The Cougars hold a 28-11 all-time edge against the Owls, including winning 7 of the past 10 meetings, in a series which could be idle for the foreseeable future (as the match-up is not scheduled for the next few seasons). The rivalry has been played since 1971, but an award for the winner was not offered until 1974.
The Owls, led by head coach David Bailiff (31-45 in his 7th season along N. Main), are coming off of a hard fought 23-14 victory against Kansas two weeks after losing 52-24 to Texas A&M. With 21 seniors (including 15 redshirts) the Owls have expectations to win this season and are favorites to win the CUSA's Western Division. Offensively, the Owls present the kinds of problems that the Cougars defenses of the past have always had problems with, IE a pounding physical run game led by an athletic quarterback. Taylor McHargue is a 4th year starter (with his first two seasons being on again-off again) with over 5,000 career total yards. As of this writing McHargue is questionable for Saturday's game with ‘concussion-like' symptoms. If he does play, the Cougars defense, headed by defensive coordinator David Gibbs, must guard against the read option game that has given them fits over the years. McHargue, at 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, is a physical north/south type of runner whom also excels with the speed option as he's an expert ball-handler who's great at waiting until the very last second before pitching the ball to his running backs. If McHargue is unable to go, redshirt sophomore Driphus Jackson will man the controls for the Owls offense, under offensive coordinator John Reagan. The 6'0, 205 pound athlete fits the Owls spread option offense perfectly, although he isn't as accomplished a passer as McHargue is. Jackson's first start came last season against the Coogs as he completed only 17 of his 35 passes (for 272 yards including a short pitch and catch that turned into an 88 yard TD scamper for Sam McGuffie) as the Owls were forced to abandon their patented running game after falling behind early. He progressed as the season went along however, highlighted by a rally in their bowl game as he passed for 230 second half yards in defeating a game Air Force squad in the Armed Forces Bowl. For the season he completed 56.5 percent of his passes (39 for 69) for 672 yards and six touchdowns overall.
The main work horse for the Owls at running back is Charles Ross, whom has rushed for over 100 yards in both games on the young season (107 against the Aggies and 157 against Kansas) and has over 1,600 for his career along with 23 rushing TDs. Don't let the physical build of the 6'1, 235 pound redshirt senior fool you as he runs a 4.4 40 on top of a bench-press of 400 pounds and can easily get to the edge on the speed option. His backups are the quick of foot Darik Dillard (5'10, 195, R-Fr) and the bruising Turner Peterson (6'2, 230, R-Jr). Peterson injured his shoulder against the Aggies and missed the Kansas game but is probable this Saturday. Luke Turner is a 6'1, 230 pound batting ram who will be used in "Wild Owl" formations in short yardage situations as well. For the season the Owls have rushed for 498 yards on 93 carries (for a tidy 5.3 yards per carry average). Against the Aggies they were able to run between the tackles for 306 rushing yards (with many on coming from the QB read option), but not so much against the Jayhawks as most of their yards this past Saturday night (192) came via the previously mentioned speed option pitch outs along the edge as KU's secondary gave little help in run support. The Cougars linebacking trio of Derrick Mathews (at the Mike or middle spot), redshirt freshman Steven Taylor (making his first start at Sam or strong although George Bamfo will see plenty of time) and Efrem Oliphant (Will or weakside) must be very active just as Kansas' trio were in shutting down the inside running game of the Owls. Look for Oliphant to continue to be used aggressively against the Owls as he leads the Cougars defense with 2 tackles for loss and is tied for the team lead with one sack on the young season. Mathews of course leads the defense with 22 tackles with Bamfo adding 12 and a fumble recovery.
