- Time and date: Saturday, October 1 at 7:30 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPN+
- Location: Rice Stadium — Houston, TX
- Spread: UAB (-10)
- ESPN FPI: UAB has 79.3% chance to win
- All-time series: UAB leads, 6-4
- Last meeting: Rice 30, UAB 24 — October 23, 2021
- Current streak: Rice, 1 (2021)
Setting the scene
On Oct. 23, 2021, the unexpected transpired. Rice stormed into Protective Stadium as decisive underdogs and handed UAB a rare home loss, defeating the Blazers 30-24. The win was one of the most remarkable moments in recent Rice football history while also one of the more shocking outcomes for UAB since the football program returned in 2017.
Since that return, UAB has been the gold standard of the C-USA, stringing together five consecutive winning seasons, appearing in three consecutive C-USA title games from 2018-20, and claiming two bowl victories. The Blazers look to sustain that role as the conference kingpin as C-USA play commences, but the Rice team they’ll pay a trip to looks the part of the most dangerous Owls squad in quite some time.
UAB Blazers outlook
UAB (2-1, 0-0 C-USA) is fresh off an early bye week. The Blazers split their first two FBS non-conference games, falling 21-14 at Liberty in a game where they lost four fumbles but responding to upend Georgia Southern 35-21 behind the phenomenal play of running back DeWayne McBride.
“Coming off a tough Liberty loss on the road, I was really proud of our players coming back that next week,” UAB interim head coach Bryant Vincent said in his weekly press conference. “We had a great week of prep. We had great focus. We had a great sense of urgency throughout that week... To be able to go out and play from the first snap to the last snap of the game with a lot of passion, a lot of toughness, a lot of physicalness — I was really proud of our players and coaches.”
McBride missed the opener and has only participated in two outings this season, but he’s still producing some of the best rushing numbers in the country. The junior attained 177 yards and a touchdown at Liberty before one-upping that performance with 223 yards and four touchdowns against Georgia Southern. In addition to McBride’s breathtaking numbers, UAB is receiving tremendous reps from secondary back Jermaine Brown Jr., who is averaging over 82 rushing yards per game thus far. Thanks to the duo’s contributions, UAB ranks sixth in the FBS in rushing yards per contest and fifth in rushing average.
“I love our running back room, but the production they’ve had from their two running backs is out of sight,” Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren said. “DeWayne McBride — it’s like ‘wow’ watching him run. They run the zone scheme incredibly well. He puts his foot in the ground, he’s decisive, and he runs through tackles.”
The main improvement sought in the run game involves better ball security. Three of the four lost fumbles in the loss to Liberty stemmed from the running backs, so the Blazers backfield must learn from that shortcoming and emphasize protecting the pigskin going forward.
Second-year starter Dylan Hopkins has provided efficient play at quarterback but UAB isn’t relying on him to light up opponents for 300, or even 200 yards. Hopkins has yet to deliver 20 passes in a game this season, and there are only five FBS teams that air it out fewer than the Blazers — three of them being triple option-based service academies. Despite the lack of dropbacks, Hopkins is still moving the sticks with his accuracy by connecting on a career-high 67.3 percent of passes without an interception this year.
“That first game, it kind of got out of hand in the second half, so we really just ran the ball,” Vincent said on UAB’s lack of passing thus far. “You go to the second week versus Liberty, we’re playing in the rain and we had the turnovers on offense so we never got in a rhythm against Liberty to be able to have some drives and consistencies in our series to be able to get in a rhythm and get Dylan comfortable in throwing the ball. Then you get to Georgia Southern, we wanted to keep their offense off the field and we wanted to control the clock and the time of possession. Our main focus there was to establish the run and to run the ball, and that’s what we did.”
UAB didn’t throw often in the prior year, but when it did, the Blazers enjoyed heavy utilization of their tight ends. With 2021 receptions leader Gerrit Prince and another frequented target Hayden Pittman no longer apart of the tight end group, UAB is working to develop the next crop of talent at the position. So far, Terrell McDonald looks poised to fulfill one of those vacancies, leading the team with two touchdown receptions.
