- Time and date: Saturday, September 24 at 6:00 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPN+
- Location: TDECU Stadium — Houston, TX
- Spread: Houston (-17.5)
- ESPN FPI: Houston has 86.0% chance to win
- All-time series: Houston leads, 32-11
- Last meeting: Houston 44, Rice 7 — September 11, 2021
- Current streak: Houston, 6 (2011-21)
Battle for the Bayou Bucket
The campuses of Houston and Rice are separated by just 4.6 miles. No two college football stadiums are closer in proximity than those belonging to the programs residing in the nation’s fourth largest city, and minimal proximity oftentimes creates heated rivalries.
“I’m not from Texas. I’m not from Houston. But being at Rice for so long, being a Rice football player has become a part of my identity, so this game has started becoming more and more meaningful for me,” Rice defensive end Ikenna Enechukwu said. “At this point it’s a full-fledged rivalry for me. I definitely have ill feelings toward these guys and definitely want to get revenge for last year.”
Ever since 1974 when the Cougars or Owls travel across town to play the other, the victor has been complemented with a piece of hardware — the Bayou Bucket. The rivalry trophy has overwhelmingly been property of Houston, which holds a 32-11 lead in the all-time series. If the Cougars topple the Owls this Saturday, they’ll extend their win streak in the Bayou Bucket series to seven, marking the longest in the rivalry’s history.
“They’re playing well as a team and with confidence. They just beat Louisiana last week so they’re coming in the game with confidence and ready to compete,” Houston free safety Gervarrius Owens said about Rice. “We can’t overlook them or anybody on the schedule, clearly, so we just gotta lock in and play our keys and try to eliminate all of the buzz.”
Although Houston is fresh off a 12-2 season and landed in the preseason AP Poll, the 1-2 Cougars enter this matchup with a worse overall record than Rice. Houston emerged in a triple overtime thriller at UTSA in Week 1, but dropped consecutive games against its future Big 12 competition the past two Saturdays. Meanwhile, the Owls struggled in a lopsided affair at USC to open their season but rebounded comfortably by winning two games by double-digits on their home turf. At 2-1, Rice heads into the rivalry game with its best start since 2015, hoping to leverage its early success into city superiority.
“It seems like we’re almost in their shadow and it’s time to prove we are the best football team in the city of Houston,” Enechukwu said.
After Houston stormed into Rice Stadium and annihilated the Owls in 44-7 fashion last September, the series shifts to TDECU Stadium this year where the Cougars aim to stifle Rice’s momentum and gain confidence for themselves as conference play approaches.
“It’s definitely gonna be a game we need to win, not just because of the opponent,” Houston tight end Christian Trahan said. “It wouldn’t have mattered if we were playing Temple or anybody next. Our mindset right now is just going 1-0 every week.”
Rice Owls outlook
Year five of the Mike Bloomgren era ushered in the hottest start the Owls have enjoyed with their head coach at the helm. Rice’s season did not begin in deal fashion on the wrong side of a 52-point shellacking at the hands of USC. While that game featured three pick-sixes and a lopsided turnover battle, signs of future promise were shown in the manner the Owls offense traversed down the field in Los Angeles.
When Rice returned home for Weeks 2 and 3, the hints of explosiveness in the offense shown in the opener blossomed into a full-fledged offensive clinic. The Owls set off the fireworks for 52 points in a Week 2 win over McNeese of the FCS, notching their highest scoring output since 2016. Last week to follow that up, the offense demonstrated its progress by posting 33 points on Louisiana despite losing the turnover battle, 3-1. The 12-point triumph marked Rice’s most impressive non-conference victory of the Bloomgren era and put closure to the Ragin’ Cajuns’ FBS-best winning streak of 15 games.
“All the confidence that we earned from the victory last week should be the confidence in our prep and how we go about our business,” Bloomgren said. “The record is done, that’s in the past. We’re 2-1 — good — now let’s go forward and see if we can improve that record.”
Perhaps the most noticeable change in Rice’s offense is the ability to capitalize in red zone situations. After faring 120th in the FBS in 2021 by converting on 73.7 percent of red zone appearances, the Owls produced points 12 times on all 12 opportunities within the 20-yard line in Weeks 2 and 3.
“They’re better than they were a year ago,” Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “They got their quarterback thing figured out... They’re doing different things offensively which are gonna be a problem for us. We’re gonna have to be able to be disciplined and figured out what they have going and defend different things.”
