clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

2023 Week 2 Bayou Bucket Game Preview: Houston Cougars @ Rice Owls

The Cougars have claimed the Bayou Bucket in seven straight meetings, but a hungry Rice eyes its first since 2010.

NCAA Football: Rice at Houston Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Game notes

  • Time and date: Saturday, September 9 at 7:00 p.m. ET
  • Network: NFL Network
  • Location: Rice Stadium — Houston, TX
  • Spread: Houston (-10)
  • Over/under: 52.5
  • All-time series: Houston leads, 33-11
  • Last meeting: Houston 34, Rice 27 — September 24, 2022
  • Current streak: Houston, 7 (2011-22)

The second-closest rivalry in college football

Of all potential FBS pairings, only Georgia State and Georgia Tech share closer campuses than Rice and Houston. You don’t even have to leave the confines of the city of Houston when making the roughly 12-minute, sub-5 mile drive between Rice Stadium and TDECU Stadium. The two neighbors are set to clash for the third consecutive season, and as always, a trophy is on the line for the victor.

The Bayou Bucket was created two years after the initial meeting in 1971. This trophy has been in Houston’s possession since 2011 as the Cougars have strung together seven consecutive victories in the timeframe — the longest streak by either team in the series.

“I know this game means a lot to a lot of people,” Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “It means a lot to both teams. Crosstown rivals, great history. This game’s always hard. It’s a challenging game. It’s back-and-forth and has been for 45 games. This is one that means a lot to them. We’ve won it seven years in a row — that’s never happened before — so we will expect a challenging game. They were one play away last year.”

As Holgorsen alluded to, the previous meeting between the Cougars and Owls came down to the final play. Rice watched a fourth quarter lead slip away when Houston defensive end Nelson Ceaser returned a fumble for the go-ahead touchdown. But with one second remaining, the Owls still possessed the ball nine yards from the end zone, trailing by seven, with one shot at glory. However, TJ McMahon’s pass was broken up in the end zone, keeping the Bayou Bucket on the Cougar sideline.

The 2022 Bayou Bucket coming down to the wire only jolted confidence within Rice’s roster that a victory against Houston is more than feasible.

“Growing up in Houston, the U of H brand always wanted to claim the city of Houston, and it’s our job and our turn to show them that there’s another team down the street that can claim that title,” Rice inside linebacker Myron Morrison said. “Last year was a game that we went into feeling like we definitely could have taken it. We’re that much stronger. Something that we could have done last year, we can do it again this year with how much we’ve grown as a team.”

NCAA Football: Rice at Houston
Houston celebrated with its seventh consecutive Bayou Bucket last September at TDECU Stadium.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The ever-changing landscape of college football due to this current wave of conference realignment has destroyed many powerful rivalries. The Bedlam Series between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State will be discontinued after this November’s meeting, and the Iron Skillet between TCU and SMU gets eradicated from the schedule after 2025. Houston and Rice both moved conferences this season, but Holgorsen doesn’t want those changes putting this crosstown rivalry in jeopardy.

“This game needs to be played. Us and Rice needs to be played,” Holgorsen said. “How it fits in the schedule — I don’t know what the schedule looks like. How is that going to change next year for Big 12? I don’t know. But I’m sympathetic to those games. Those games are fun to be apart of. It’s a shame about Bedlam. It was a shame about the Backyard Brawl. I’d be disappointed if this game against Rice doesn’t happen.”

Differing Week 1 results

Houston launched its Big 12 membership in ideal fashion. Not only were the Cougars playing in front of the largest crowd head coach Dana Holgorsen had witnessed in his tenure, but they emerged victorious in front of the electric atmosphere. After skating by 17-14 over a UTSA team with lofty preseason expectations, Houston hopes to springboard that success into a second win over an AAC newcomer this September.

“It was a big win for us,” Holgorsen said. “UTSA’s won 23 games in the last couple years. We’ve won 21. It meant a lot to both teams. You could tell. I was just proud of our team. We were the more disciplined football team. We did what we needed to do to win the game, and I was happy with that... Don’t ever take a win for granted. You can say it was a boring, ugly win if you want to, but I’ll take it.”

While Houston partook in an evenly-matched affair, Rice entered Austin as heavy underdogs to preseason Big 12 favorite Texas. The 37-10 result was anything but desirable for the Owls, but Rice presented several challenges to the Longhorns throughout the game. Texas only managed one first half touchdown, turned it over on downs twice, and absorbed three sacks and eight tackles for loss Saturday afternoon — all things Rice can build upon when Houston makes the trek across town.

“Saturday afternoon in DKR stadium is actually what we thought it would be,” Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren said. “I go back to the week before we played Texas and the way we prepared. I’m really proud of what our team poured into that game and you really saw it from the start of that game. It would not be too big for us, we would not be scared, and I think all of those things showed to be true.”

