- Time and date: Saturday, November 11 at 7:30 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPNU
- Location: Alamodome — San Antonio, TX
- Spread: UTSA (-13.5)
- Over/under: 57.5
- All-time series: UTSA leads, 7-3
- Last meeting: UTSA 41, Rice 7 — November 19, 2022
- Current streak: UTSA, 7 (2015-22)
Setting the scene
The battle between two Texas teams situated along I-10 was an annual series in Conference USA. Now, it shifts to the American Athletic Conference for the first time.
Rice won the first three meetings in history, but UTSA has been overwhelmingly dominant in this series as of late. The Roadrunners carry a 7-game win streak over Rice into Saturday’s contest at the Alamodome and they’ve outscored the Owls by an aggregate mark of 86-7 in the last two meetings.
There are three weeks remaining in the regular season and this game is a high-stakes contest for both teams involved. Rice (4-5, 2-3 AAC) has dropped two straight close contests to teams wielding undefeated AAC records — Tulane and SMU. Now the Owls must face a third-straight AAC team that’s unblemished in conference play. UTSA (6-3, 5-0 AAC) controls its own destiny for a third-straight conference championship appearance (the previous two were in the CUSA). The bowl eligible Roadrunners enter Saturday on a 5-game win streak and look it make it six, as well as 8-in-a-row over the Owls.
Rice Owls outlook
Rice is still searching for its first winning season since 2014. The Owls attained bowl eligibility last year for the first time in eight years, but checked off that accomplishment with five wins due to the lack of eligible teams.
The last two weeks, Rice came excruciatingly close to pulling off home upsets over the conference’s top two teams. The Owls erased a 27-7 halftime deficit to Tulane and had an opportunity to take a late lead in a 30-28 defeat. Last week, they had one shot at a final drive down 36-31 to SMU but an interception in the final minute sealed their fate.
But Rice encountered extraordinary adversity last week which should prolong into Saturday’s contest. Starting quarterback JT Daniels suffered a concussion in the late second quarter of the SMU game and did not return. Head coach Mike Bloomgren stated Daniels’ status for the UTSA game is “doubtful” in Tuesday’s press conference.
Operating without the AAC’s touchdown passes leader, Rice must turn to true freshman quarterback Chase Jenkins or redshirt freshman AJ Padgett. Jenkins is the likely starter, taking over for Daniels in the SMU game and posting a 9-of-15, 75-yard, 1-interception stat-line. The 6’0”, 187 pound youngster also adds an element of mobility from the position that Rice doesn’t have with Daniels in the lineup, so that may alter the Owls’ play-calling strategy. Padgett — who hasn’t seen action since Week 4 due to injury — has taken reps with the first team in practice this week as well. He started the LendingTree Bowl last year and threw for 295 yards and three touchdowns without a turnover in just his second career start.
Rice is 21st nationally in passing yards per game at 288 and 123rd in rushing yards at 95 per game, but Daniels’ likely absence should also increase reliance on the running backs. Dean Connors did an extraordinary job keeping the offense in striking distance of SMU once Jenkins checked in last Saturday, attaining 77 yards as a rusher and 33 as a receiver on seven receptions, scoring two total touchdowns. Connors’ speed out of the backfield will likely be the focal point of Rice’s offense Saturday.
The Owls also offer a star receiver in Luke McCaffrey who ranks fifth in the AAC in receiving yards and second in touchdowns. But McCaffrey’s usage was uncharacteristically low after Daniels left last game. Averaging 15.6 yards per reception, Rice must open the offense and take more downfield shots in order to optimize the abilities of the potential All-AAC talent.
In order to pull off a road victory at UTSA without Daniels, Rice needs to see the caliber of the defense ramp up. The unit has yielded 30+ points in three of its last four outings, but there have been spurts of promising play in those games — notably, allowing just three second half points to Tulane. Tackles for loss leader Josh Pearcy and third-leading tackler Chris Conti were among starters to miss the UTSA game, and if those linebackers return, that could make a substantial difference.