At 405 yards per game, the Owls are on pace for their strongest offensive season since they won the C-USA title in 2013. This vastly improved unit is led by quarterback TJ McMahon, who checked into the USC game midway in relief of starter Wiley Green. While McMahon struggled initially against the Trojans, the quarterback watched the tide turn as he began to earn first team reps in practice. Now, he is 2-0 as a starter with 577 passing yards and seven touchdown strikes in his last two performances, which are numbers quarterbacks haven’t been accustomed to posting at Rice in quite some time.
“It’s so cool to watch him in practice,” wide receiver Luke McCaffrey said. “The more reps he gets and the more reps he gets with all of us, he gets better and we get better from a chemistry standpoint... And he works harder than dang near anybody else in the building.”
McMahon overcame three first half interceptions last week and connected on 10 of his 12 second half attempts to put the Louisiana defense in the dust. He established a strong on-field connection with his roommate McCaffrey, hitting the converted quarterback 10 times for 105 yards and a pair of touchdowns Saturday. Although he has lined up in three collegiate games as a wide receiver, McCaffrey leads the team in receptions and yardage by significant margins, proving to be the explosive threat the Owls desperately coveted in the receiving game.
“Receiver is such a cool position because so much has to go right to get the ball,” McCaffrey said. “You’re not the initial ignition for a play. The center has to snap to the quarterback, the o-line and the running backs have to get pass protection, everything from a defensive standpoint has to go right... To have our team and have our unit playing like that, it’s something as a receiver you are blessed to see and be apart of.”
The offense receives additional support from wide receiver Brad Rozner, who has a 100-yard showing and a team-best three touchdowns under his belt through three games. Rozner made a triumphant return to the field after injuries limited him to just one contest in the past two seasons. The veteran receiver is one of many longtime staples this offense. The top two running backs, Ari Broussard and Cameron Montgomery, are also seasoned contributors, and their ability to execute in short yardage situations allowed Rice to hog up 42 minutes of clock last week. As a result, the Owls rank second nationally behind Minnesota in time of possession.
“When you have guys like Roz on the other side lined up it’s such a threat,” McCaffrey said. “When you have a quarterback like TJ whose playing as well as he is and an offensive line that’s protecting him and running backs who are getting that run game going, it makes it a whole lot easier. To be able to have our unit come together like we have at times and continuing to work and have it happen every play, that’s something cool and special about this team.”
Perhaps the unit with the most difficult task Saturday is Rice’s offensive line, which is pitted against a Houston defensive line renowned for unwavering pressure. With 8.5 out of the team’s 9.0 sacks stemming from defensive linemen, the Cougars swung down UTSA quarterback Frank Harris three times in Week 1 and tackled Texas Tech quarterback Donovan Smith six times the following week.
“They’re everything that they’re cracked up to be,” Bloomgren said on Houston’s defensive ends. “When you watch them on film, they jump off the film. They’re great players. We’re gonna have a great plan to address them and show them that we have respect for them. That will be a great matchup.”
While the offense is showing the necessary steps needed to elevate Rice to its first bowl game since 2014, the defense has been the headliner so far. The Owls wreaked havoc against Louisiana, stifling the Ragin’ Cajuns to 175 yards (their lowest output since 2011) and shattering their seven-game stretch without committing a turnover. Rice didn’t even rely on unsustainable turnover outputs when hampering the Ragin’ Cajuns’ offense — they simply recorded stops. Overall, Louisiana’s quarterbacks completed 13-of-28 attempts, the rushing attack generated 61 yards, and the team only managed nine first downs against the Owls.
“Defense has been amazing,” defensive end Ikenna Enechukwu said. “It’s probably gonna be the best defense we’ve had at Rice in the past five years. I can see it coming. I see guys who came back from last year who are much better players.”
Possibly the most dangerous aspect of the Rice defense lies within the secondary. That’s where free safety George Nyakwol teams up with rising star strong safety Gabe Taylor. Both safeties have corralled an interception thus far, and because of their ability to thrive in coverage, Rice’s aerial defense is currently situated at 28th in the FBS, limiting quarterbacks to 173 passing yards per game on a 58 percent completion rate. When healthy, the caliber of the safety play has been stellar for quite some time, but the emergence of sophomore cornerbacks Sean Fresch and Jordan Dunbar is the spark elevating this unit to the next level.
“I’m really pleased with that corner room,” Bloomgren said. “We haven’t been playing a whole room full of them now. We’ve been playing two dudes. It’s been Sean Fresch and Jordan Dunbar and they’ve done an exceptional job staying on top of their receivers, creating PBUs. It’s not like we’re playing a whole lot of people, but there is depth.”