Syndication: Austin American-Statesman
Rice fell to 0-1 in Austin last Saturday after a 37-10 defeat to No. 11 Texas.
Ricardo B. Brazziell/American-Statesman / USA TODAY NETWORK

A look at Houston’s offense

Houston couldn’t have asked for a better start than 1-0. But after scoring just two touchdowns, the Cougars realize they left plenty of points on the board against UTSA team in Week 1. From a play-calling perspective, it was a very risk-averse game for Houston, which broke in several new offensive starters including quarterback Donovan Smith.

“We were a little conservative game one not knowing certain things, breaking in a new quarterback, doing some different things offensively,” Holgorsen said. “Being cautious, but being smart. Donovan (Smith) wanted to make an impression, but not do anything to hurt his team, which is exactly what he did. So we’re a work in progress.”

Smith — who Mike Bloomgren compared to former Minnesota Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper in his weekly press conference — stands at 6’5” and 241 pounds and warrants the “dual-threat” label. The Texas Tech transfer completed 22-of-34 passes for 233 yards in his first game as a Cougar and rushed for 31 yards. While there was a lack of explosive playmaking throughout the night, Smith remained mistake-free and helped his team convincingly win the turnover battle.

“We’ll work with opening things up a little bit, varying tempos, making it fun and all those good things, but what I was happy with was just playing smart football and not getting behind and not taking a bunch of penalties or anything like that,” Holgorsen said.

The inability to generate production from the running backs was one of the limitations of Houston’s offense in its 17-point outing against UTSA. The Cougars opted for a running back by committee approach, rotating handoffs between West Virginia transfer Tony Mathis Jr. and incumbent sophomores Brandon Campbell and Stacy Sneed. But Holgorsen is ready to add another name to the mix, as he believes true freshman Parker Jenkins could be the spark which ignites the run game.

“We need to play Parker Jenkins more. He’s got the ability,” Holgorsen said. “He only played three snaps. The one kick return he got, you can see how he moves. Brandon, he didn’t practice very much and was nicked up a little bit and just couldn’t get it going. All those backs are gonna deal with things all year. That position is hard. I thought Stacy ran well. I thought Tony ran hard. We’re gonna need all four all year. How those reps are divided is gonna be based on how they practice and how they feel in the game.”

Even though Houston lost the reigning FBS receiving yards and touchdowns leader to the NFL Draft this offseason, the Cougars remain sharp at the receiver position. Rather than one overwhelming talent taking over defenses, Houston trots out several viable options. Saturday was the Sam Brown show, as the second-year Cougar logged his second career 100-yard game on six catches. Houston also presents dangerous options in true sophomore Matthew Golden and Joseph Manjack IV, who missed the majority of 2022 due to injury. Both of these receivers caught touchdown passes in the opener.

“Spreading the ball around makes it more challenging for defense,” Holgorsen said. “If you don’t have enough people to do it, then you have to create matchups which is what we did with Tank (Dell) the last couple years. We can do either one, I would prefer to put five skill kids out there that can all make plays and spread it around. That’s the history of what we’ve done offensively and I think we’re trending in that direction.”

NCAA Football: Texas-San Antonio at Houston
Samuel Brown led all Cougars in receiving yards against UTSA with 106 on six receptions.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The 2022 Cougars were an aerial savant. They ranked eighth nationally in passing yards per game with an offensive predicated on the star quarterback and receiver tandem of Clayton Tune and Tank Dell. But as far as scheme and offensive style in 2023, Holgorsen and his staff are still figuring out the optimal direction of this team. The head coach says it usually takes several games to adjust to the on-field personnel before settling on a style to utilize for the remainder of the season. And this year, it may not be the same air raid the Cougars became accustomed to last fall.

“Every year is different, every team is different. I didn’t know we were an air raid team last year the first four or five games. I had to figure it out,” Holgorsen said. “Last year we weren’t having as much success in the run game, we weren’t having as much success defensively, so we opened things up and started throwing everywhere. That’s not the direction I want. I don’t want that to be the backbone of our football team. It’s not good for a lot of reasons.”

A look at Rice’s offense

Rice’s offense only posted 10 points on the Longhorns in the opener, but it was certainly an upgrade over the 58-0 shutout the Owls faced last time out in Austin. This year’s Rice offense has potential to be one of the best units seen on campus in quite some time, and it all starts with the arrival of quarterback JT Daniels.

Daniels has seen it all as a college football player. He committed to USC as a 5-star recruit out of high school, transferred to Georgia where he won a New Year’s Six bowl and logged several starts for a national championship team, and then relocated to West Virginia before winding up at Rice. The journeyman’s debut with his fourth school wasn’t his strongest showing, finishing 14-of-26 with 149 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions. But Bloomgren believes the circumstances created by significant defensive line pressure heavily factored into that stat-line.