“We always knew that it was going to be a question mark when they left, but all of us knew what we had in the room,” McDonald said. “We had full confidence. We just had to go out and prove it. With the help of coach and everybody else, they got behind us and knew what we could do.”
On defense, inside linebacker Noah Wilder has been a force. Wilder was one of the C-USA’s premier tacklers last year and he continues to hold that title in 2022 by averaging over 11 tackles per contest. The senior enters Rice Stadium after accruing a career-high 18 tackles against Georgia Southern, so Owl ball carriers should be well familiar with the No. 50 uniform following Saturday night’s showdown. Tackling on critical downs will be vital, as Rice torched the Blazers on fourth downs last year and converts a respectable 48 percent of third downs this season.
“Last year on fourth down, I think they were 5-for-5 against us,” nose tackle Fish Williams said. “That’s very critical. You’ve got to get off the field as a defense. We pride ourselves on getting off the field. We’re very emotional about getting off the field. We just know that this year, we’ve got to lock in and get off the field.”
UAB’s defense has caused plenty of chaos in its limited sample size. Through three games, the Blazers are tied for fourth in the country by averaging two interceptions and they’ve gained 179 yards on these interception returns to rank third overall. With two picks returned for 78 yards, strong safety Jaylen Key is the ringleader of UAB’s wildly successful pass defense, which limits opposing quarterbacks to a 49 percent completion rate.
The Blazers hope to fortify their defense in this matchup after allowing 30 points in a stunning home loss to Rice last October. But the challenge will be significant as this year’s Owls squad presents even more firepower on both sides of the ball than it did when staging the upset in the prior meeting.
“It’s probably the deepest Rice team that we’ve seen,” Vincent said. “It’s probably the most athletic Rice team that we’ve seen up to this point. You see a lot of guys on the field on offense, defense, and special teams that have been playing for three years going on four.”
Rice Owls outlook
Rice (2-2, 0-0 C-USA) is off to its best non-conference start since 2015. The Owls went toe-to-toe with Houston last Saturday on the road, coming within nine yards of a clock-expiring touchdown in a 34-27 defeat. The week prior, they snapped Louisiana’s FBS-best 15-game winning streak in dominant fashion — much more dominant than the 33-21 score suggested.
“I’m just so fired up about these guys when you look at year over year the growth in all three phases,” Bloomgren said.
The Owls’ defense limited Louisiana to 175 yards that game, only permitting one sustained scoring drive all night as the Ragin’ Cajuns essentially scored 14 points directly from Rice interceptions. Defense has been a major storyline this year for the Owls, which returned plenty of healthy veterans that were missing from last season’s unit. From 2021 to the first four games of 2022, Rice cut its average yards allowed from 437 to 351. That improvement will certainly be challenged against a UAB squad that churns out yardage on the ground at will against its competition.
“I think our defense is pretty salty against the run,” Bloomgren said. “The guys on the back end are doing a really good job reading their keys right now. That’s why I think it’s going to be a great matchup. I think their run game versus our defense and our front seven, and how the safeties will be involved, will be really fun to watch how it unfolds on Saturday.”
Tremendous secondary execution is a major factor in the Owls’ defensive improvement. Rice exhibits a talented safety tandem of George Nyakwol and Gabe Taylor, who combine for 31 tackles and two interceptions this year. But improved play from sophomore cornerbacks Jordan Dunbar and Sean Fresch has allowed Rice to enjoy a top 40 passing defense through a third of the regular season.
“We knew coming into this year we had a veteran safety group and we were getting people back from injury like George Nyakwol and Treshawn Chamberlain that we knew were pretty proven starters in this conference,” Bloomgren said. “The corners were the ones like, ‘Who are these guys gonna be?’ Are they gonna have a great offseason, a great spring, and have the growth that we want? And that’s exactly what I’ve seen from them. I’ve seen Sean Fresch and Jordan Dunbar take huge steps in their game — Jordan using his body and his length incredibly well and competing at the catch point, Sean using his speed and he’s such a competitor at the catch point.”
