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2021 Week 7 Preview: Rice Owls @ UTSA Roadrunners

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In pursuit of a 7-0 start, UTSA hosts a rising Rice squad on a 2-game win streak.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 19 Rice at UTSA Photo by Daniel Dunn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Game Notes

  • Time and Date: Saturday, October 16 at 6:00 p.m. ET
  • Network: ESPN+
  • Location: Alamodome — San Antonio, TX
  • Spread: UTSA (-18.5)
  • ESPN FPI: UTSA has 93.5% chance to win
  • All-time series: UTSA leads, 5-3
  • Last meeting: UTSA 31, Rice 27 — October 19, 2019

Setting the scene

A spotless résumé remains in the works for the UTSA Roadrunners. While many unbeaten teams took a hit last Saturday, UTSA staved off an explosive WKU offense to preserve its unbeaten record and jump to 2-0 in C-USA competition. The Roadrunners won’t be the only Texas-based team entering the Alamodome with a perfect conference record this Saturday. An upset-minded Rice team is coming off a bye week after collecting consecutive wins to follow an 0-3 start. Dropping five consecutive matchups in this series, the Owls search for their first win over UTSA since 2014.


Roadrunnin’ the table

UTSA is the lone team chasing perfection in C-USA and just one of 13 undefeated programs remaining in college football. UTSA edged WKU in a 52-46 shootout last Saturday to extend its record to 6-0 — marking its best start in school history. The victory marked the third consecutive one-score triumph for the Roadrunners, and the team learned how to close tight contests after faring 4-3 in one-possession games in 2020. This time, the win was preserved by outside linebacker Clarence Hicks, who snagged a diving interception off WKU quarterback Bailey Zappe near the goal line in the final minute.

“Getting that success last year helped us with our confidence this year,” UTSA head coach Jeff Traylor said on finishing close games. “In my career, we’ve been luckier when our players were better. And we’ve got really good players right now, we’re really deep. That play by Clarence Hicks to finish the game off was as good a play I’ve ever seen personally. He did a great job re-routing No. 2 and just the diving interception was phenomenal.”

After securing its sixth win and attaining bowl eligibility, something is still missing. UTSA is the only unbeaten in college football without an AP Poll ranking beside its name. However, Traylor dismisses the current snapshot of the poll, stating that if the Roadrunners are good enough, they’ll end up in the national rankings.

“I would never bring up in a team meeting that we’re the only undefeated team not ranked. It would be a violation of our culture pillar so I would never ever do such a thing. I have a feeling our kids know,” Traylor said. “You know, we’re a new school. Memphis thinks we’re the ‘United States Tennis Association.’ People don’t even know what our initials stand for at times — we’re just new.”

From Rice’s perspective, this game feels similar to a fateful matchup from last December. At that time in the C-USA, the red target was painted on Marshall’s back, as the Thundering Herd ranked No. 15 in the country with an unblemished résumé. During a trip to Huntington, the Owls shut out Marshall 20-0 in a defensive clinic which featured five interceptions. With confidence still resonating from that afternoon, the veterans on this roster understand the team’s capability of pulling off such victories.

“They’re 6-0 so it reminds me a little bit of how things went last year when we went to Marshall. They were a great team and they were ranked. UTSA’s on the cusp of being ranked as well, probably,” Rice running back Jordan Myers said. “A big standard that we set in this program is that we want to go out and win enough games for bowl games as well as conference championships. With a win like this, people will wake up and understand that Rice is here to play.”


Constant in the quarterback room

Rice’s quarterback depth chart has been an adventure in the 2021 season. In the first four games, the Owls trotted out three different starters, but one name that flew under the radar preseason now has a stranglehold on the position. Jake Constantine, a former Boise State commit and transfer from FCS school Weber State, received his first snaps at the FBS level when Luke McCaffrey and Wiley Green left the Texas game with injury. In all three appearances this year, Constantine has crossed the 72 percent completion threshold, and he is responsible for Rice’s best two passing outputs of the season. Currently 2-0 as a starter, he is expected to make his third start at the Alamodome this Saturday.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 18 Rice at Texas
Rice QB Jake Constantine has a 2-0 record as the team’s starter this year.
Photo by John Rivera/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Constantine won’t be the only Rice quarterback seeing in-game reps. The Owls still run a multi-quarterback system with appearances from Nebraska transfer quarterback Luke McCaffrey. McCaffrey’s snaps mainly consist of QB draws, and he successfully ran the ball seven times for 52 yards during Constantine’s first two starts.