“I think it’s really hard to assess JT on what happened in that game,” Bloomgren said. “I thought the pressure was serious. The size of those guys, the size of 93 (T’Vondre Sweat, 6’4”, 362 pounds). He’s unbelievable. He’s a freak. So I just thought with the pressure that was on (Daniels), the things he’s gotta clean up in his game is not turning the ball over in those instances. He’s been very clear and been able to articulate how he will not do that going forward. That’s the growth we need from him and we also need him to hit the throws he’s capable of making. It’s hard to be perfect in this game. We do hold him to a very high standard and when we see that in a game, I think we’re all gonna enjoy it.”

Daniels connected with eight different targets in the opener, but the only player who exceeded two receptions was tight end Boden Groen. He’ll look for increased wide receiver utilization in the home opener this Saturday with his primary weapons being Luke McCaffrey, Braylen Walker, converted quarterback JoVoni Johnson-McCray, and true freshman Landon Ransom-Goelz, among others. Covering McCaffrey should be the focal point for Houston’s secondary. The team’s reigning receptions leader was responsible for Rice’s only touchdown in Week 1 — a perfectly-placed 15-yard strike from Daniels with three minutes remaining in the contest.

NCAA Football: Rice at Houston
Luke McCaffrey caught seven passes for 121 yards and a touchdown against Houston last September.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

“That was a big time throw,” Bloomgren said of the throw. “But that’s what he does. He makes big time throws, and that’s why he’s here and that’s why he was a 5-star coming out. That’s the expectation to say the least. I loved that drive in the fourth quarter. I loved that our team was able to circle the wagons and put together a really good fourth quarter, where I’m not sure we did that much in the past when things weren’t going our way against one of those guys when you’re punching up a weight class.”

The run game produced far from preferred results against Texas. The Owls ran the ball 25 times and only racked up 27 yards — and only two sacks factored into that rushing total. Dean Connors and Juma Otoviano split the majority of the carries, but eight different ball carriers were tested. No running back surpassed 20 rushing yards in the prior meeting with Houston, so establishing that facet of the game is a priority in order to ease Daniels and the aerial offense.

A look at Houston’s defense

In a twist from the majority of their 2022 results, the Cougars defeated UTSA by the means of a relentless defense. Houston only surrendered two touchdowns, forced five punts, and stalled three UTSA drives with interceptions — transpiring on three consecutive Roadrunner passing attempts. The Cougars fielded the 10th-to-last passing defense in the FBS last season, but Saturday was a reassuring start as they held UTSA star quarterback Frank Harris to 209 yards on 18-of-36 passing.

Two of Harris’ three interceptions landed in the hands of cornerback Malik Fleming. The 5’8” East Carolina transfer hand-picked Houston in the portal this offseason after watching how defensive coordinator Doug Belk and his staff utilized undersized corners, and the pairing couldn’t have been more perfect. Not only did Fleming pick off two passes, but the 2022 All-AAC selection returned a punt 48 yards — setting up Houston in plus territory for both of its touchdowns Saturday night.

“(Fleming’s) a great piece, but I just don’t know where the matchup’s gonna come,” Bloomgren said. “Because Doug’s doing such a good job playing with different fronts, he’s really changed himself from last year when you watch the film of the UTSA game. He did some things that weren’t maybe what they’ve shown in past years and there was a little bit of a surprise effect. Combine that with the fact that Malik Fleming played corner, he played nickel, and he played post safety — he’s just moving Malik around a lot. I think he’s got a special guy that he trusts and you see that.”

Belk and the Cougars hope to generate more duress on the quarterback after only obtaining one sack in Week 1. Rice only permitted two sacks to Texas, but Houston defensive end Nelson Ceaser looks to bring back “Sack Ave.” and spearhead a greater backfield invasion against the Owls in Week 2.

NCAA Football: Rice at Houston
Nelson Ceaser recovered a fumble for a touchdown in the fourth quarter of the 2022 Bayou Bucket, breaking a 27-27 tie to give the Cougars a 34-27 victory.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Also a member of the defensive line, nose tackle Chidozie Nwankwo typically serves as the anchor to Houston’s run defense. The 5’11”, 295 pound junior produced 36 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss last season, but his 2023 progress was quickly halted by an ankle injury. Holgorsen did not disclose Nwankwo’s status in the weekly press conference, but he is listed as a second-string on the depth chart behind Hakeem Ajijolaiya. Ajijolaiya, a former walk-on, entered the 2023 season with just six tackles in four seasons, but in the opener, he added four stops to a now-exponentially growing résumé.

