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2023 Week 8 Game Preview: Rice Owls @ Tulsa Golden Hurricane

Two 3-3 AAC teams with contrasting styles meet in a nationally televised Thursday night affair.

Rice Quarterback Jason Fochtman/Houston Chronicle via Getty Images

Game notes

  • Time and date: Thursday, October 19 at 7:00 p.m. ET
  • Network: ESPN2
  • Location: Chapman Stadium — Tulsa, OK
  • Spread: Tulsa (-3)
  • Over/under: 57
  • All-time series: Tulsa leads, 10-8-1
  • Last meeting: Rice 30, Tulsa 27 — October 5, 2013
  • Current streak: Rice, 1 (2013)

Bye week recovery

Two former Conference USA opponents met on an annual basis from 1996 to 2013. Now as simultaneous members of the American Athletic Conference for the first time, the Rice Owls (3-3, 1-1 AAC) and Tulsa Golden Hurricane (3-3, 1-1 AAC) renew their series Thursday night at Chapman Stadium.

Both programs share incredibly similar positions at this point in the season. They share identical .500 conference records and identical .500 overall records. Both are fresh off a bye week, spending extra time marinating in an excruciating loss from Week 6. Tulsa dropped a road matchup at Florida Atlantic, 20-17, to watch its unblemished AAC record get spoiled in monsoon conditions. Meanwhile, Rice squandered a 14-0 lead at home to winless UConn, falling in a 38-31 result due to an onslaught of turnovers. Now, both teams aim to recover and revert to above-.500 territory Thursday night.

NCAA Football: LendingTree Bowl-Rice vs Southern Mississippi
Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren has tied his best start through six games in six years with the program at 3-3.
Robert McDuffie-USA TODAY Sports

“We all know how bad we want this,” Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren said. “That’s one of the great things about the vicious cycle of college football is usually, you never have to wait more than seven days after you don’t perform well to get another opportunity. This week, we did. We had to wait 12 days to get that taste out of our mouth. That’s why this is a huge game for our guys — because it’s the next one, it’s a conference game, and we’re really excited for this opportunity.”

Tulsa first-year head coach Kevin Wilson acknowledges that this road matchup is of extraordinary significance to Rice, which is seeking its first winning season since 2014. But the Golden Hurricane are aiming to escape a similar hurt, vying to overcome last week’s loss and continue to the trek for bowl eligibility for the first time since the 2021 season.

“Last game would be a game they would feel they let that one get away,” Wilson said. “They had some turnovers in that game, so like us, we’re both sitting here the same. It’s matching up as a really good game.”

Rice Owls outlook

Even though it didn’t affect the conference standings, Rice’s Week 6 defeat to UConn particularly stung for a multitude of reasons. It was the Owls’ chance to claim their first 4-2 start since 2013 as heavy favorites at home. And Rice looked the part of heavy favorites in the first quarter when racing out to a 14-0 lead with brilliant play on both ends.

But turnovers struck in the second quarter and plagued Rice to a point of no return. UConn scored 21 points off three fumble recoveries and then sealed the stunning result with a clinching interception in the contest’s final minutes. The Owls exude the second-worst turnover margin in the AAC at -5. The offense is moving the ball unquestionably well, but the Owls can’t afford to cough up the ball early — and let those early mistakes snowball once again.

“The turnover deal, we certainly saw all too well how big of a deal that is,” Bloomgren said. “We’ve got to protect the football and we’ve got to start taking it away from them on defense. The thing is, we’ve got to be an efficient offense which has the explosive capabilities. Aside from three plays in our last contest, we played pretty dang well offensively.”

Rice is close to breaking through. The Owls just need to learn how to play mistake-free football because the offense is clicking to its greatest extent in the Bloomgren era. Rice averages 32.7 points per game which is the program’s best output since 2008. And the team shines particularly in the passing game, where transfer quarterback JT Daniels has redefined the offense into a potent passing attack, ranking 12th in the FBS with 316 yards per game. The conference’s second leading passer is equipped with a talented receiving corps, headlined by Luke McCaffrey. McCaffrey is an explosive playmaker with 514 yards and six touchdowns on the year, showing an impressive ability to get open despite defenses particularly scheming for him.

NCAA Football: Rice at Houston
Rice WR Luke McCaffrey is fresh off his second 100-yard showing of the year. It was also his second game with multiple touchdowns this season.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The personnel of Daniels and McCaffrey — who could be suiting up on Sundays in the future — allows Rice to be passing-oriented, but there is still more to be desired in the run game. The Owls combined for 38 rushing yards in their first two rushing games, and while that appeared to be fixed in the early going against UConn, playing from behind for the entire second half prevented Rice from honing in on the run game. Still, establishing production with Juma Otoviano and the running backs is key, especially if the Owls want to play a less-risky brand of football moving forward.

“Their team is a run team, so what do they get all summer? Runs. So they’re probably going to be a good run-stopping team,” guard Brant Banks said. “That’s one thing that we’re trying to improve as an offensive line is run blocking. That’s one thing we’re been honing in on and trying to improve, and that doesn’t change this week.”

Rice’s defense has been a bit of a mixed bag this year. The Owls opened the season as an aggressive front, making life difficult for Big 12 programs like Texas and Houston. But it’s been a roller coaster since late September, allowing 42 points and 597 yards to South Florida in Week 5, holding East Carolina to 17 points and recording four fourth down stops in Week 6, and then allowing UConn to attain its highest point total since 2019 in Week 7. It starts up front with the pass rush, which needs a resurgence after recording zero sacks against the Huskies. Josh Pearcy and Coleman Coco are the edge presences which promote the pressure, combining for 10 tackles for loss this season.

“Defensively, we’ve got to go back to being that physical team that doesn’t allow teams to have anything,” Bloomgren said. “We’ve got to make every yard earned. We’ve got to have no leaky yards. You look at our defense — the way they played against Texas and the way they played against Houston — if we can get back to playing with that kind of fire and consistency and attention to detail, we’re gonna be a hard team to deal with. We’ve been very clear that we’re all we need in this room.”

Tulsa Golden Hurricane outlook

This Tulsa season has been defined by an ever-rotating quarterback carousel. At the beginning of the year, health plagued the Golden Hurricane as each of the top three quarterbacks — Braylon Braxton, Cardell Williams, and Roman Fuller — all dealt with injuries of some kind.

However, the health has significantly improved and Tulsa is flipping between two main options — Braxton and Williams. Williams has been the primary starter this year, posting 955 passing yards, eight touchdowns, and seven interceptions with flashes of mobility. But in the last outing at Florida Atlantic, Braxton — the Week 1 starter — returned to the lineup as Wilson believed he was the best situational option in the severe rainy conditions.

“I just felt the last game, the weather got so bad that it was really difficult in the second half to throw. We needed to make a play. Cardell runs well, but Braylon is a little bit bigger and I thought we may have to run through traffic. He popped a big run and we finished with him, but it wasn’t a slight to Cardell’s play as much as just the elements. We had a solid, steady rain there through the third and fourth quarter. They both came out of that game healthy now, full throttle, and those two guys are getting the bulk of it.”

Regardless of the quarterback, improved play from the passing offense is something Tulsa strives for. The Golden Hurricane rank 110th in the FBS, producing just 192 yards per game on a 59.7 completion rate. Additionally, they exhibit one of the worst touchdown-to-interception ratios in the country with 11 scores and 12 picks.

The risk presented in that stat-line alone helps Tulsa keep the ball grounded. And the Golden Hurricane are quite good at running it, fielding the 26th best rushing offense in the nation with 193.5 yards per game. Both Braxton and Williams present a degree of mobility to the run game, but the running backs carry a significant load. Anthony Watkins is the bellcow back with 367 yards on the year, but Jordan Ford and Bill Jackson play ample supporting roles for the high-powered ground attack. On Thursday, Tulsa might have to lean on those backs to an ever greater degree as the team’s leading receiver Marquis Shoulders is set to miss his second consecutive game due to injury.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 06 Tulsa at Cincinnati
Tulsa RB Anthony Watkins is the leading rusher on the AAC’s third best run game. Watkins also succeeded last year, posting 634 yards on a 7.4 average in 2022.
Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“We’ve relied a little bit more on the run game and we’ve done because, quite honestly sometimes, you want to make sure the ball doesn’t go to them. So sometimes we’ve taken the air out of the football,” Wilson said. “Our throwing numbers are not very high and that’s because we’re trying to be smart and take care of the quarterback and not put our defense out there. And that’s why our defense has played a little bit better.”

