- Time and date: Saturday, September 30 at 7:00 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPN+
- Location: Rice Stadium — Houston, TX
- Spread: Rice (-3)
- Over/under: 48
- All-time series: Series tied, 2-2
- Last meeting: Rice 62, East Carolina 38 — November 20, 2010
- Current streak: Rice, 1 (2010)
First AACtion in Rice Stadium
It’s the first-ever meeting for the Rice Owls (2-2, 0-1 AAC) and East Carolina Pirates (1-3, 0-0 AAC) as American Athletic Conference opponents. The geographically distant schools formerly shared membership in Conference USA throughout the 2000s and they’ll reunite again on the soil of Rice Stadium.
It’s also the first AAC matchup in the venue’s history, and Rice will commemorate the occasion by donning a special set of uniforms that “pay homage to the NFL ties” in the city of Houston. The Owls got a head-start on conference play last weekend in Tampa, where they fell 42-29 to South Florida after allowing an onslaught of explosive plays in the second half. They look to make amends and revert to win column against the 1-3 Pirates.
East Carolina enters Rice Stadium with a clean conference slate after a slew of double-digit losses in non-conference play. The Pirates cleared an FCS opponent 44-0 last week and they search for their first FBS win of 2023 in the city which shares a name with their head coach.
JT Daniels’ status
Rice starting quarterback JT Daniels suffered a lower-body injury in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s 42-29 loss to South Florida. Daniels set a career-high 432 passing yards, firing three touchdowns without an interception in a stellar performance. He checked out of the fourth quarter and was replaced by AJ Padgett, who started Rice’s final two games of 2022.
“JT’s health is better today than yesterday and it’s certainly better than Sunday,” Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren said on Tuesday. “I’m not sure if we were at a point where I think he might have been able to go back in the game on Saturday. We were just trying to get him strong enough and then AJ took us on a great drive there to score, and we got the 2-point conversion, and we were like, ‘Hey, we’re good.’”
Although Daniels did not practice Monday, Bloomgren suggests the former USC, Georgia, and West Virginia quarterback plans to be available Saturday night at Rice Stadium.
“He’s preparing to start this weekend,” Bloomgren said of Daniels. “It’s absolutely great to have a guy like AJ in the room who has got those two games of starting experience. Those were very valuable, but his time around JT has been very valuable as well... But again, (No.) 18’s playing pretty good football and we’re not gonna take him off the field on purpose.”
Picking a Pirate passer
After four-and-a-half years operating under one starting quarterback in Holton Ahlers, East Carolina remains in experimentation mode, in search of Ahlers’ successor. The Pirates continue to flip between two longtime roster members in fourth-year QB Mason Garcia and and fifth-year QB Alex Flinn. Garcia started the first two games of the season, while Flinn earned the last two starts.
Despite coming off the bench in the 44-0 win over Gardner-Webb of the FCS, Garcia is the most recent owner of the hot hand, completing 9-of-12 passes in the shutout. On 55 attempts this year, Garcia has 234 passing yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions with a 58.2 percent completion rate. On 68 attempts this year, Flinn has 365 passing yards, one touchdown, and four interceptions with a 50.0 percent completion rate. The passing numbers are similar to an extent, but the 6’5”, 249 pound Garcia gets the edge in the mobility department, rushing for 118 yards against a stout Marshall defense in Week 2.
“Mason’s a big human being,” Bloomgren said. “He gets rolling pretty good and he finds a way to get to the sticks and beyond. We have to do a great job understanding how we’re going to contain this quarterback.”
Can Rice grow on the ground?
Rice obtained just one rushing yard last Saturday at South Florida. Although sacks factor into that output, the Owls’ problems persisted beyond the four sacks yielded to the Bulls. Their leading rusher was running back Juma Otoviano, who picked up just 12 yards on the afternoon.
“That was not to our standard,” Bloomgren said. “There’s no sidestepping that. We had seven yards on 13 called runs. Whether you say we had one yard rushing or whether you say seven yards on 13 carries, it’s just not what you’re looking for. There’s a couple things that have to happen, but I think it goes back to those 1-on-1s. In our first three games, I thought the running backs left a lot of meat on the bone and there were some runs could have been a lot bigger. This last game, I thought they hit everything the way it was designed to be done and the offensive line didn’t give them a chance to get started.”
The South Florida game signified the third time in three games against FBS competition where the Owls produced under 70 rushing yards as a team. Rice rotates a stable of running backs in the backfield including sixth-year senior Otoviano, former JUCO standout Dean Connors, and true freshman short-yardage specialist Daelen Alexander. Seven ballcarriers have at least five attempts this season, and Connors is the only one exceeding 3.2 yards per carry with an average of 4.8. He possesses the belief this unit can experience a 180 degree turnaround in that facet of the game.