“Hakeem has been playing well and he’s worked his way into the backup nose guard spot,” Holgorsen said. “He got awarded a scholarship, has been on scout team for three years, been on PAT field goal and PAT field goal block going on two to three years now and has worked himself into earning a scholarship and worked himself into having a role on this football team. When we called his name and he went into start and played 49 snaps, 44 on defense, he played well — actually got off blocks and made plays and was a force in there. It’s next guy up mentality when that happens.”

A look at Rice’s defense

Rice came out of the gate demonstrating some fortitude on the defensive side of the ball. On the first possession of the season, the Owls forced a turnover on downs which they were able to cash into a 3-0 lead. And because the defense remained stout throughout the first half against Texas, Rice entered halftime having only surrendered one touchdown to the five-touchdown favorites. Bloomgren sees this year’s unit as a vast improvement over the defense which allowed the 11th most points per game in the FBS in 2022.

“Throughout the whole first half, there were so many flashes of elite defense being played,” Morrison said. “One thing that I find encouragement in is a lot of the big plays and explosives that they had were the result of self-inflicted wounds, which is something that is very fixable on our end.”

Where the Owls thrive most is in the trenches. Rice limited the run with moderate levels of success, preventing any Texas running back from attaining more than 55 yards last Saturday. But most notably, they put on a commendable performance in pressuring Longhorn quarterback Quinn Ewers. Rice produced three sacks and eight tackles for loss in Austin — higher respective numbers than what the Longhorns issued in those categories.

“Texas’ offensive line gave up eight total sacks last year. It’s the same starting five back and we had three,” Bloomgren said. “That tells you that our guys are getting after the passer. People are saying we didn’t stop the run — we held very good backs under four yards per carry. There’s a lot to be proud of in that game. If we just keep growing and keep taking steps, the sky’s the limit for this team.”

The defensive line pressure starts up front with nose tackle De’Braylon Carroll. The 6’0”, 290 pound junior missed the entirety of 2021 with an Achilles injury and played through the effects of the Achilles tear, as well as other injuries in 2022. But fully healthy, Carroll was an absolute force that the Texas line struggled to contain at times. His presence also opened up pass rushing lanes for edge rushers Josh Pearcy and Coleman Coco.

“De’Braylon is not only back to pre-injury De’Braylon which is what we all wanted to see, but I think he's a much better version than that,” Bloomgren said. “I think he’s the best he’s ever played. I think Josh Pearcy’s playing at a level that’s the best he’s ever played. And Coco obviously was a great add. Coleman Coco plays with a great motor, and to see those guys hitting the quarterback and make Ewers pretty uncomfortable back there was awesome to see.”

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 28 Louisiana Tech at Rice
De’Braylon Carroll registered 1.5 sacks in the opener against Texas.
Photo by Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

On the back end, Rice presents veteran leadership in the secondary. Cornerback Sean Fresch has been the Owls’ No. 1 cornerback for over a year, and after contributing a team-high eight tackles last week, he’ll look to limit the playmaking of Golden and the Houston receiving corps. Also in the secondary lines up hard-hitting safety Gabe Taylor. Taylor has been the ultimate proponent of havoc within the defense the last two seasons, generating four interceptions, 11 pass breakups, and three forced fumbles over that span. But the secondary must be prepared for a Houston offense which is capable of attacking with speed and explosiveness, even if it didn’t show against UTSA in Week 1.

“They’re pretty scary,” Bloomgren said of Houston’s offense. “They all can run, they all make plays, so we’re gonna have to be doing exactly what we did in this last game. We’re gonna have to make sure the rush and coverage works together the way it’s supposed to, make sure we play this thing top down and don’t allow the ball to go over our head and get hits on the passer, and then while doing that on base downs, we certainly have to stop the run. I have all the confidence in the world in our defense to be able to do that, but it’s not like it’s not a big challenge.”


Both of these teams showed signs of legitimacy on defense in their respective openers, despite being offensive-centric squads in 2022. Given what we know about both defenses already, the 2023 Bayou Bucket could be in for a low-scoring bout.

Houston should see more offensive success this week, as quarterback Donovan Smith has more comfort with a game in the system under his belt. The Cougars should open up the passing game in more explosive fashion, so expect a heavier dose of budding star receiver Matthew Golden, who was limited to four receptions for 36 yards in Week 1, with Joseph Manjack IV and Samuel Brown playing strong supporting roles.

On the other side, Rice should see more success in moving the ball downfield without the immense pressure from Texas’ defensive tackles factoring into this game, and this is especially true if Houston plays without both starting interior linemen Chidozie Nwankwo and Sedrick Williams — as neither typical starter is listed atop the Week 2 depth chart. And although Houston’s secondary looks definitely improved over the unit which allowed 334 yards to the Owls in 2022, JT Daniels should see a much better performance Saturday night than he did in Austin.

While the passing attacks will trade blows, Houston emerges in the end with a stronger ground game and a more polished run-stopping unit.

Prediction: Houston 28, Rice 17