“Every week, it’s just reps on top of reps and that’s how we all learn and that’s how we get more comfortable within systems,” Rice head coach Bloomgren said about his quarterbacks. “We all learn best kinesthetically by doing, the more time on task and the more reps they can get. I’m not sure any of them are Lamar Jackson yet... In any case we’re pleased with where our two quarterbacks are and they’re continuing to come along.”


When UTSA has the ball

The explosiveness of UTSA’s offense is unquestionable. The Roadrunners rank 19th in the FBS with a scoring output of 37.5 points per game. Sincere McCormick finished second in the nation in rushing yards last season and his follow-up act is just as impressive — currently situated at ninth overall with a per game average exceeding 110 yards. Quarterback Frank Harris is coming off a career performance with 349 passing yards and six touchdown deliveries in the win over WKU.

But the foundation of every dominant offense lies within the five men up front. UTSA’s offensive line is quietly making rounds as one of the premier units in the country. The gaps provided for McCormick in the running game cannot be understated. But the success is not just limited to run blocking. The line’s versatility is also impressive as one of 16 pass blocking units in the FBS to allow as little as one sack per contest.

“I could tell by the look in their eyes that they were gonna play fantastic and they did,” Traylor said. “They were in great unison and they played extremely well. That’s always where the game is won and lost — up front. We always talk about the (De’Corian Clarks) of the world and the (Sincere McCormicks), and that’s always fun, but it’s always the guys up front.”

The pass blocking services have been requested at a higher frequency lately. After never exceeding 36 pass attempts in 2020, Harris has eclipsed that mark twice in the last four outings. Stacking the box has been a priority for opposing defenses looking to limit McCormick’s rushing production. Such pre-snap looks are causing UTSA to become more airborne this year, allowing Harris more opportunities to light up secondaries.

“They’re just that committed to stopping it,” Traylor said. “Nobody’s good enough — maybe Earl Campbell, Eric Dickerson — there’s a few guys that were just that physically superior they could run over everybody. They’re making a huge conscious effort to stop Sincere McCormick which is allowing us to throw the ball to some really good wide receivers. That’s where we’re trying to get this thing, where they just have to choose their own poison and let Frank make us right.”

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 02 UNLV at UTSA
UTSA RB Sincere McCormick is currently slated to finish top 10 in the FBS in rushing yards for the second consecutive season.
Photo by John Rivera/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

McCormick may meet some resistance at the first level, which has been a theme for opposing running backs facing Rice this season. Against Southern Miss, three of the Owls’ five leading tacklers were defensive linemen. Nose tackle Elijah Garcia pitched in two sacks in the performance while defensive end Trey Schuman added 10 tackles. Knowing the prowess of UTSA’s offensive line, a battle in the trenches is certain to break out this Saturday.

“The front seven, we put a lot of pride in stopping the run and putting the pressure on their quarterback to make big throws,” Garcia said. “We’re gonna go out there and play with the technique (defensive line) Coach (Cedric) Calhoun drills in us every week — getting off blocks, running off blocks and just making plays. To stop a guy like (McCormick), you got to hit him hard and you got to hit him often.”

After a rough showing in non-conference play, Rice’s defense is fresh off an overall spectacular performance against Southern Miss. The Owls forced four interceptions and consistently pressured the quarterback en route to a season-high five sacks. Rice aims to continue such havoc against the Roadrunners’ offense, and creating such disruptive plays will be a focal point for the underdogs.

“I feel great about the growth the defense is having and that growth that I’m talking about is the five sacks, the nine TFLs, playing on their side of the line of scrimmage and getting hits on the passer,” Bloomgren said. “Those things lead to those INTs. We always talk about how rush and coverage work together, and they do, so when you have a game with four INTs, you can bet the defensive line is getting after the quarterback’s butt.”


When Rice has the ball

UTSA battled an air raid based offense at WKU in the previous matchup and the Hilltoppers churned out 523 passing yards on 60 attempts. WKU’s offense starkly contrasts from the system Bloomgren and offensive coordinator Marques Tuiasosopo have in place at Rice. In a pro style offense with heavy doses of fullback and tight end usage, the Owls prefer to control time of possession — a statistic in which the team ranked second in 2020. Pitted against an offense which likes to keep things grounded, UTSA may serve as a viable counter as the nation’s sixth ranked rushing defense (83.8 yards per game allowed).

