The Army Black Knights travel to Houston, Texas to face the Rice Owls. Both teams won close games last week. Army beat the FCS Bucknell Bison 21-14 at Michie Stadium. Rice defeated Florida Atlantic 27-26 in a comeback win. Rice quarterback Driphus Jackson led a game winning 83-yard drive and the Rice defense stopped FAU in the final minute to secure the victory. Last year Rice defeated Army 41-21 at Michie Stadium. The Rice offense, excluding taking a knee for one play before the half, scored on six of their first seven possessions in the 2014 game. The Army offense was unable to sustain drives as it struggled against Rice's 4-2-5 defense. Army is 1-3-1 against Rice in its history and has dropped the last three games in the series.
ARMY'S PASSING OFFENSE VS. RICE'S PASS DEFENSE
Army quarterback A.J. Schurr replaced the injured Ahmad Bradshaw against Bucknell and threw a game winning touchdown pass to wide receiver Edgar Poe. That is the good part. Truth is Schurr had a very rough game completing only 3-of-8 passes for 100 passing yards with a touchdown against two picks. Schurr actually threw four passes that probably should have been intercepted including the game winner. For the season Schurr has completed 9-of-22 passes (42.9%) for 282 passing yards with two touchdowns and four interceptions. He needs to make better decisions throwing the ball. Last week he forced the ball into coverage numerous times. He made a terrible throw down the center of the field to Kelvin White into double coverage. At the same time John Trainor (4 rec., 72 yds., 18.0 avg) was running wide open on a wheel route and would have scored if Schurr threw to him. Army wide receiver Edgar Poe (6 rec., 169 yds., 28.2 avg, 3 TDs) was the hero of the Bucknell game. He caught three passes for a career high 100 receiving yards and a touchdown reception. Schurr under threw Poe deep late in the game but the 6-foot-4 Poe was able to out leap the much smaller Bucknell defensive back and snatch the ball away to race 68 yards for the game winning touchdown. Poe also ran a nice post corner route that left him wide open for a 25-yard reception down to the 3-yard line to set up the Black Knights first touchdown.
The Rice Owls took a big hit in the secondary this year having to replace all four starters from last year’s team. Senior strong safety Zach Espinosa leads the Owls with two interceptions and three pass break-ups. Free safety J.T. Ibe is second on the team with 24 tackles, two for a loss and one pass break up. The KAT or rover backer defensive back J.P. Thompson is a redshirt freshman who's posted 23 tackles, with two for a loss and a fumble recovery. Defensive end Brian Womac is quick off the ball with 21 tackles, 9 tackles for a loss with two sacks and a forced fumble. Rice is ranked 109th in the nation in pass defense and has posted nine team sacks. They simply aren't as good in the secondary as they were last year but they still have better athletes than Army.
ARMY'S RUSHING OFFENSE VS. RICE'S RUSHING DEFENSE
Army ran for only 263 yards, averaged 4.3 yards per carry and scored two rushing touchdowns against an FCS Bucknell defense last game. The Bison are fundamentally sound and good tacklers but this was a mediocre performance by the Black Knights running the ball. They will face a lot more talented 4-2-5 defense this week. Last year the Black Knights ran for 250 yards, averaged 4.6 yards per carry and scored two touchdowns. The Army running attack was unable to sustain drives as it struggled against Rice's 4-2-5 defense. Rice made 13 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. The offensive line had trouble blocking and had Rice shooting the “A”-gap and could not handle nose tackle Christian Covington who now plays for the Houston Texans. Quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw’s arm was in a sling after being injured on the opening drive against Bucknell. A.J. Schurr will get his third start this year. Schurr ran 31 times for just 99 yards and scored a touchdown against the Bison. Schurr missed a number of reads and was playing with a thigh bruise so he looked to lack some of his usual burst running. Schurr was lucky that his lost fumble was overturned. AJ made a terrible pitch behind John Trainor that was nearly a disaster but Trainor recovered the ball. The huge loss led to another three and out series. The offensive line has fielded the same group for three straight games after struggling with their health and blocking most of the year. Army is ranked a disappointing 11th nationally in rushing yards.
Owls' 4-2-5 defense is a small, speed-based defense. Strong side linebacker Alex Lyons is the top returning tackler (71 tackles in 2014) from last season and a valuable veteran for a defense that replaced eight starters. Lyons leads this year’s defense with 32 tackles, five tackles for a loss, a sack and has two passes defensed. Athletic right end Derek Brown has made 18 tackles, three behind the line of scrimmage and has posted two sacks. Big space eating nose tackle Ross Winship (6-4", 295 lbs) is another of the few starters who played in last year’s game. Rice's aggressive defense run blitzed Army often last year, shot the A-gaps and fired their cornerbacks which gave the Army offensive line trouble. In last year's game the Owls made 13 tackles behind the line of scrimmage including a sack. Thankfully Christian Covington, who was an un-blockable beast, is gone.
RICE'S PASSING OFFENSE VS. ARMY'S PASSING DEFENSE
The Owls starting quarterback Driphus Jackson has completed 92-of-148 passes (62.2%) for 1,121 yards with nine touchdowns against four picks. Jackson led the game-winning 83-yard drive last week when he completed a 14-yard pass to Darik Dillard (7 receptions for 107 yards, TD) for the go-ahead score with 2:07 left in the game. Dillard had a 10-yard touchdown catch against Army last year. Jackson finished 22 of 34 for 284 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Jackson completed 15-of-21 passes for 209 passing yards and three touchdowns against Army last fall. Rice uses three receivers, a tight end and a single back. Wide receiver Dennis Parks is a solid possession receiver leads the team with 25 catches for 381 yards, a 15.2 average and three scores. Zach Wright has 18 receptions for 252 yards, a 14.0 average and two touchdowns. Tight end Conner Cella has made 10 catches for 180 yards, an 18.0 average and a score. Rice has struggled in pass protection allowing 22 sacks this year despite the fact quarterback Jackson is mobile and has two rushing touchdowns to his name this year.