“We’re confident,” Connors said. “O-line works hard. Running backs work hard. We’ll fix our mistakes. We can’t go back in those games — we’ve moved on from those.”
Generating a ground attack has been a struggle all year for the Owls, which exhibit the eighth-worst per game rushing total in the FBS at 82 yards. As a result, Rice has become increasingly reliant on the Daniels-led aerial attack, which is situated 12th nationally in passing yards per game. Rice’s identity under Bloomgren has typically been a run-based offense, and the head coach seeks greater balance in the midst of drastically differing run and pass metrics.
“Because of the way the game was going and because of the success of the passing game, didn’t try it a lot in the second half,” Bloomgren said of the run game. “That’s okay too, but that’s not what I want. I want the ability to be balanced and balance is not gonna be 50-50, but it’s the ability to run the ball when we want to run the ball and pass the ball when we want to pass.”
Pirates righting the ship
Seven teams entered Week 4 sporting winless records, and East Carolina happened to be one of those. But the Pirates shed that label in demonstrative fashion, throttling Gardner-Webb of the FCS in a 44-0 annihilation in front of a packed house at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. After reveling in its first winning locker room of 2023, this young ECU team hopes to build on the momentum established last Saturday and recreate that winning feeling this weekend on the road in Texas.
“Getting a win is important,” East Carolina head coach Mike Houston said in his weekly press conference. “Getting a win like that in that kind of fashion is important. We had a great week of practice last week. We talked about that. Our big emphasis was taking those practices to gameday and I thought our players did a fantastic job with that. It’s good to see the tangible results on the scoreboard. That’s huge going into this game.”
The first three games of the season were very turnover-laden outings for the Pirates, which coughed up the ball a combined six times against Michigan, Marshall, and Appalachian State. But ECU demonstrated much stronger ball security and decision-making against Gardner-Webb, limiting itself to one turnover while generating five takeaways on the visiting FCS squad.
“I thought we did a great job taking care of the football,” Houston said. “I thought we did a great job decision-wise, primarily at the quarterback position. I thought our offensive line executed at a much higher level than we did the previous couple games.”
One important element East Carolina showcased during Saturday night’s 44-0 win was depth. The Pirates lost almost as much senior talent as anybody in the country this offseason, featuring just one returning player on offense who started the majority of the 2022 schedule. But by finally putting their foot on the gas and dismantling an opponent, ECU was allotted time to develop the next crop of of talent, and that group excelled in its opportunity to preserve the shutout.
“You want to get a game like that, but we didn’t talk about it a ton during the game,” Houston said regarding the shutout. “We had a lot of Pirates play their first college snaps Saturday night. I was very pleased that they went in their and they didn’t get sloppy, both sides of the ball. The ball wasn’t on the ground. There weren’t false starts.”
Rice on ECU
Although it was an FCS opponent, East Carolina is fresh off its strongest performance of the season on the offensive side of the ball, producing 44 points in a shutout victory. The Pirates received a nice boost from the ground game, which rushed for 182 yards and five touchdowns in their first win of the 2023 season. The duo of Rahjai Harris and Javious Bond has racked up a combined 286 yards and four touchdowns this year, and while ECU shines more on the ground, Bloomgren’s staff refuses to overlook the balance the offense may present.
“We can’t forget this is a balanced offense in a lot of ways,” Bloomgren said. “They’re going to have the ability to take shots. It’s going to look more pro-style than maybe a collegiate offense. They have a great runner in Rahjai Harris coming back. There’s a lot of talent.”
One of Rice’s greatest defensive struggles against South Florida was limiting the playmaking of mobile quarterback Byrum Brown. He posted a career-day against the Owls with 435 passing yards on 15 yards per attempt, while scrambling for 82 yards on the side. East Carolina is the second consecutive Rice opponent which showcases its quarterback as its leading rusher, so the Owls must be sound with their contain and prevent another electrifying performance.
“We’ve got to make sure we contain the quarterback,” Rice defensive tackle De’Braylon Carroll said. “I felt we did a pretty good job. We’ve just got to do better against max protection, just transitioning faster on the play action, but I thought we did a pretty good job of keeping (Brown) in the pocket. Now we’ve got to close the pocket and affect the passer a little better than we did this past week.”