The pressure and coverage have operated well together the past two games for Rice, and the team is making leaps and bounds in the pass rush department so far. With nose tackle Izeya Floyd garnering attention in the middle, the defensive ends have been able to thrive to a palpable extent. As a result, Enechukwu has already accumulated 2.5 tackles for loss and he provided three QB pressures in Week 3 to muck up the game for a typically efficient Louisiana offense.
Houston Cougars outlook
Heading into the season, Houston was pegged as the favorite to win the AAC at the conference’s media day. And based on the sample data of the last five years, the AAC champion is essentially a shoo-in for a New Year’s Six bowl bid. Although Houston’s AAC title dreams remain unaffected, the Cougars’ New Year’s Six hopes have taken a major blow after dropping two consecutive games in non-conference play.
“The (Texas) Tech game at the end of the day probably got us twice,” head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “We’ve got to turn the page and move on. We still have things ahead of us that we can accomplish and be proud of. Nobody’s happy about 1-2 with two tough losses against two good teams.”
Houston roared back from 14 down in the second half in each of its first two contests to force overtime. However, it emerged victorious at UTSA but blew a game-clinching 4th and 20 opportunity on defense to ultimately fall to Texas Tech in Week 2. Through three weeks of football, the Cougars have yet to breeze through an opponent.
“We certainly recognize the schedule that the school across town opened up with,” Rice head coach Bloomgren said. “Not an easy schedule to start with and we know they’re a very good team and how talented they are. We know it’s going to take a really good, clean effort by our team to bring that Bucket back to Main St.”
After enduring five overtime periods to start the year, Houston’s defense couldn’t keep up with a high-flying Kansas offensive attack in the home opener. The Cougars squandered a 14-point first quarter advantage and allowed eight consecutive scoring drives (six unanswered touchdowns, followed by two field goals), excluding the Jayhawks’ 15-second possession which concluded the first half.
“I think we had 14 missed tackles but we had more busted assignments,” Holgorsen said. “It’s all about just doing your job. The biggest message moving forward with these guys is just do your job, quit worrying about everything else. There’s a lot of things, preseason stuff, that we tried to get them not to worry about, but it’s just human nature to worry about it.”
All three quarterbacks Houston faced so far were adept in mobility, and containing quarterbacks outside the pocket has presented major issues for the defense. Kansas’ starter Jalon Daniels sprinted for 123 yards and two touchdowns on 12 attempts, but the Cougars may not have to worry about this aspect as much in Week 4 as Rice’s offense does not utilize designed quarterback runs to a significant degree. Still, Houston must prepare for TJ McMahon to capitalize as a rusher in the event of a broke play.
“He can make every throw and extend plays and has a couple rushing touchdowns off of broken plays,” Houston defensive coordinator Doug Belk said of McMahon. “Obviously the first three quarterbacks we played have been really good and athletic and had a lot of ability throwing the ball as well, and he’s not much different than those guys.”
The defense’s calling card is its ability to generate sacks, thus supporting the “Sack Ave.” nicknamed bestowed upon the defensive line. In Week 2, the unit collected six sacks on Texas Tech, led by 4.5 from defensive end Derek Parish. Parish is ranked fourth in the FBS in sacks this season, and overall, he exhibits an All-American caliber résumé with 18 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, and a forced fumble complementing his outrageous sack numbers.
But Parish isn’t the only Cougar providing copious amounts of pressure on opposing backfields. D’Anthony Jones, who tied for the team-lead in sacks in 2021, has accrued three tackles for loss while inside linebacker Donavan Mutin, the team’s leading tackler, has totaled 3.5 stops in the backfield. With these established weapons disrupting opposing offensive lines, Houston is tied for 12th in the FBS in tackles for loss. However, the team hopes to crank the pressure up a notch this week after recording zero sacks and six tackles for loss in an off-week versus Kansas. The defense must additionally overcome the adversity of losing starting WILL linebacker Malik Robinson for the year due to a torn pec.
“It’s hurting him that he can’t be apart of this,” Belk said. “He’s an old school throwback downhill linebacker who plays very physical, so not having him — he’s taking a majority of reps at that position. And then Donavan Mutin was in and out of the game with injuries. So it opened doors for Mannie (Nunnery). Obviously he’s played a little bit but not in that role and then you look at Jamal Morris and (Trimarcus) Cheeks. Those guys have taken the majority of reps with Malik being out for the year... They all haven’t played a ton of ball but they’re very talented. I think the more they play the better they’ll get.”
