It is always fun when you see some extended family again. Maybe some third cousins that you see every 5-8 years, that you just always pick back up right where you left off with every time you see them. You could easily say that the Baylor Bears are having a bit of a family reunion this weekend, when they host the Rice Owls, former rival in the defunct Southwest Conference.
These two small private schools competed for over 80 years in the SWC, from 1914 to 1995. The Bears hold a 47-30-2 edge in the series and have won the last 6 meetings, with the most recent three coming since the SWC disbanded. Those games (in 2007, 2010, and 2011) featured a bad Rice team (won no more than 4 games in any of those years) versus an improving Baylor team (3, 7, and then 10 wins). This year though might be the first matchup of when neither team is awful.
Rice has turned themselves into a solid Group of 5 team the past few years, winning a combined 25 games the past three seasons and advancing to a bowl game each year. Their three bowl games (and 2 bowl wins) are more than they had from 1962-2010. Ninth year head coach David Bailiff was given time to get this program steady after an up and down first few years. Win 3, win 10, then back down to 2 wins, with two 4-win seasons setting up this strnog 3-year stretch. In 2013, The Owls won Conference USA, and are one of the favorites this year.
The strength of the Rice program is the offense. Led by 3-year started Driphus Jackson, the Owls pose a threat offensively. They are a very balanced offensive attack. Jackson is the star that makes it go. He is a very good runner and uses his speed to get to the edges of the defense and keep plays alive long enough for his receivers to get down field for big gains.
Players to Watch
Driphus Jackson - Sr Quarterback
Jackson is the star of this team, as the Owls have built their offnse around their talented senior quarterback. Much more on him later.
Dennis Parks - Sr Wide Receiver
The Owls' third leading receiver in 2014, Parks caught 29 passes for 389 yards in 2014. With the loss of the Owls top two receivers (Jordan Taylor and Mario Hull), Parks has taken on a bigger role this year. He already has 16 catches for 240 yards and 2 touchdowns through 3 games. He is a taller receiver with good size and speed.
Alex Lyons - Jr Linebacker
A good-sized linebacker from DeSoto, and a former teammate of Baylor linebacker Taylor Young, Lyons was the Owls leading tackler in 2014. Lyons is a smaller linebacker with good speed and solid instincts. He had just 5 tackles for loss in 2014, and 1.5 so far this year. His job is to clean up and stop the ball carriers down the field, not attack up the field and make big plays.
Brian Womac - So Defensive End
With the loss of two of the better pass-rushing threats in school history, the Owls needed to find a new pass rusher. Womac has given them that threat (along with converted wide receiver Derek Brown). The rising sophomore leads the Owls with 5.5 tackles for loss, and is second on the team, behind Brown, with 1 sack, while chipping in 12 total tackles, which is second on the team.
Keys to the Game
1. Find that Missing Edge -
Baylor head coach Art Briles came out to his Monday press conference with one simple message. The Bears need to find their edge, starting with him. “I think I’ve lost my edge a little bit, quite honestly. It’s something I don’t want to happen. I’m not standing here because I was edgeless. I’m standing here because I had an edge about me for a long time as a person and a coach, and I don’t want to lose that and I’m not going to let someone take that away from me.”
To a man, the Bears have admitted they have not been sharp enough in any phase through their first 2 non-conference games. There has been little crispness on either side of the ball, and a littany of mistakes, big and little, for the Bears to overcome. The lack of an edge goes a long way in explaining quite a few of the issues. Without an edge, the preperation and focus might have been lacking. Without an edge, the Bears have been able to rest on their laurels, and pick up wins against overmatched Lamar and SMU teams. They won't be so lucky in a few weeks during conference play.
The biggest benefit from this game will be the Bears finding that edge, finding that hunger and focus that have driven them to the brink of greatness the past two years. That edge has been missing so far in 2015, but is it just dulled with a need of a little sharpening or has it been word down to a blunt object? The sharpening started during their bye week, and will surely continue this week in their preparations for Rice. Hopefully, they find that edge, or at least get it going in the right direction again.
2. Exploit a Young and Learning Defense -
When you lose your best three defensive linemen, including two very good pass rush threats, and 75% of your defensive backfield, you are going to take a step back defensively. Unfortunately for Rice, the Owls defense just was not that good, especially against the better offenses it faced. When it could out-athlete teams in CUSA and just beat them up physically, the Owls defense was very good. They won't have that advantage against Baylor. In 2014, the Owls allowed 48 points to Notre Dame, 38 to Texas A&M, 41 to Marshall, and 76 to Louisiana Tech. Those were by far the best four offenses the Owls faced last year. The Bears offense is better than all four of those teams. This is a rebuilding defense who already struggled mightily with good offenses. The Baylor attack is much better than just good.
With their youth all over the field, the Owls have regressed quite a bit defensively. They are ranked 112th in Defensive S&P+, and have just done an awful job of getting off of the field. They are 89th in the nation in defensive 3rd down %, and 69th in red-zone defense. They allow 27.3 points per game, which sounds good until you realize that is 83rd in the nation. They even allowed Texas to score 42 points.
3. Keep Driphus and the Owl Running Game Contained -
The Rice Owls are a running offense, featuring an athlete quarterback who can make plays with his leg, and enough of them with his arm to keep defenses from cheating up too much. Sound like something Baylor has had problems with the past few years? This really should be a good test for the Bears in terms of containing a dual threat quarterback, which they will need against Patrick Mahomes the next week. Driphus is a very good athlete for the QB position. He is good at getting the ball to the edges of the defense, and beating containment, something the Bears struggled with mightily against SMU. He is not as big as SMU quarterback Matt Davis, but he is quicker and faster than him.
Rice returns pretty much every major running threat on the roster, with Jackson leading the way. 2014 leading rusher Jowan Davis is back and is splitting carries with Samuel Stewart, Dirk Dillard and Austin Walter. All four runners have between 23 adn 38 carries on the year (with Jackson chipping in 31 rush attempts). They are deep at the running back position and will rotate guys in and out regulaly. They might not have one go-to guy that will be the star next to Jackson, but they have a good cast that can share the load.
The main question about the Owls running attack going into 2015 is the offensive line, which lost 3 starters, including All-CUSA tackle Nico Carlson. Even with the losses on the line, this is still a run-first offense. They have ran the ball on 68% of first downs (78 out of 114 plays). Their job is to move methodically down the field and stay ahead of the chains, which they do a great job at. They are 115th in explosive plays, while being 12th in successful plays. That means, they gain what they need to on the downs they need to...but not much more.
Massey Ratings – Bears win 48-24
RealTime RPI – Bears win 49-15
TeamRankings.com - Bears win 56-20
Vegas Line - Baylor -32.5 (Down from -36)
Staff Predictions COMING SOON!