Tulsa’s defense statistically does not have the most desirable rankings, situated at 95th in points allowed and 119th in passing yards allowed. But Oklahoma and Washington make up one-third of the Golden Hurricane’s schedule thus far, and the Sooners and Huskies are undefeated, top six teams with gunslinger Heisman candidates at quarterback. Since the competition has leveled out, Tulsa has demonstrated improvement on the defensive side, yielding 20 points per game across its last three outings.

Passing defense is the particular emphasis of this matchup, as Rice trots out a former 5-star quarterback who fires for 300 yards on a regular basis. It’s up to Oklahoma State transfer defensive Ben Kopenski to apply pressure and prevent routes from developing, as well as strong safety Kendarin Ray from making plays on the back end to prevent another Daniels masterclass.

“It’s definitely going to be a challenge for our secondary this week,” Ray said. “They want to throw the ball around. That’s been the strength of their offense the past couple games. We know what we have to do to try to limit those and make plays and compete at a high level.”

What the coaches are saying

It’s certainly a clash of styles Thursday night in Tulsa. The Owls are aerial aficionados while the Golden Hurricane prefer to run it down opponents throats until meeting their match.

Bloomgren discussed Tulsa’s spread run game, which is a staple of Wilson offenses dating back to his days at Northwestern. He acknowledged that the Golden Hurricane will inject a degree of tempo in the ground-based offense — which Rice saw to an extreme extent in its Week 4 matchup at South Florida.

“He was one of the first guys to play with a lot of tempo,” Bloomgren said of Wilson. “He was part of that staff at Northwestern back in the day. Him and (current Bills offensive line coach) Aaron Kromer were there at the same time, doing a great job of kind of inventing the spread running game. When you watch Coach Wilson when he went to Oklahoma and Ohio State and the ways he attacked the game and ran the football, he’s always been a master of that.”

Additionally, Bloomgren spoke extensively about Tulsa’s defensive front, comparing the schemes to those present in Phil Parker’s defense at Iowa. Banks, who previously played guard at Nebraska prior to transferring to Rice, saw similar blitz patterns and quirks when facing the Hawkeyes, so the Owls’ have experience on the offensive line to counter what Tulsa defensive coordinator Chris Polizzi has to offer.

“They’ve got a front that’s very similar to Iowa,” Bloomgren said. “They really do a great job trying to play incredibly hard and play their techniques. And every fourth play, there’s gonna be a cross dog (blitz). There’s gonna be some kind of pressure pattern. It’s very Iowa-esque in that regard. But while Iowa leans heavily on quarters coverage and split safety stuff, you’re seeing (Tulsa) do more man and more match type coverage families.”

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Tulsa head coach Kevin Wilson previously served as the head coach at Indiana from 2011-16, in addition to offensive coordinator roles at Miami (OH), Northwestern, Oklahoma, and Ohio State.
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Meanwhile, Wilson was more focus on Rice’s ability to pick apart the air. He anticipates the Owls establish their offense with a series of quick passes from the savvy veteran quarterback Daniels.

“They’re a big team. Their offensive line’s very, very big,” Wilson said. “They start with getting the ball out in space. (Daniels) throws the ball, he gets it out of his hand quickly, and there’s a lot of spacing routes, a lot of quick throws, so he’s very, very smart. McCaffrey’s a quality receiver and has had a lot of good games, and they have a couple other receivers who are good. They move the tight end around. Probably because of (Daniels) being veteran, they lean a little more on the pass.”


Tulsa and Rice are extraordinarily similar teams in record and résumé, but their offensive schemes and skills differentiate greatly.

Both teams are stronger offensively than they are on the defensive side, so this one should feature a decent amount of touchdowns. The weekly expectation for Rice is a 300-yard passing performance from Daniels with a bevy of different receivers involved — with McCaffrey usually leading the charge. Meanwhile, Tulsa is going to call a lot of zone runs and downhill runs to try to move the ball methodically and break out the occasional explosive play.

Tulsa and Rice are also similar in the fact they commit turnovers at an exuberantly high rate, as the Golden Hurricane are tied for the nation’s lead in interceptions thrown and the Owls are fresh off their second game with 3+ turnovers this year. That battle alone likely determines this closely-contested matchup. Other than when Oklahoma paid a visit, Tulsa has been sharp at Chapman Stadium this year while Rice still seeks its first road victory.

Prediction: Tulsa 31, Rice 28