On the flip-side, one of the Owls’ main points of emphasis is ball security. East Carolina ranks No. 1 in the FBS in fumble recoveries on the season with seven, recovering five in its last outing against Gardner-Webb. The ECU defense is attributed with six forced fumbles on the season, and this turnover effort is spearheaded by outside linebackers BJ Davis (team-high two forced fumbles) and Jeremy Lewis (team-high two fumble recoveries).
“ECU likes to bring pressure, but I don’t think that’s a negative thing,” Connors said. “We did a good job on that last game and it’s always good to have a challenge like that. They play hard, they like to turn the ball over and go after the ball when ball carriers are carrying it. Ball security is always a big emphasis for us, and that will be one of the challenges.”
ECU on Rice
When East Carolina studies Rice on film, the first thing that sticks out is the offensive explosiveness. The Owls currently average north of 35 points per game, and the scoring is the result of frequent home run plays, primarily in the passing game. Daniels completed eight separate passes spanning 20 yards last week, including three exceeding 45 yards.
“Obviously JT Daniels has as an elite arm,” Houston said. “They have some playmakers. (Luke) McCaffrey may be the best receiver we’ve seen this season. He had a huge game against South Florida the other night, a huge game against Houston. He had almost 200 yards receiving Saturday night, so he’s pretty elite. Connors out of the backfield, he had an 80-yard touchdown against South Florida Saturday on a pipe route, and he’s made plays in every ballgame. It’s a combination of a really good quarterback, a solid offensive line, and then playmakers that have big play ability all around.”
ECU did not need a significant adjustment in practice when installing Rice’s offensive schemes for defensive preparation. Both teams run a similar pro-style offense, and it’s a system Houston has watched Bloomgren implement into his teams for decades. Now, the two coaches — which have known each other for a long time — finally square off for the first time as AAC opponents.
“I’ve known Coach Bloomgren for 20-something years,” Houston said. “I know him very well. I know what he’s about, so there is some familiarity even though it’s a new team.”
Players to watch
Luke McCaffrey, WR, Rice: Two seasons ago, he was Rice’s starting quarterback. Now, he’s one of the best wide receivers in the AAC. Luke McCaffrey is fresh off a career-high 199 receiving yards against South Florida, and he ranks second in the conference in yards and tied for first in touchdowns. McCaffrey is an explosive downfield threat who can draw mismatches against any secondary. He is the overwhelming favorite target of JT Daniels, and Rice will look his way often in order to produce another prolific day through the air — especially if the ground game continues to stall.
Coleman Coco, DE, Rice: Coleman Coco is Rice’s most impactful defensive transfer addition this year. The former FCS star instantly upgraded the team’s pass rush, and through four games, he has 2.5 sacks and 3.0 tackles for loss. Working alongside De’Braylon Carroll frees up pass rushing lanes for the first-year Owl, and he’ll look to wreak havoc against an ECU line allowing 2.3 sacks per game, as well as play contain against the mobile Mason Garcia on the edge.
Jsi Hatfield, WR, East Carolina: Rice’s passing defense is 16th-to-last in the FBS at 275 yards per game, and the Owls are one week removed from surrendering 272 yards on eight receptions to South Florida wide receiver Naiem Simmons. Given Rice’s propensity to allow home run plays from the prior week, East Carolina should try to get its passing attack going early in this one. The speedy Jsi Hatfield is the ideal candidate for deep shots, as he averages 15.6 yards per reception in five years suiting up in purple and gold.
Chad Stephens, DE, East Carolina: East Carolina is tied for last in the country in sacks per game at 0.75. Through four outings, the Pirates have only reached the quarterback on three occasions. Rice’s offensive line has allowed multiple sacks to all FBS opponents this season, so East Carolina hopes to finally generate pressure. Getting cleaner rushes from the defensive end position is essential, so Chad Stephens will be called upon to invade the Owls’ backfield and make life tougher for a pass-happy offense.
East Carolina finally learned how to win with a new-look squad last week, and that confidence could go a long way moving forward. But the Owls have been much more consistent on the offensive side of the ball this year, exhibiting a consistent passing game led by quarterback JT Daniels — who has thrown for 400+ twice in four games — and playmaking wide receiver Luke McCaffrey. Rice’s run game should see an uptick in production as well against the Pirates, especially after facing a bunch of challenging fronts in Texas, Houston, and South Florida.
East Carolina may generate a share of explosive plays on the Rice defense, and this is the opportune time for the Pirates to establish a reliable passing attack. But the Owls possess more advantages offensively, and their dynamic aerial game will provide a multi-score win at home over the visitors from Greenville, NC.
Prediction: Rice 31, East Carolina 21