Rice Preview

In its home opener, the 1-0 UCLA Bruins take on the Rice Owls Saturday night at the Rose Bowl. While there are some mysteries surrounding this Rice team, the bigger curiosity is just how UCLA's defense -- particularly its defensive line -- will play...

NOTEWORTHY FACTORS:

-- The Rice Owls come to the Rose Bowl Saturday for UCLA's home opener. The game is scheduled for kick-off at 7:05, and will be telecast by Fox Sports West 2, with Bill McDonald and former UCLA wide receiver Mike Sherrard calling the action, and Lindsay Soto on the sideline.

-- UCLA and Rice have only faced each other two times, with the Bruins winning both contests, in 1952 and 1966. In 1966, UCLA Heisman Trophy winner Gary Beban completed 17 of 35 passes for 238 yards, while also running for 66 yards in leading UCLA to the 27-24 win.

-- UCLA will play Rice again next season, and again at the Rose Bowl.

-- This week is Rice's season opener.

-- Rice is coached by Ken Hatfield, who is in his 12th season with the Owls. He came to Rice from Clemson, where he was successful and had made a name for himself. Hatfield is 167-130-4 overall, and 54-68-1 at Rice. He is also 0-1 against UCLA, losing to the Bruins when he coached Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl in 1989.

-- Hatfield is known for his "spread option" offense, an offense that led the country in rushing last season, averaging 306.6 yards per game.

-- Rice is coming off a 3-8 season a year ago. They haven't had a winning season since 2001. It's their only winning season in the last seven years, and they've only posted three in the last 11 years.

-- The Owls were 0-6 on the road last season, and lost their last six games in a row. Rice's last win on the road was in 2003, when it beat Louisiana Tech, 49-14.

-- Rice did start off the 2004 season fairly strongly, winning its first two games against Houston (10-7) and Hawaii (41-29) at home. It then proceeded to lose the next eight of nine.

-- This season, Rice switches from the Western Athletic Conference to Conference USA.

-- Rice could have one of the youngest teams in the nation, with only three seniors listed as probable starters for the UCLA game.

-- UCLA has established "Bruins for Relief," a fund-raising effort for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. UCLA student athletes, staff members, wives of the coaching staff and volunteers from the San Gabriel Valley chapter of the American Red Cross will be stationed outside of each entrance gate at the Rose Bowl accepting donations. 100% of the proceeds will be given directly to the Red Cross. Every fan who makes a donation will receive a coupon good for admission for two to a regular-season UCLA Olympic Sport event.

-- The first 7,500 fans wearing Bruin Blue who enter the stadium will be given a complimentary 2005 UCLA Football poster .

-- Former UCLA and NFL great Billy Kilmer will serve as the honorary UCLA team captain. Kilmer played and starred as the single-wing halfback in 1958-60, and was an All-American in 1960, before going on to his NFL career.

RICE'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE

It's a mystery, Rice's offense. We're calling it the "spread option," but really, since it's Rice's opener and they reportedly have changed their offense from a year ago, no one, including UCLA, knows what to expect.

Rice QB Joel Armstrong.
It's pretty safe to assume some things, though. Rice led the nation in rushing last year running the option, averaging 306 yards per game, so it's pretty logical to believe they'll be very run-oriented. In fact, you can probably expect them to run 75% of the time. If you're a program that is struggling, and hasn't posted a winning season in four years, there is no way you're going to completely abandon possibly the one thing you do pretty well.

Then consider that UCLA's primary weakness overall is probably run defense, and things are looking clearer.

Rice's leading returning rusher from a season ago is its quarterback, sophomore Joel Armstrong (5-11, 180), who gained 608 yards on 114 attempts a year ago. His 67.6 yards per game ranked him 9th nationally in rushing last season. Armstrong took over for the last four games of the season as the starter, after the Owls had begun to struggle, and he proceeded to lead Rice to four more straight losses. The offense did, though, begin to produce more points.

Armstrong is, essentially, a running back first and a throwing quarterback second. In those last four games that Armstrong started in 2004 he averaged just 74 yards through the air. The team averaged only 75 yards per game throwing a season ago, and only threw the ball an average of 12.3 times per game.

It would be shocking if this offense suddenly transformed into a pass-happy one. According to reports, it did throw more out of the spread during its spring practice, but Armstrong is a completely unproven throwing quarterback. Expect him to get the ball out of the shotgun and run often.

Also getting time at quarterback will be redshirt freshman Chase Clement (6-1, 185), who is more of a thrower, with a stronger arm, but nothing really to strike fear in the hearts of the UCLA secondary. He's also completely inexperienced, running the scout team in practice for the Owls last year.

The Owl rushing attack is called "team rushing" for a reason. Last season five different players gained at least 100 yards in a game. They had three different 100-yard rushers in two games a season ago. Junior Quinton Smith (5-11, 200) will start, and he's the smaller, shiftier one compared to junior Marcus Rucker (6-0, 215). Another guy who got a 100-yard day last season was current third-string sophomore Bio Bilaye-Benibo (6-0, 195), so the Owls will throw many fresh running backs at you all game long.

At Rice's H-Back is redshirt freshman Tommy Henderson (5-10, 185), who will be lined up in various places, functioning more like a flanker. Henderson is supposed to be a pretty talented, exciting player. Back-up junior Mike Falco (5-11, 220) is Rice's leading returning receiver, which isn't saying much since he caught only seven balls a season ago.

But make no mistake, the offense runs through the quarterback, and works off the quarterback running the ball quite a bit out of the shot gun.

Probably what is the biggest mystery about Rice's offense, truly, is its offensive line. Rice graduated six offensive linemen, and will have really only one returning starter in junior left guard Cory Laxen (6-3, 290). Junior right tackle Rolf Krueger (6-3, 290) has some experience, but the rest of the line is pretty green. They're also young and fairly small, with the other three being two sophomores and a freshmen, with the entire line being 6-3 and averaging just 287 pounds.

Too bad UCLA's young, inexperienced and small defensive line can't face Rice every week. The UCLA DL can usually expect to be out-weighed every week this season by 30-40 pounds per man, but not this week. The Rice OL gives sophomore defensive tackle Brigham Harwell (6-1, 274) a chance to play against someone his own size, which is very timely, given the fact that Harwell is still not 100% recovered from the nagging sprained ankle he injured in fall camp. At nose tackle, UCLA has a problem. Last week, sophomore Nathaniel Skaggs started and got the majority of the reps, but got pushed around. This week it's the true freshman Chase Moline's turn to take his shot at getting the most reps. Moline did better against San Diego State than Skaggs, but he was still pushed a few yards off the ball on most running plays.

UCLA's Jarrad Page.
The task of stopping Rice's running game will fall mostly to UCLA's back seven, primarily the star linebackers, