- Time and date: Saturday, October 7 at 5:00 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPN+
- Location: Rice Stadium — Houston, TX
- Spread: Rice (-9.5)
- Over/under: 47
- All-time series: No previous meetings
Setting the scene
After participating in AAC contests for two weeks in a row, Rice (3-2, 1-1 AAC) gets a brief respite from conference play to battle former AAC member UConn (0-5, Independent) at Rice Stadium.
The Owls are back in the win column after taking out East Carolina 24-17 in a low-scoring nail-biter last Saturday. Rice is one step closer to its first winning season since 2014, and the team has the opportunity to accrue four wins through six games for the first time since the 2013 CUSA title season.
They’ll be favored, as the visiting Huskies have yet to attain anything in the win column. UConn was a blocked extra point away from forcing overtime against Utah State last Saturday in Storrs, and the team hopes to regroup and turn that close loss into a victory on the road in Houston.
This is the first-ever meeting between the geographically distant programs.
Not overlooking UConn
UConn is one of four remaining winless teams in college football, sharing that unfortunate designation with Virginia, Sam Houston, and Nevada. The Huskies, which snapped a 5-year bowl drought last year, haven’t been too distant from victory though. They lost by 10 to NC State and seven to FIU, but last week was the closest Jim Mora’s team has come to a triumph in 2023.
After squandering a 17-0 lead to Utah State, the Huskies furiously rallied from a double-digit deficit with 16 fourth quarter points. However, the game-tying extra point was blocked, allowing the Aggies to escape with a 34-33 victory. Although losing in that manner can be gut-wrenching, Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren does not believe such heartbreak will faze a Mora-led team.
“People talk about in 2023 when you lose, you lose the locker room and things like that,” Bloomgren said. “I think you have to look no further than the last drive that UConn had when they go down the field and score with 40 seconds to go to show that they’re still fighting together and fighting for Coach Mora. We know we’re gonna have to earn everything.”
The term “trap game” is common in college football when a team with a winning record faces one in the cellar, but Rice hopes this upcoming contest does not receive that label. The Owls are seeking their first 4-2 start since 2013 and the only thing standing in their way is a winless UConn team, extremely hungry for its first win since last November.
“We’ve just got to treat them like any other team, whether it’s Alabama or one of the worst teams in college football — you’ve got to treat them the same,” Rice free safety Marcus Williams said. “With UConn, we’ve got to take them like any other team would take them, watch hard film on them, prepare for them, and do everything we need to do to handle business on Saturday.”
UConn Huskies outlook
Jim Mora has one of the most unique résumés in college football. He coached the Atlanta Falcons to an NFC Championship Game appearance in 2004 during the peak of Michael Vick’s career. He held additional stints with the Seattle Seahawks and UCLA, where he led the latter to multiple 10-win seasons and a Pac-12 title game appearance. Mora’s past is certainly visible in the present, implementing pro-style schemes at UConn which succeeded at his previous stops.
“His imprint is everywhere in how hard they play,” Bloomgren said. “That’s something that’s always been a trademark of Coach Mora’s teams, whether he’s coaching Atlanta, Seattle, or UCLA. They’re always gonna be sound in what they do, but it’s more of a pro-style defense, it’s more of a pro-style offense than we’ve seen recently. There’s gonna be a lot of tight ends on the field. They’re gonna run some 13 personnel and it’s gonna look like we do at times where everybody’s in a phone booth and then they’ll spread you out in 11 personnel and then execute things that look like modern college offenses as well.”
UConn launched the season with Joe Fagnano as the starting quarterback and Devontae Houston as the lead running back. But injuries to both players caused the Huskies to switch up their depth chart. Penn State transfer Ta’Quan Roberson — who missed nearly the entirety of 2022 with an ACL tear — took the starting quarterback reins while Victor Rosa and Camryn Edwards have split duties in the backfield.
Yet, these once-backups have seen some success in their opportunities. Roberson accumulated a career-high 255 passing yards last Saturday, boasting a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 5-to-2 on the season. Rosa surpassed 90 yards for the second time this season against Utah State, while Edwards added a personal-best 73 in UConn’s strongest offensive performance of 2023.
“Although they weren’t the day one starters for this offense, as you’ve seen them grow, I don’t know if they wouldn’t have been (starters) anyway — even if injuries hadn’t occurred,” Bloomgren said. “They’re very talented. The quarterback has the ability to keep the play alive. He’s not a designed run guy, but he’s got a great arm.”
The Huskies’ defense has been the driving force of the team this year. Even for an 0-5 squad, they’ve held their ground by ranking middle-of-the-pack in run defense, pass defense, and total defense. UConn is led by a ferocious front seven which features inside linebacker Jackson Mitchell, who ranked fourth nationally in tackles last year, as well as defensive linemen Jelani Stafford and Pryce Yates, who combine for 12.5 tackles for loss.