Rice hasn't generated much pressure this year, only picking up 1.8 sacks on average. A lack of pressure has been evident in the last two beatdowns at the hands of UTSA, and the Owls only combined for one sack in those lopsided defeats. Coleman Coco and De’Braylon Carroll must shine from the defensive line. Elsewhere on the defense, Rice lost star safety Gabe Taylor to an injury in the second quarter of the SMU game. If Taylor remains out, that carves out a larger role for Tyson Flowers, who aims to replicate Taylor’s usual havoc plays from the secondary.
UTSA Roadrunners outlook
UTSA’s 1-3 record in September feels like eons ago. The Roadrunners wiped their slate clean when October arrived and commenced AAC play with five consecutive wins. Only looming matchups with Rice, South Florida, and Tulane separate Jeff Traylor’s team from qualifying for the AAC Championship Game in their inaugural year in the conference.
During this 5-game win streak, UTSA has unleashed a consistently dominant offense. The Roadrunners have racked up at least 36 points in all five conference matchups, averaging 40.8 points per game against AAC competition. Rice is all too familiar with the captain of the offense, seventh-year senior quarterback Frank Harris, who dominated the Owls in the previous two meetings. Rice knows Harris best for his mobility, as the quarterback rushed for 124 yards and three touchdowns in last November’s meeting. However, offseason surgeries limited Harris’ dual threat abilities early on in the season, but the longtime veteran posted a season-high in rushing last week with 53 yards. As a passer, he remains sharp and is just two weeks removed from a 395-yard, 4-touchdown showing against East Carolina.
Even though wide receiver injuries have been prevalent this year, UTSA remains loaded at the skill positions. Joshua Cephus is 95 yards away from becoming the program’s standalone all-time receiving yards leader, and he has shown the ability to take over games — recording 183 yards in the first half alone two weeks ago. UTSA emphasizes getting Cephus the ball on screens as the 6’3” senior operates excellently in space. He totaled seven receptions in all but two games this year and 50 yards in all but one, so you can count on heavy utilization of the receiver Saturday.
UTSA’s run game is what carried the offense against North Texas, which happens to be the worst run defense in the country. That being said, Traylor tends to play toward his opponent’s weaknesses and find mismatches. In Denton, Kevorian Barnes tallied 129 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 8.1 per carry, and Rocko Griffin and Robert Henry provided strong supporting roles. The result was 287 rushing yards as a team, demonstrating the versatility of this offense.
On the defensive side of things, the Roadrunners are equipped with arguably the best player in the conference. Outside linebacker Trey Moore is a three-time recipient of the AAC Defensive Player of the Week and he ranks second in the FBS in sacks with 12.0 on the season. Moore can take over games to an impressive degree, posting at least three sacks in three separate contests this year.
UTSA’s defense is 97th in passing yards allowed per game and and 57th in rushing yards allowed. When the Roadrunners aren’t getting to the quarterback via Moore and others, they are susceptible to allowing explosive plays through the passing game. They did a stand-up job at limiting North Texas’ high-powered aerial attack last week, and they’re forcing turnovers at a high rate now after struggling to do so earlier in the year.
UTSA won the turnover battle 3-0 last week in an 8-point victory, and it was the team’s fourth time creating multiple takeaways in AAC play — after recording just one takeaway in the non-conference slate. Cornerback Kam Alexander (11 pass breakups) and strong safety Rashad Wisdom (40 tackles, four pass breakups) are among the defensive backs always around the ball that have helped increase this turnover output.
The UTSA Roadrunners have hit their stride and they’re playing excellent football at the moment. The multidimensional offense produces a consistent output each week, and the team has proven the ability to win games utilizing both Frank Harris’ arm and relying on the running backs. The Roadrunners are finally producing turnovers at a high rate and it starts with pressure from the unblockable Trey Moore.
Rice can hang with the elite teams in this conference as proven by the last two weeks. But the Owls enter San Antonio with a considerable disadvantage if JT Daniels isn’t under center, and they may also be shorthanded on defense with injuries affecting some of the top defenders — Josh Peacy, Chris Conti, Gabe Taylor, and Jonathan Jean. Rice needs to play a near-perfect game under Chase Jenkins in order to pull this one off, and winning the turnover battle by a decisive amount is necessary.
Overall, expect UTSA to remain potent offensively while Rice plays catch-up throughout the night with a shorthanded squad.
Prediction: UTSA 41, Rice 21