The Cougars defensive line must play gap sound in containing Rice's perimeter rushing game along with lining up in their proper alignments, know their assignments and play technique sound when dealing with a very experienced Rice offensive line. The line must also play disciplined especially when Rice shifts offensive linemen from one side to the other (as they've done against both the Aggies and Kansas) in order to create a numbers mismatch that gives them an advantage in running on that particular side. From left to right tackle, the Rice offensive line of Jon Hodde (6'7, 310, Sr.), Nico Carlson (6'3, 285, Jr.), Nate Richards (6'4, 300, Sr.), Andrew Reue (6'5, 295, So.) and Caleb Williams (6'3, 280, So.) enter the game with a combined 90 starts over the course of their careers. Cougars head coach Tony Levine spoke about his defensive line at Tuesday's weekly media press conference (via uhcougars.com), "The defensive line has been very solid. Coach (Ricky) Logo has done a great job of keeping them fresh and playing a number of guys. Certainly everybody is aware of our starters (at tackle); Joey Mbu has been very productive, Tomme Mark has done a nice job, Eric Braswell (at the strong side defensive end spot) has done a nice job and is as productive as he's been probably since the bowl game against Penn State in the win against Temple. At our loss of Eric Eiland, Trevor Harris (at weak side end) has stepped up and played extremely well. With the second team, I think that coach Logo has done a fantastic job of bringing them along and getting them experience. That's what we've talked about as a staff. We've got some young guys who have not played before and as a staff we've got to put them in the game and let them make mistakes and learn, but they'll continue to improve over the course of the season. B.J. Singleton is a redshirt freshman who has done a great job in his two games so far. He's 6'4, 285 and has made a number of plays as a backup who has been rotating in with Tomme. Tyus Bowser, the true freshman from Tyler, Texas, did a nice job against Temple, had a couple of quarterback hits as well and is only improving every week. That's a good example of the bye week for us last week. Jeremiah Farley, a little bit undersized but plays with a tremendous motor, great leverage, has played a bunch around here as a backup, goes into the Temple game and causes a sack and forces and fumble. Cameron Malveaux another young guy in our program who is 6'6" 255 pounds and is continuing to get better every week and develop. We're playing really eight guys in there right now, with Eiland hopefully coming back soon, and I like where they're at. I don't want to give a letter grade, they can always get better, but they're doing very well at this point."
The Owls will use a lot of different formations to confuse defenses and the QBs will get the ball out quickly, especially on various wide receiver screens. Their top receiver is Jordan Taylor who will line up in the slot as Reagan will try to create a mismatch in forcing either a linebacker or safety to cover the 6'5 210 sophomore. Taylor has 140 yards on 12 receptions on the young season thus far. Along with Taylor, the other major Rice threat in the passing game is tight end Connor Cella. The 6'3, 240 pounder will often line up in the slot in order to take advantage of the same types of mismatches that Taylor presents to a defense – he's either too big for a safety or corner to cover yet too fast for a linebacker. On the season the redshirt freshman is second on the team in both receptions (6) and yards (70) with a score. Jeremy Eddington is a 6'2, 250 pound senior who is now backing up Cella at tight end after switching from RB, and will often lineup as a fullback in the diamond formation. The other Rice wide outs include speedy outside receivers Donte Moore (6'0, 175, Sr.) whom has 31 yards on 4 catches and Mario Hull (6'1, 210, Jr.) with 47 and 6 respectively. Their slot receivers include Andre Gautreaux (6'0, 200, Sr.) and Klein Kubiak (6'1, 190, Sr.) neither of whom have a reception yet this season. Dennis Parks is a physical specimen at 6'2, 195 and can line up at either spot. The true sophomore impressed in his season debut against Kansas with 3 catches for 65 yards. Cougars' safeties Trevon Stewart and Adrian McDonald must play disciplined and not get sucked up into the box on run downs as the Rice play action game can burn them deep as Parks 54 yard reception on a deep post route against the Jayhawks can testify to. UH corners Zach McMillian and Thomas Bates along with nickel back William Jackson must also be sure tacklers in space or the Rice screen game will gash them for huge yardage. The Cougars defense must also be aware of the running backs in the passing game as Ross had a 19 yard score against the Aggies.
