- Time and date: Saturday, October 28 at 4:00 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPN2
- Location: Rice Stadium — Houston, TX
- Spread: Tulane (-10.5)
- Over/under: 54.5
- All-time series: Rice leads, 20-15-1
- Last meeting: Rice 17, Tulane 13 — November 30, 2013
- Current streak: Rice, 3 (2011-13)
Setting the scene
An old CUSA rivalry is rejuvenated in the AAC.
Rice (4-3, 2-1 AAC) and Tulane (6-1, 3-0 AAC) meet for the first time in a decade Saturday in a matchup between two of the AAC’s five teams sporting winning records. The Owls already earned a signature win by shocking crosstown rival Houston this year, but they seek another as they attempt to record their second ranked victory in the 21st century. Tulane enters this matchup with a No. 22 beside its name in the AP Poll after winning its fifth consecutive matchup. The Green Wave remain on track to a second-straight New Year’s Six bowl, but a loss to the Owls could quickly derail that quest.
Hosting a ranked team for the first time since 2016, Rice looking to create a lively atmosphere at the venue where they’ve won three of four this season. Thanks to the athletic department capitalizing on a viral clip, it is expected to be the greatest gummy worm party college football has ever seen.
Tulane Green Wave outlook
Tulane operates in AAC play with a permanent target on its back. The Green Wave are the reigning champs and gold standard of the conference, and they ride a streak of six-consecutive wins over AAC opponents, including the 2022 conference title game. It’s not always smooth-sailing, but Tulane usually finds a way to win in down-to-the-wire situations.
All three AAC games this year involved substantial second half adversity, and Tulane overcame the challenge every time to escape with a win. Against UAB, the Green Wave needed to convert a critical 4th and 9 from the Blazers’ 32 with under a minute remaining or provide UAB an opportunity at a game-winning drive. They converted. Against Memphis, Tulane overcame a 21-10 third quarter deficit. They delivered with 21 unanswered. And last week against North Texas, Willie Fritz’s team saw a 21-0 halftime advantage turn into a tie 28-28 ballgame in the fourth quarter. They used a 13-play, clock-eating drive to seal the win.
What Tulane offers is a poised and resilient team, as demonstrated last year in the 15-point fourth quarter Cotton Bowl comeback. It all starts with veteran quarterback Michael Pratt, an All-AAC selection in the midst of his fourth-year as a starter. Tulane doesn’t necessarily operate as a pass-first team despite possessing one of the most talented quarterbacks in the nation, but when Pratt is called upon to deliver, the result more often than not favors the Green Wave. He completes passes at a highly-efficient 70.8 percent clip, exhibiting an impressive 12-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. But Pratt doesn’t get by with just screens and checkdowns — he can sling, as suggested by his 9.9 yards per attempt which rank seventh among quarterbacks with at least 100 passes.
But Fritz teams have always been predicated on the ability to run the football. Pratt certainly plays a hand in this as a tough, bruising rusher at 6’3”, 220 pounds, as evidenced by his 70 rushing yards last week against North Texas. But Makhi Hughes is the focal point in this department, and he enters Rice fresh off his third-straight 120-yard game. Hughes has yet to break a long touchdown run this year, but the freshman back keeps the sticks moving with substantial chunks of yardage, racking at least 5.0 yards per carry in six of seven contests.
Feeding Hughes will be the focal point of the offense as he is assisted by an offensive line beaming with 2022 All-AAC talent. But the explosiveness of Tulane’s big-play offense comes from a speedy receiving group. Jha’Quan Jackson, Lawrence Keys III, and Chris Brazzell II are the headliners of the group, and all three are explosive downfield threats amassing over 17 yards per reception. Getting receivers on islands in man coverage is Tulane’s preference in the passing game, and Pratt isn’t afraid to take deep shots to each member of that trio on a recurring basis.
Tulane’s offense presents many dangers, but the Green Wave have yet to register 40 points in a single outing this season. Still, they’ve broken 30 points in four consecutive games and offer plenty of firepower on the defensive side, ranking 28th in scoring defense at 19.4 points allowed per game.
There Green Wave are defined by the most powerful front in the AAC. Patrick Jenkins is the anchor of the defensive line from the interior, collecting a team-high 8.0 tackles for loss in addition to 4.5 sacks. While Jenkins commands significant attention, defensive ends Darius Hodges and Devean Deal invade the backfield at a high rate, combining for 13.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks to spearhead a lethal pass rush. With a formidable d-line, Tulane boasts the seventh best run defense in the land — yielding 78.4 yards per contest on a 2.7 average.
