Injuries aside the Owls focused on the things they could correct and improve, and built on them in spring and August practices. The result so far has been encouraging - the Owls are yielding only 80 yards a game rushing in 2 contests this year. Last year they finished 100th in the country after giving up an average of almost 200 yards a game.
Encouraging - but will it be enough to stop a 2-0 Vandy team that loves to run the football?
Rice Run Defense vs. Vanderbilt Rushing Attack
There are lots of things to point to as reasons the Owls are playing better defense this year. One of the biggest is just familiarity with scheme. The Owls simply know where and how to line up this year in year 2 of the David Bailiff era. They also have experience at key positions, some of it gained through those trials of a year ago. They say things start up front, and that;s true for Rice. They've gotten stellar play from senior Noseguard Chris Ptaszek. The 6-5 305 pound senior Bench Presses 475 pounds and had 6 tackles versus Memphis. He has been cited by Rice Coaches as the Owl's best front line defender in the first two games. Joining him on the interior line, Chance Talbert has also gotten off to a great start. Talbert also has great size at 6-6 290. He's been disruptive from his Tackle position. Add to these sophomore Cameron Thompson, who's also gotten starter's reps and the Owls have gotten good productivity from their rotation.
At Defensive End Scott Solomon and Cheta Ozougwu had great starts at SMU. They were a little better matched my a big Memphis Offensive Line. Still the two have gotten solid pressure on opposing QBs and both have sacks in 2008. Again, depth is solid behind them in Richardson Berkner's Kramer Lucio. He missed the spring with an injury but has knocked the rust off quickly and made nice plays early in 2008. Another promising youngster at the position is Arnaud Gascon-Nadon. Gascon-Nadon is a 20 year old freshman from Canada that was also recruited by Tennessee and Louisville.
At Linebacker, you have to start with Brian Raines. He had a breakout year in 2006 and also played well in 2007 last year despite injuries. He and Vernon James have become outstanding run defenders. Junior LB Terrance Garmon is tied for second on the Rice ream in tackles with 9 and also has an interception. Sophomore Tanner Shuck was the 6A Oklahoma Defensive Player of the Year and is making strides in 2008 after sitting out 2007 due to a freak injury. He's a classic run stopper at 5-11 225. Lastly, former RB Justin Hill was moved to LB this week to provide more speed on the unit. At 6-0 225 Hill runs 4.4 in the forty and boasts a 40 inch vertical. He packs a wallop on opposing ball carriers.
The Owl Safeties may be the best position group of all for the Rice Defense. FS Andrew Sendejo leads the team with 17 tackles, and senior "Kat" Bencil Smith is solid in coverage. SS Willie Garley is a big hitter and strong against the run.
The Vanderbilt "Pro Set" Offense incorporates a two back split a lot of the time. QB Chris Hickson is a solid runner and very proficient at executing the Vandy Offense. the senior from Brundidge, AL had 166 yards rushing against Miami (Ohio), including a long run of 59 yards. The 'Dores also utilize smallish, but speedy backs in their attack. Klein (TX) HS product Jared Hawkins and Gaston Miller are both cat quick backs. When South Carolina shut down Hickson in their game limiting him to only 34 yards on 17 carries, Hawkins picked up the slack. Only 5-7, Miller was the Gatorade Player of the Year in Tennessee his senior year in high school. Vandy will also use WR Sean Walker out of the backfield.
Due to the Option influence in their Offense I give the Commodores a slight edge against the Owl Run Defense.
Edge : Vanderbilt
Rice Pass Defense vs. Vandy Passing Game
Brandon King had an incredible off-season for the Owls and as a result has turned in two very solid performances in Rice's first games. He had 2 picks in the game and returned one 54 yards. Though Vandy CB D.J. Moore will get a lot of the attention Saturday, "BK" has turned into a very solid CB in his own right. The other Corner spot is up for grabs for Rice after junior Chris Douglas had a shaky start last week against Memphis, he was challenged to shut down the much larger Memphis Receivers. His backup, senior JaCorey Shepherd is excellent against the run and actually entered the SMU game as the starter. But then someone like Chris Jammer could get the start against the Commodores, after all he did win the games for the Owls with his 69 yard interception return for a touchdown last week.
Vanderbilt has averaged only 90 yards a game passing in their first two contests. Its no secret that they like to run.
When they do go to the air though Sean Walker is a favorite target for Hickson. Chris Reinart is also a popular target for Hickson. The Commodores have two big Tight ends in Brandon Barden and Austin Monahan. They are 6-5 and 6-7 respectfully.
Edge : Rice
Rice Special Teams vs. Vandy Special Teams
Vandy has an excellent kicker in Bryant Hahnfeldt. He's made all 3 of his field goal attempts this year and also kicks off. He's averaged over 65 yards per kickoff.
Both teams' punting has been erratic.
Regardless of the score, the Owls have already gotten a break - they are avoiding Hurricane Ike by travelling to Nashville to play this weekend. Let's hope they bring home a little Tennessee sunshine...