that manner, but what he didn’t get was those kinesthetic reps for USC, and he did get them last week. I think you saw that success really show up on the field Saturday.”
Along with McMahon’s stellar first career start, one of the best aspects of Rice’s victory under the lights Saturday was the statement performance of Rozner. The fourth-year Owl receiver only participated in one contest across 2020 and 2021 due to injuries, but the senior captured two touchdowns in a 101-yard performance — signifying his first touchdown receptions since posting a hat trick of scores on Nov. 16, 2019.
“It was a bunch of mixed emotions — happiness, excited, relief — just because I put so much pressure on myself to perform and excel, but it was a great feeling, especially celebrating with my teammates,” Rozner said.
Although the passing game skyrocketed with the rise of Rozner in Week 2, the most consistent aspect of the Owls’ offense this year has been the ability to run the ball. Against USC, they traversed down the field with a steady run game as Cameron Montgomery picked up 99 yards on six carries, while Ari Broussard punched in a pair of touchdowns. The same tenacity in the run game was displayed at home in a 209-yard, 2-touchdown showing in Week 2. Although the Owls continue to lag with the tempo in their traditional pro-style offense, a good balance of play calls and an uptick in explosive plays are helping the unit thrive.
“I appreciate the balance and I appreciate the explosiveness,” Bloomgren said. “When you have 10 to 12 explosives in a game, that’s a good recipe for our offense.”
The Owls defense caused absolute havoc against McNeese. In Week 1, Rice was overly prone to giveaways with four interceptions (three of which were pick-sixes), but the team enjoyed the contrasting role in Week 2 by winning the turnover battle 5-0. The Owls recovered three fumbles and intercepted two passes, including a 91-yard pick-six by rising star strong safety Gabe Taylor. With three interceptions in his last four outings, Taylor is starting to becoming a major disruption for opposing quarterbacks.
“The entire defense was more ecstatic than maybe he was,” outside linebacker Treshawn Chamberlain said on Taylor’s pick-six. “Obviously running 90 yards, I wouldn’t be able to celebrate as much. It was great seeing him use the speed that he’s been showing in practice and putting in all the extra work that we do before and after.”
Entering the season, Louisiana was a difficult team to predict given the mass exodus of personnel this offseason. But the reigning Sun Belt champions remain a force, as evidenced by their 49-21 win over Eastern Michigan last Saturday. Those 49 points tied their highest scoring output from their 13-1 campaign in 2021, so Desormeaux has the offense rolling at a similar level from when he was coordinator a year ago.
The Ragin’ Cajuns rotating quarterback situation may prolong, but the team thrives in the passing game regardless of who lines up behind the center. Rice’s defense must disrupt Louisiana’s aversion to committing turnovers, and simultaneously, its offense must refrain from its interception tendencies after tossing four in the opener. Given the Ragin’ Cajuns’ consistent defensive execution this year, combined with their production through the air, the road team looks poised to pick up their 16th consecutive win Saturday night in Houston.
Prediction: Louisiana 31, Rice 17