Where Tulane is most vulnerable defensively is in coverage, and North Texas exploited this quite well with 334 of its 426 yards coming through the air. The Green Wave are 118th in pass defense, and quarterbacks typically see efficient performances with a collective 66.7 completion percentage. Tulane still produces frequent stops through turnovers and cornerback Lance Robinson is a dangerous cornerback to target with an AAC-leading four picks on the season.
Rice Owls outlook
Rice is fresh off a type of win the program hadn’t experienced in years. Not one current roster member was familiar to dominating to the degree Rice did last Thursday, at least in an Owls uniform. Rice curb-stomped Tulsa, 42-10, to secure its largest margin of victory against FBS competition since 2013 and most dominant road conference win since 2003.
Just about everything went right for the Owls, which were in desperate need of victory after dropping a stunner to UConn at home in the prior game. Rice lost the turnover battle 4-0 to UConn and improving upon that margin was the main point of emphasis moving forward. The Owls immediately capitalized with three first quarter takeaways against Tulsa while refraining from coughing the ball up all game. That foundation went a long way, allowing quarterback JT Daniels and the offense to tie their highest-scoring output against an FBS opponent since 2016.
Daniels’ presence offensively is one major reason why the Owls are on track for their most successful season in nearly a decade. The former USC, Georgia, and West Virginia quarterback is 11th in the FBS and first in the AAC in passing yards at 2,173, posting 17 touchdowns and five interceptions at his fourth collegiate stop. Rice was burdened by dormant passing offenses for years, but suddenly, the Owls rank 11th in the nation in aerial yardage thanks to the former 5-star quarterback.
The options are limitless for Daniels too. Wide receiver Luke McCaffrey is the clear No. 1 option with 36 receptions and 636 yards (third in AAC) in his second year playing the position. With four 99+ yard showings in six games, it’s no question McCaffrey will get his touches. But Rice also offers 6’5” Rawson MacNeill and true freshman Landon Ransom-Goelz who are emerging downfield threats at the position. The Owls also run a variety of personnel groupings when passing, and they love getting other positions involved as well. Running back Dean Connors ranks second on the team in receptions while tight end Boden Groen is third. Considering Tulane’s discrepancy in run defense and pass defense ranks, airing the ball out is Rice’s likely pathway to success.
Jump-starting the run game took a while for Rice, but the Owls finally got things going at Tulsa last Thursday. Connors became the first to hit the century mark all year with 120 yards and a hat trick of touchdowns on nine carries, demonstrating explosive speed in open space. But head coach Mike Bloomgren compared Tulane’s defensive front to that of Texas and Houston, and those were games where Rice struggled more against the run. That matchup between Rice’s veteran offensive line and Tulane’s defensive line will be critical — as the Owls attempt to establish the run and keep Daniels’ pocket clean.
Rice’s defense played its game of the season last week, demonstrating the depths of its potential. It’s been a bumpy ride defensively this season, ranging from performances like that in Tulsa to the one in South Florida where they allowed 42 points and 597 yards to the Bulls. The Owls set the tone for the night in their previous matchup simply by applying pressures. Rice sent numerous blitzes in the first quarter, and those blitzes paid off. Two of the Owls’ first quarter turnovers were courtesy of strip sacks, and they’ll look to outside linebacker Josh Pearcy to ignite that movement once again.
Stopping Tulane’s run game at the first level will be of utmost importance to a ground defense which limits opponents to 3.8 yards per carry. De’Braylon Carroll and Coleman Coco are among the top disruptors at the first level of defense, while Chris Conti is the leading tackler from the linebacker position. But Rice must be wary of Tulane’s home run plays through the passing game and the safeties need to be on their game when picking up the Green Wave’s agile receivers in zone coverage. Gabe Taylor is the best on the team in this department, breaking up five passes this year and logging his first interception of 2023 last Thursday.
Tulane is not easy to beat, especially with Michael Pratt under center. The Green Wave lost their lone game of the season without the captain’s services and they’re seeking their 10th consecutive win with him in the starting lineup. Tulane presents an ideal offensive balance and enough fortitude defensively to keep teams one-dimensional. It’s not an easy squad to beat, and other AAC contenders like Memphis found this out the hard way.
Rice, however, is equipped with the formula to go punch-for-punch with Tulane offensively. The Owls are heavily reliant on the passing attack, which is coincidentally the Green Wave’s greatest weakness on the defensive side. JT Daniels has attained at least 340 passing yards in four of six games, and he may be in for another similar performance if the offensive line holds up.
The close nature of this game may come as a surprise to some, but in the end, it’s difficult to pick against a Tulane team which always seems to figure out how to power through fourth quarters.
Prediction: Tulane 35, Rice 28