Fielding a dominant defense was the impetus that guided Houston to a 12-2 record last season, but a different story is unfolding this year. After boasting the 19th ranked scoring defense last year and finishing top 20 in nearly every major defensive category, the Cougars defense is situated in the bottom 20 in numerous statistics right now. Houston ranks 120th in scoring defense allowing 38.7 points per game and 118th in total defense by yielding 449 yards per contest. The secondary, which replaced two NFL Draft selections at cornerback this offseason, is the unit which seeks the most improvement as AAC play approaches.
“We’re not developing the depth at this point that I was hoping we’d develop,” Holgorsen said about the secondary. “(Free safety Gervarrius) Owens is probably the most consistent guy that we’ve had back there. He’s playing at a very high level. (Cornerback) Art (Green’s) playing pretty good into the boundary. The other guys are playing kind of inconsistent right now.”
On the other side of the ball, Houston finally bucked its trend of slow starts last week. After compiling an aggregate zero first quarter points and 10 second quarter points in Weeks 1 and 2, the Cougars matriculated down the field rapidly on their first two drives against Kansas to secure a 14-0 advantage. However, unlike previous games, Houston couldn’t follow up with a strong second half to match its early fireworks. The Cougars began to stall as they lost the turnover battle 2-0 and committed 10 penalties in defeat. Thus, playing more disciplined football is a point of emphasis the team is addressing heading into a blank slate for Week 4.
“Us in house, we know how powerful our offense can be,” tight end Christian Trahan said. “But aside from that, it’s just dumb penalties, just getting behind the sticks and having to get 15 yards instead of 10 yards. It’s doing dumb stuff like personal fouls and stuff like that.”
Quarterback Clayton Tune is enjoying a higher passing output each week as the season progresses, peaking at 272 yards in last Saturday’s contest. Houston hopes Tune’s production continues to skyrocket so the passing attack mirrors the success it had last season when it generated more yardage than all but 22 teams in the country. Although Tune has yet to enter the passing groove he experienced around midseason in 2021, the senior quarterback is unlocking a different element of his game in 2022. He unleashed his mobility on the UTSA and Kansas defenses on a myriad of broken plays, and as a result, he ranks second on Houston’s offense in rushing yards — despite a high volume of sacks countering his progress (the Cougars are tied for eighth in the FBS in most sacks allowed per game).
“I think when Clayton Tune is on, he’s as hard to deal with as anybody except for that guy in that first game (USC quarterback Caleb Williams),” Bloomgren said. “The thing that’s sneaky is he’s got good arm talent, he does a good job distributing the ball, but he’s a sub-11 100 meter guy. He can really roll and that’s what really gets lost until he gets out of the pocket. That’s a great challenge for our defensive front this week to get hits on Clayton Tune and do a great job corralling him so he can’t get out of the pocket.”
The running game is relying on a dual halfback system alternating between Ta’Zhawn Henry and Brandon Campbell, who have been fully available each game despite suffering minor injuries. Both halfbacks accounted for an explosive touchdown in the prior week, with Henry taking a screen pass 34 yards to the house and Campbell bolting past the Jayhawk defense for a 40-yard scoring run. Henry was Houston’s most impactful player in Week 3, pitching in two total touchdowns on 56 rushing yards and a career-high 107 receiving yards.
“I thought Ta’Zhawn played pretty good,” Holgorsen said. “Got out there and got going in the screen game, got some tough yards. Gonna need Brandon to do that as well.”
Still, the most lethal weapon Rice must be wary of on Houston’s offense is Tank Dell. The playmaking First Team All-AAC receiver leads the Cougars with 246 yards and two touchdown receptions through three games. But when compared to his stretch of four 150-yard performances in his final seven games in 2021, the star slot receiver still awaits his first signature showing of the new year. Dell was sidelined with a brief injury in the third quarter last week but returned later in the contest, proving he’ll be ready for Week 4.
Houston and Rice have trended in contrasting directions the past two weeks, but the Cougars still enter as considerable favorites in their home den. Rice’s defense may present some challenges to Houston’s offense, as it did against Louisiana last week, but the Cougars still exhibit enough playmaking at the skill positions to counter the Owls.
On the other side of the ball, Houston’s defensive line will certainly provide copious amounts of backfield pressure after an uncharacteristic zero-sack week against Kansas. Also, the fact that Rice doesn’t frequently call designed quarterbacks runs could make things easier for Houston’s elite pass rush.
The Owls offense (specifically, the passing attack) has shown considerable progress while the Cougars have taken a step back defensively (specifically, the pass defense). So, Rice’s offensive output against Houston should be much greater than the seven points it managed last September. But overall, the Cougars will generate enough offense to claim their seventh straight Bayou Bucket and gain tangible momentum heading into AAC play.
Prediction: Houston 38, Rice 24