The Owl run defense, which will surely be given a much stiffer test against the Tigers this week, allowed the Mustangs 11 net yards rushing on 14 carries. More importantly they didn't give up any big plays on the ground.
As good as the Owl Run Defense seemingly was in its limited opportunities, the Owl Secondary didn't fare quite as well. The Owls had more blown coverage assignments than they'd like – and were fortunate that Mustang Receivers dropped a couple of passes that would likely have gone for scores. Rice will have to correct these mistakes quickly and will have to play solid and sound technique football against the physical Tiger Receivers to beat Memphis. And while speed was the Mustang's best asset, it's size, especially height, that will be the Tigers' strength.
Owl Secondary Against Tiger Passing Game
This may be where the game is won or lost for the Owls. As mentioned above Memphis boasts some very physically imposing Receivers - 6-8 Carlos Singleton, 6-4 Duke Calhoun, 6-4 Maurice Jones, 6-3 Steven Black, 6-3 Carlton Robinzine, and 6-0 Earnest Williams – all of which caught passes against Ole Miss last Saturday. Against the Rebels, Memphis had 288 yards of offense through the air, with Singleton and Williams doing most of the damage. The talented pair had 6 catches each. Obviously the Owls can't match up size-wise with the Tigers so technique and positioning will have to be fundamentally, and consistently sound to minimize the Memphis Receiving Corps.
One way the Owls may choose to counter a probable aerial offensive will be to put pressure on the Memphis QBs. The position may be a little vulnerable, as Coach Tommy West is searching for consistency with a new starter this season. Transfer Arkelon Hall got the nod for last Saturday's opener at Ole Miss. Hall originally signed with Washington State out of high school, but broke his leg in 2006 and later transferred to the College of the Seqouias, before signing with Memphis. His start against the Rebels had mixed results – he was 15-27 passing, decent enough numbers, but he threw an interception in the game and also overthrew several open Tiger Receivers. Hall struggled to move the team and Senior Will Hudgens was sent in to replace him. Hudgens was able to get the Tigers downfield and even threw for two scores, but like Hall he also threw an interception. Hudgens would later receive a concussion in the game, he is expected to be available for Saturday's game though. While Hudgens, a former MLB draftee is perhaps the better passer, Hall is more mobile and considered more of a running threat.
The Owls would obviously like to disrupt Hall Saturday, keeping him from gaining any sort of confidence early on. He'll certainly be looking to do so after his shaky performance against Ole Miss and I would guess that Memphis OC Clay Helton would keep things conservative early on to achieve that. Pressuring the Tiger QB is probably the best way to help the Owl Secondary, but doing so won't be easy. In spite of a Tiger Offensive Line that's been banged up a little, Memphis didn't give up a sack the entire game against the Rebels. Meanwhile, Rice was able to get decent pressure on the Pony QB's, even though June Jones' guys are coached to get rid of the ball in 1.8 seconds or less. The Owls didn't even blitz much in doing so either, as both Rice Defensive End starters notched sacks. However the Memphis Offensive Line is much bigger than SMU's, and the Owls may have to incorporate much more blitzing to disrupt the Tigers.
Edge : Memphis
Rice Run Defense vs. Memphis Ground Attack
This match-up is a little bit of a mystery for Rice. The Owl run defense looks improved, having technically held SMU to 11 net yards rushing and a .08 ypc average – but SMU is not a running team by any means. So gauging their improvement based off the SMU game probably isn't a good indicator. So how good is the Rice run defense? We may not know until Saturday. We do know that Memphis will assuredly try to run the ball. Behind a Tiger Offensive Line that averages over 300 pounds a man, they rushed for 188 yards against Ole Miss, tallying 4.7 yards on average per attempt. Northwest JC transferCurtis Steele takes over for Joseph Doss in the Memphis backfield. Though Steele isn't big at 6-0 190, he is fast, and gained 87 yards on 15 carries against Ole Miss, including a 25 yard burst. Memphis QB Arkelon Hall is also a threat to run – he had 39 yards on 7 carries himself. I expect the Tigers to try to establish a running game early on, perhaps allowing Hall a chance to gain confidence.
Rice perimeter players must also be particularly mindful of Memphis' size advantage in locking up with their bigger Receivers.
Edge : Even
Overall I think the play of the Owl Safeties will determine the outcome of this game. If they can dictate the tone of the game and provide effective support in coverage, support in stopping the outside run, and even perhaps timely blitzing – I think the Owls can get out of Memphis with a hard fought win.