“Some defenses we play, it’s all about the scheme. It’s this guy swinging from this vine and from that vine and from out of bounds. And they’re not like that. They feel like they can dazzle you with dance instead of baffle you with BS,” Bloomgren said. “I don’t know if there’s a single run when they’re just in their 3-4 play in their technique. They have these strong guys that are unbelievable with their hands, and they get their hands on you like a 2-gapper does and they’re blocked until they’re not and then they violently shed — and it reminds me a lot of playing the Pittsburgh Steelers in the ‘08, ‘09, ‘10 seasons.”

UTSA’s defense is as veteran of a unit as any team in the country. Nine of the 11 starters on the depth chart are classified as seniors or graduate students. Led by reigning First Team All-C-USA strong safety Rashad Wisdom (team-high 38 tackles), UTSA currently exhibits the third best scoring defense in the conference with a unit which collects two turnovers per game — tied for 15th in the FBS.

“I don’t know that our conference has seen a defense like this since 2018 UAB,” Bloomgren said. “They’re very well coached and you’ve got players like Rashad Wisdom and the nose guard No. 1 (Jaylon Haynes) is outstanding — he’s just a space hog and explosive. He has the ability to make plays, get off blocks, and he does it.”

Rice’s last two offensive performances have been the most promising of the season. The Owls hung 48 points on FCS opponent Texas Southern before posting 24 on Southern Miss in the league opener. After vast improvements in both the aerial and ground departments, Rice must sustain that gear when facing this savvy Roadrunners defense.

“The offense has been picking it up and figuring out ways to score and getting points on the board,” Myers said. “We don’t take lightly for any opportunities we may get for explosives. We have to play our ball, hold onto the ball, make plays on the field when we get the opportunity to, control the clock, and the game will be in our hands. We want to win this game on our terms. We don’t want to hope for the best in the fourth quarter that we get a lucky play here, a lucky call there.”


Injury updates

UTSA’s defense took a massive hit last week when it took the field without the leader in the heart of the unit. Inside linebacker Jamal Ligon was the team’s breakout star in the 2020, recording 4.0 sacks and 41 tackles while garnering C-USA All-Freshman honors. Ligon was sidelined for the WKU game due to injury, but Traylor is unsure if that absence will further prolong.

“We’ll see. I hope he can go this Saturday. He’s an extremely tough kid. If anybody can, he’s like (wide receiver) Zakhari Franklin in how much he loves football. We hope he’s back this weekend,” Traylor said. “We were very, very pleased — Trevor (Harmanson) always shows up and Dru Prox is playing very good, as is (Denzel) Feaster, so those guys did a great job of taking his reps last week.”

Franklin, the team’s second leading receiver, returned to the lineup last week after sitting out the UNLV game in Week 5. Against WKU, he surpassed Kerry Thomas Jr. to become the program’s all-time receiving yards leader. Despite a strong performance, Franklin continued to battle through injury in his heroic 8-reception showing.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 25 UTSA at Memphis
UTSA WR Zakhari Franklin became the program’s all-time leading receiving yards leader in the win over WKU.
Photo by Chris McDill/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“We expect it to start trending up from here on out. I would say he was 65-70 percent Saturday,” Traylor said. “I wouldn’t expect him to be 100 percent tomorrow, but with that kid, who knows? His 75 percent’s pretty doggone good.”

Rice is also returning a major contributor in its receiving game. August Pitre III corralled four passes for 97 yards in the opener at Arkansas and served as the team’s premier vertical threat that afternoon. The speedster missed the last four contests, but he is set to return to the lineup after the bye week and experience his first in-game action with Constantine at quarterback.

“August is doing a great job trying to be in the right place at the right time and I know Jake trusts him,” Bloomgren said. “What a great weapon for all of us to have back to add to that receiver group. I can tell you that their timing yesterday looked pretty good — they looked on the same page.”


Prediction

UTSA has been involved in a slew of close games recently, and viable challengers even included 0-5 UNLV and 1-4 WKU. Although the passing defense wasn’t in the best shape, the Roadrunners entered a new gear offensively last Saturday en route to a season-high 52 points on top of 564 yards of offense. Although improved, Rice’s offense hasn’t proven the same explosive potential yet, so the Owls’ formula for an upset involves utter defensive domination — similar to the Marshall upset from last December.

Rice’s defense has the tendency to present ugly looks for the opponent, and the unit finally clicked on all cylinders in the win over Southern Miss. Even Arkansas fell victim to this defense for nearly three quarters in the opener, proving the Owls can compete with opponents around UTSA’s caliber. Facing increased resistance in the front seven, Roadrunners won’t score with the casualness of last week, but they’ll be able to utilize solid performances by Frank Harris and Sincere McCormick to preserve a 7-0 record.

Prediction: UTSA 28, Rice 13