TJ McMahon didn’t win the starting quarterback job coming out of camp, but the quarterback quickly had to prepare for the role after Wiley Green went down in the opener. McMahon has been sensational, averaging 304 yards per game across his three starts with eight collective touchdown passes. He became the first Owl quarterback to piece together back-to-back 300-yard showings since Driphus Jackson in 2014, demonstrating the increased verticality in Rice’s offense.
“Those 300-yard games are a good barometer of when you’re being effective,” Bloomgren said of McMahon. “Obviously it’s proof of how much myself and Coach (Marques Tuiasosopo) trust him. Obviously if he’s not completing those passes we’re not doing them quite as frequently, but he is. The thing that I saw with TJ that I thought was incredible was the thing that you love from quarterbacks — you love the warrior mindset — when you know you’re about to get blasted by a guy who’s not blocked and you’re willing to stand in there... and to step into your throw because of what it means to the team.”
Wide receiver Luke McCaffrey has played a major part in expanding that verticality. The former quarterback toasted Houston coverage on a 52-yard streak last week en route to a career-high 121-yard receiving outing. McCaffrey leads the team with 26 receptions and 323 yards, but he has received great support from Rice’s deepest receiving corps of the Bloomgren era. Longtime contributor Brad Rozner has big-play potential, averaging 21.4 yards per catch with three touchdowns while West Virginia transfer Isaiah Esdale has been an ideal option on quick slants and mesh routes, picking up 219 yards on 17 receptions in his first season as an Owl.
While the passing offense has taken major strides, Rice’s preferred offensive strategy involves eating up clock. Led by the duo of Cameron Montgomery (8.0 yards per carry) and Ari Broussard (team-high six rushing touchdowns), the Owls are third nationally in average time of possession exceeding 35 minutes per game.
“Possessions are at a premium,” Vincent said. “Every possession is critical and when you look at time of possession, UAB and Rice, we’ve been one and two for a lot of years because we’re a ball control offense. They’ve been a ball control offense. What you’ve seen from Rice is they’re throwing the ball more and that’s probably affected their time of possession a little bit.”
Rice is not only more adept on offense or defense, but the Owls are noticeably better on special teams. After sinking just 5-of-11 field goals as a team in 2021, kicker Christian VanSickle is off to a 5-of-5 start in 2022. The kicker reset his career-high twice in Week 4, kicking a tying 42-yard field goal in the third quarter and a 43-yard field goal in the final frame to provide his Owls a 27-24 over Houston.
“My wife even commented on it the other night, like ‘How nice is it to make field goals when you send the kicker out there?’” Bloomgren said. “It’s kind of nice but it’s kind of expected too, or it should be in college football. When everybody does their job, this game gets a lot easier... But he’s been outstanding.”
In order to defeat UAB for the second consecutive year, Bloomgren believes the game is going to come down to trench domination, citing physicality as the defining factor which allowed Rice to escape Birmingham victorious last October.
“We went up there last year and we won the game and we put some physical stuff on film that game as well,” Bloomgren said. “They’ve got to come down here to Houston and they’ve got to play these guys. These guys are a physical football team that prepares incredibly well and I have no doubt it’s going to be a physical football game.”
The double-digit spread might be a nod to these teams’ past reputations, but if the last three weeks were any indication, this Rice team is going to make things as difficult as possible for UAB. With a greater hint of explosiveness in its passing game, the Owls are reaching the red zone more often and succeeding upon arrival, watching their red zone percentage skyrocket from 72.7 to 89.5 percent from year to year.
UAB still fields a very sound defense, especially in containing the air, which could provide more difficulty for the Owls than they faced in the Houston or Louisiana games. While Rice’s run defense proved its potential against Louisiana, containing the duo of DeWayne McBride and Jermaine Brown Jr. is a very tall task, and if they remain relatively turnover free, UAB can exact revenge for the 2021 matchup on the road.
Prediction: UAB 24, Rice 21