Heading into 2008 the biggest challenge for the Owl Defense was staring at them in the mirror. Lining up correctly, making the right reads, communicating. The simple goal this year has been to improve through playing mistake free, technique sound football. And Rice started out in the right direction against SMU, but has been hit with injuries early again this year – giving them a more multi-dimensional challenge. The Defensive End, Linebacker, and Cornerback positions have all been shuffled at some point or other as a result. As a result a few freshmen have been forced into the lineup - and they've confirmed that Ricegot has a solid group of underclassmen coming up in the program. Cornerback Chris Jammer looks like a future start for the Owls, as does Defensive End Arnaud Gascon-Nadon. At Linebacker, freshmen Tanner Shuck and Ronnie Lillard have flashed potential. The better news for the Owl Defense is that they've managed to get healthy again, relieving the need to play so many youngsters. Senior leader Brian Raines is a good bet to not only play, but to impact the game Saturday.
When Tulsa Is On Offense…
As mentioned above senior David Johnson has had no trouble making the Tulsa Offense fire on all cylinders. The 6-3 220 pounder is no where near the running threat that Paul Smith was, however he's more than compensated for that with his arm strength and decision making. He has a very fleet footed group of Golden Hurricane receivers supporting him also. In fact, Phil Steele's Magazine slotted them as one of the Top10 in the country in pres-season rankings. Brennan Marion is the leading Receiver for Tulsa and is Johnson's "go to" man. Marion has a whopping 24.8 yards per catch average and is obviously a big play threat. TU has also gotten strong play from outstanding freshman Damaris Johnson. He also returns kicks. Overall, the Tulsa Offense is a big play unit - their top four Receivers have each produced catches of over 40 yards.
A considerable part of Tulsa's Offensive success is attributable to their big Offensive Line. The Golden Hurricane average over 300 pounds across the front. The right side of Tulsa's line is particularly strong behind senior Right Guard Justin Morsey and Right Tackle Rodrick Thomas, who is a load at 6-5 360. Its understandable that the TU running game excels behind these two. Leading a stable of very good Running Backs for the Hurricane is Honorable Mention All C-USA Tarrion Adams. The senior from Moore, OK has played in over 36 ball games and is off to a great start this year. He has 296 yards and 3 touchdowns in 4 games, but more importantly averages 6.0 yards per carry. He was a pre-season All C-USA selection and is on the Doak Walker Award watchlist. Backup Jamad Williams has a 54-yard run to his credit, and also boasts a 6.0 yard per carry average. It wouldn't surprise me at all to see Tulsa try to establish a strong running game in Saturday's game – after all, they do average 5.5 yards a carry on the ground.
When Rice lines up on Defense…
Rice has worked all week on tackling in preparation for Saturday's match-up. It stands to reason that Rice will need to stop some facet of the Tulsa Offense in order to win the game and since Tulsa has such a strong passing game, Rice's chances are obviously better for stopping the run. Coach David Bailiff was keenly aware of the fact that despite beating North Texas 77-20, the Owls missed 20 tackles in the process. Bailiff keeps a very close eye on the Defense, having orchestrated one of the best Defenses in the country as a Coordinator at TCU.
Beyond tackling, Rice will need to find a way to get to QB David Johnson. He's been sacked only 4 times this year so the task won't be easy. If nothing else, the Owls must at least hurry Johnson into altering his throws. With a healthy Defensive End rotation, and solid play from the interior, Rice's Defensive Line is becoming a strong unit. Scott Solomon is perhaps the strongest Owl, he needs to have a big game against Tulsa.
Edge : Tulsa
Tulsa has the number ranked Offense in the country – even if Rice's unit was ranked substantially higher its hard to argue with #1. Though Tulsa has the advantage (at least statistically), Rice can win the game Saturday with solid, if not exactly spectacular, defense. If they can tackle securely, create turnovers, and make Tulsa work to move the chains instead of giving up big plays – they can give the Owl Offense a chance to put more points on the scoreboard in the end and come home from Tulsa with a huge win.
Grass is Greener?
Tulsa has 32 players on its roster from Texas – Rice has 3 from Oklahoma.
Tulsa Senior Moton Hopkins started his 27th consecutive game at Defensive End when he lined for the first snap against Central Arkansas. Right Guard Justin Morsey has started one game more – 28.
Tulsa Head Coach Todd Graham started a tradition last year when he introduced a 60 pound "rock" into the program. The stone stands for among other things an "approach to competition with a hard edge mentality." It accompanies the team on away games, as well as at the stadium, to meals, meetings, and practices.
Mature Beyond His Years
Freshman Chris Jammer is the youngest player on the Owl roster – he turned 18 on August 19th. Jammer became a starter in week 4 against Texas.
Lapping the Field
Junior Free Safety is the leading tackler on the Rice Owl team – in fact he has twice as many tackles as the next Owl. Sendejo has 50 tackles in 5 games for the Owls, LB Terrance Garmon is second on the list with 25.
Saturday's game will be broadcast on TV by the CBS College Sports Network, and locally on ESPN radio.