“Jelani Stafford is a 3-technique that will remind you of De’Braylon Carroll,” Bloomgren said. “He’s not very tall but he’s super explosive. He’s such a good athlete that they’re using him at fullback in their offense. It’s something Jim’s done since he was at UCLA. Pryce Yates, No. 90, the defensive end, will remind our fans of Coleman Coco. He’s a high motor guy, really high energy, plays the game the right way and plays in a physical manner. And their linebacker Jackson Mitchell is a standout that’s really a sideline to sideline guy. He got called for targeting in the Duke game and you could tell how much the defense missed him when he was out.”
As Bloomgren suggested, the 6’0”, 303 pound Stafford rushed five times for 11 yards and two touchdowns against Utah State. Stafford secured a 10-yard reception as well, so expect to see increased utilization of the defensive tackle on offense.
Rice Owls outlook
The 2023 Owls are heavily reliant on transfer quarterback JT Daniels, a well-traveled, high-intellect veteran who has transformed Rice into a passing juggernaut. Daniels has a pair of 400-yard games this year, but during a career performance at South Florida, he suffered a lower body injury which nearly kept him out of the East Carolina game. The senior played and finished with 232 yards and two touchdowns, heating up in the second half to deliver a victory. While he has yet to revert to full strength, his presence on the field is a reassuring sight to a Rice offense averaging 33 points per game.
“He had a good understanding that he wouldn’t feel great on Sunday, and I think he actually felt better than he thought he would,” Bloomgren said. “He’s not gonna be 100 percent. As bad as he was hurting on our second-to-last drive, for him to put his foot in the ground and scramble and try to go fight for the Owls and try to move the sticks, it just tells you the warrior mindset he’s got.”
Rice is altering its bread and butter offensively under third-year coordinator Marques Tuiasosopo. The Owls were accustomed to running personnel groupings with multiple tight ends in the past, relying on a power run game fueled by extra blockers to control time of possession.
But Daniels has led Rice to a national ranking of 13th in passing yards per game, while the run game — which tallied one yard against South Florida and 37 against East Carolina — sits at fifth-to-last in the FBS with 73 yards per contest. While Rice seeks major strides in the run game, the Owls play to their strengths, redefining their style as a pass-first offense.
“It is nowhere near the standard. I don’t need to be balanced in terms of percent of run to pass,” Bloomgren said on the run game. “But I do want to be able to run the ball whenever we need to run the ball. We were not able to gain enough confidence in what we were doing to be able to call runs in 4-minute situations... Our run game is nowhere near where it needs to be and nowhere near where it should be and we’re working to get that corrected. But then again, it’s hard to take the ball out of 18’s hands right now.”
When the ball is in No. 18’s hands, the typical target is star wide receiver Luke McCaffrey. Rice’s receptions leader in 2022, McCaffrey is racking up monstrous numbers in his second year playing the position, leading the entire AAC in receiving yards at 414. But since the dawn of AAC play, other receivers have stepped up around McCaffrey.
Running back Dean Connors gained 98 receiving yards at South Florida and 6’5” wideout Rawson MacNeill, who had two career receptions just two weeks ago, caught 10 passes for 124 yards and two touchdowns to close September. And last Saturday, the game-winning touchdown was scored by true freshman Landon Ransom-Goelz, who handled a screen pass 44 yards to the end zone, giving Rice increased versatility at the position.
“All of the younger guys in the room realize that it’s our time to step up and take control,” MacNeill said. “You see that as Braylen (Walker)’s put up good numbers this year and Landon. Everybody’s realized that the time is now, and there’s no excuse that we’re young. We just have to go out there and make plays.”
Rice’s defense (111th in yards allowed per game) has seen more inconsistencies than the offense this season. The unit surrendered 42 points and 597 yards to South Florida, getting torched in the secondary in the AAC opener. But a poised response was observed last Saturday against East Carolina when the defense stifled the Pirates to 17 points, forcing four fourth down stops in the fourth quarter alone, spurred by heaps of pressure from the front seven.
“We just talked to each other and regrouped on what we wanted for the season and what we wanted to come out of this defense,” Williams said about the week-to-week improvement. “We didn’t want that (South Florida result) to happen again. We didn’t want to feel that feeling again, so we came to practice the following week, we locked in on our film during practice, we got every minor detail fixed, and we went out there and played a much better game.”
Defensive end Coleman Coco and defensive tackle De’Braylon Carroll are the key names to watch on the Owls’ defense — a unit which produced three sacks on a sturdy Texas offensive line to open the season.
This is the best offense Mike Bloomgren has coached in his six years at Rice, and it starts with the stellar play at quarterback. JT Daniels once led Georgia to a New Year’s Six win and the veteran is displaying that stardom and experience in his new home at Rice. He battled through an injury after not practicing last week, and his in-game adjustments were evident — shedding off a 6-of-16 start to complete 12 of his next 14 passes.
UConn doesn’t typically let up 300-yard passing games, but given how pass-oriented Rice has become, the Daniels-to-Luke McCaffrey connection should be a force throughout this one, keeping the Owls active on the scoreboard.
And while UConn’s offense showed strengths against Utah State, the Huskies are far from a finished product in the passing game. Rice should be able to provide ample disruption in the backfield with Coleman Coco and Josh Pearcy, and the defense can generate enough stops to hold the Huskies to an output similar to the one East Carolina posted at Rice Stadium last weekend.
Prediction: Rice 31, UConn 17