Defensively, the best way for the Owls to slow down the Cougars high scoring up tempo offense will be for their offense to use the clock to keep the Coogs ‘O' off the field. For the season the Owls average over 35 minutes per game in possession time. When the Cougars do have the ball, it will be up to QB John O'Korn to guide the team to victory, as starter David Piland is still out (as of this writing) due to a concussion against Temple. Levine has talked about the coolness and calmness of the true freshman as he has completed nearly 74 percent of his passes (34 of 46) for 340 yards with 3 TDs to ZERO interceptions. Compared to Piland's near 53 percent (21 of 40), O'Korn just seems to be a better decision maker who throws a more catchable ball than the redshirt junior (though it needs to be mentioned that receivers have dropped a few balls for both QBs). Rice defensive coordinator Chris Thurmond will look to confuse the young Cougars signal caller by effectively mixing up his fronts with a 3, 4 or sometimes 5 man front in his 4-2-5 base scheme. The use of different stunts and twists in addition to bringing blitzes from different angles will try to force the Coogs offensive line into mistakes in picking up the wrong pass rushers, leaving others free.
Up front for Rice, ends Cody Bauer (6'4, 255, Sr.) and Tanner Leland (6'2, 245, Sr.) along with tackles Stuart Mouchantaf (6'4, 290, Sr.) and Chris Covington (6'3, 295, So.) will be responsible for holding off the Cougars O-line consisting of (from left to right); Rowdy Harper (6'6, 295, Jr.), DeAnthony Sims (6'3, 320, Sr.), Bryce Redman (6'1, 285, Jr.), Kevin Forsch (6'3, 307, Sr.) and Zach Johnson (6'6, 301, So.). Ty Cloud will also be available and should see action, according to Coach Levine. Cloud is a 6'4, 315 pound left guard who had a career 26 starts entering the season but has missed both games due to knee and head injuries. Covington is cat quick inside and a true ‘pocket collapser' as he leads the team with 4.5 tackles for loss and 2 sacks and will be a load for the Cougars interior linemen. The lack of depth shows for Rice along the line as Leland started his career for the Owls as a safety.
The most intriguing matchup of this game to me will be the Cougars wide receivers versus the Owls defensive backs, or strength versus strength. The Rice cornerback duo of Bryce Callahan (5'10, 180, Jr.) and Phillip Gaines (6'1, 185, Sr.) is arguably one of the best in the nation as Gaines was second nationally last season with 18 pass breakups and Callahan has 8 interceptions over the past 2 seasons. Both could be considered ‘lock down' corners and may be matching up with the Cougars outside receivers of Larry McDuffey and Xavier Maxwell one-on-one for a majority of the game in order to allow the rest of the secondary to ‘zone up' (or double team) the inside receivers of Deontay Greenberry and Daniel Spencer. For whatever reason, both McDuffey and Maxwell have struggled with drops and penalties as both Piland and O'Korn have struggled in getting the speedy wideouts the ball on the perimeter or deep. This problem could potentially become alleviated as JC transfer Markeith Ambles will play and is listed in the 2-deep backing up Maxwell. Ambles is a former 4-star receiver who at 6'2, 215 pounds is physical enough to catch over the middle or burn an unsuspecting corner deep as his 17 yards per catch average at Arizona Western JC last season would attest. Ambles originally signed to play for the USC Trojans a few years ago. The rest of the Rice secondary includes Paul Porras (6'1, 205, Sr.) at the KAT spot (a safety/linebacker hybrid), hard hitting Gabe Baker (6'1, 210, Jr.) at strong safety and Julius White (5'10, 195, Jr.) at free safety. In a tough break, Corey Frazier was starting at free safety until blowing out an ACL last week but fortunately for the Owls White started (also for an injured Frazier) for a majority of the season and was third on the team in tackles at 74. One other aspect of this matchup to watch is how the Cougars receivers block the Rice secondary when using any type of quick screen passes as both Callahan and Gaines are quick to diagnose short passes and have the speed to beat blocks and destroy the integrity of any screen passes to the perimeter.