The Black Knights' pass defense is ranked 77th in the nation. Bucknell quarterback R.J. Nitti completed 17-of-33 passes for 186 yards and two touchdowns against Army last week. Army senior cornerback Chris Carnegie had three tackles, an interception and broke up three passes. Late in the fourth quarter he had a huge interception to end the Bison's last drive and help seal the win. Carnegie will probably be looking to make amends for last year’s game which was his worst of 2014. Last year Carnegie sat on a stop-and-go route by Mario Hall and was burned for a 32-yard gain on the double move. Carnegie never looked back for football on a five-yard touchdown pass to Hall. If Chris turned looked for the ball he could have made a play to either knock down or intercept the pass. Mike linebacker Andrew King leads the Black Knights pass rush with 44 tackles, 12.0 tackles for loss and he has posted four quarterback sacks. Defensive coordinator Jay Bateman will likely send King on passing downs against a struggling Rice offensive line that has allowed 22 sacks already this year.
RICE'S RUSHING OFFENSE VS. ARMY'S RUSHING DEFENSE
Rice is ranked 31st in the country in rushing. They are averaging 200 rushing yards per game. Rice uses a running back by committee approach with speedy Darik Dillard and Jowan Davis splitting time at running back. Dillard is very elusive and has run for 322 rushing yards on 71 carries with three touchdowns this year. Jowan Davis has run for 207 yards on 47 carries and a 4.4 average. Driphus Jackson is a mobile dual-threat quarterback. He has two rushing scores to his name this year including a 43-yard touchdown run against Wagner in the opener. Rice ran for 182 rushing yards against the Black Knights last year as they averaged 4.4 yards per carry and had two rushing touchdowns.
Army's 3-4 defense is ranked 48th in the nation against the run and allowing 150 rushing yard per game. The Black Knights struggled at the point of attack last year against Rice. Army defensive front play was uneven and when Rice was able to get to the second level their big offensive line often crushed the Army linebackers. There were too many missed tackles and the defense allowed Rice to score in six of their first seven possessions minus a one play kneel down at the end of the first half. Army's inside linebackers Jeremy Timpf (49 tackles, 2 TFL) and Andrew King were crushed a few times by Rice's offensive line last year. King (54 tackles, 12 TFL, 4 sacks) failed to fill on Dillard's 15-yard touchdown run last year and missed the tackle with Army in the nickel defense. Army's defense has improved this season and is a lot better against the run than in recent years.
Rice senior James Farrimond handles the punting is averaging 40.9 yards per punt with nine punts placed inside the twenty yard line. Farrimond is on the Ray Guy Award watch list. He has a very strong leg with four of his 28 punts traveling over fifty yards. Rice kickers have struggled making only 3-of-7 attempts. Hayden Tobola kicked last week and missed both from 34 and 38 yards out. Jack Fox has 12 touchbacks on 25 kickoffs. Austin Walter is averaging 25.2 on kick returns and a long return of 74 yards this season. The punt returner VJ Banks is averaging 3.0 yards per punt returns. Rice struggles at times covering kicks.
Senior Daniel Grochowski has made two of three field goal tries this year. Senior punter Alex Tardieu is averaging 40.0 per punt. Seven of his 27 punts have been fair caught. Tardieu didn't have a great game against Bucknell. Marcus Hyatt is averaging 19.8 yards per kickoff return. New punt returner Nick Black was a disaster last week with two fumbled punt returns and was replaced by Edgar Poe. Poe is averaging just 2.6 yards per punt return but at least he usually catches the ball. Army coverage teams have been above average.
David Bailiff is an underrated coach in my opinion. He has twice led the Owls to 10 wins, matching Jess Neely’s 1949 squad for the most in school history. Bailiff led the Owls to their third consecutive bowl game in 2014. Rice has posted 25 wins from 2012-14. That's the most during a three-year span in school history. The program's eight wins in 2014 marked just the ninth time in school history a Rice team has eight victories during a season Twice he's been named Conference USA Coach of the Year. Bailiff has a career 72-71 coaching record. Rice has won 11 of its last 16 games.
Jeff Monken has a 44-29 (60.3%) career record. Jeff Monken's team still has way too many unforced errors and poor fundamentals exhibited every game. The bigger question for Monken is how to turnaround a FBS program that found itself athletically in an even match up with a middling FCS team. In a perfect world Army shouldn't be in a fourth quarter battle with an FCS program like Bucknell.
Rice enters the game off an exciting comeback road win over FAU. Rice needed a boost after being mauled the two previous games by Baylor, one of the best teams in the nation, and Western Kentucky which is one of the best teams in Conference USA. Their defensive staff crushed Army last year and Air Force's option attack 33-14 in the 2012 Armed Forces Bowl. The Black Knights received a much needed confidence boost after the Bucknell victory which while ugly was needed.
PREDICTION: Rice, 31-17. Rice isn't a great team but they are a faster and more athletic team. Army lost to Rice last year when the Black Knights fielded a more talented, experienced team playing at home. Army struggled with Bucknell last week and with Bradshaw likely out the Owls will prevail at home.