The fact that the Cougars are averaging "only" 280 yards passing per game is a testament to the philosophy of new offensive coordinator Doug Meacham and his "take what the defense gives you" approach. If the Cougars have the numbers advantage in the box (more blockers than defenders) the QB can check into a run call. If the box is stacked, the call is a pass. Its basic football but beautiful when executed properly, which the Cougars have shown thus far as they are averaging almost 300 yards per game (295.6) on the ground, led by co-starters Kenneth Farrow (175 yards on 29 carries for a 6 yard per carry average ) and Ryan Jackson (229 on 32 for 7 yards per along with 3 TDs). As of this writing Farrow is doubtful for Saturday's game with an ankle sprain so backing up Jackson will be impressive walk-on Justin Hicks (68 yds on 15 carries). Coach Levine has said that converted safety Kent Brooks could see more playing time this week as well. Owls linebacker, and defensive captain, Cameron Nwoso will be seeing his first action against the Cougars after being out all of summer camp and the Owls first two games because of a knee injury. The 5'10, 240 pound senior is a ‘jack-of-all-trades' type of linebacker as he's accumulated 210 tackles (including 16 for loss), 5 sacks, 3 passes defended, 2 fumble recoveries (over the past two seasons) and even blocked 3 extra points in a game against UCLA last season. At the other linebacker spot will be Michael Kutzler. The 6'0, 205 pound Jr. has been doing his best Nwoso impersonation so far this season as he leads the defense with 15 tackles, 2 sacks (one on the ever elusive Johnny fool, errr football) and has also returned an interception 52 yards to the house last week against Kansas.
Both teams have two of the best specialists you will see this season in Rice place kicker Chris Boswell and the Cougars punter/kicker Richie Leone as both have been named AAC Special teams player of the week once already. Boswell has 55 career field goals including an amazing 12 from 50 plus yards out. He's often told his offense to get him to the opponents' 40 yard line, with it being an automatic 3 point possession for the Owls in the least. Of course driving the field against UH could be problematic with Leone booming punt after punt, to which he's accomplished this season to the tune of 44.7 yards per punt on average, pinning opponents inside their 20 on 4 of his 6 punts. Leone is also 7 for 8 on field goals as well. As for the return teams of both the Cougars and Owls, meh. The Coogs are averaging a meager 2 yards per return on 4 returns between both McDuffey and Damian Payne. At this point I'd accept just a decent job at fair catching the ball without a muff. True freshman Demarcus Ayers has done a respectful job at kickoff returns averaging 24.8 on 5 total returns. As for Rice, they haven't fared much better at punt returns as Callahan is averaging 5.5 per on 4 returns. Hull has brought one kickoff back for 38 yards, with corner Darrion Pollard averaging 17 yards on the other 3 returns. Both teams have excelled however on coverage teams with UH opponents returning 3 punts for a MINUS 7 yard average and only 16.7 on 10 kickoff returns. Rice has allowed 1 punt to be returned for 2 yards and 4 kickoffs returned for an 18 yard average.
In conclusion, if I'm Meacham I'm running the ball at Rice early as their defensive line is weak at stopping the run, especially along the interior. Once the Owls linebackers and safeties are pulled up in order to stop the run, O'Korn should then hit Greenberry over the middle on quick slant after quick slant, especially if Thurmond tries using Porras to cover the 6'3, 198 pound freak. The Temple Owls were similarly burned two weeks ago to the tune of 14 receptions for 165 yards. I also remember Porras getting burned quite a few times two season ago against Tyron Carrier and Patrick Edwards in one-on-one matchups as well. Conversely, if I'm Reagan I would use Gibbs aggressiveness against him as well. The key will be which QB makes more mistakes, O'Korn or McHargue (or Jackson)? McHargue can, and has been, baited into bad throws throughout his career via disguised coverages in the defensive backfield and hopefully the Cougars defense can force some more bad passes with some decent pressure from the defensive front. Another important aspect of this game could come down to redzone scoring as Rice has scored 5 TDs in 7 trips into the RZ with the Coogs only crossing the goal line 8 times in 17 attempts. Conversely, Rice has allowed their two opponents to break the plain of the goal line all six times they've entered the redzone while Cougar opponents have scored on 3 of 5 such occasions. In a likely close game, whichever team scores the most 7s instead of 3s will be the probable winner.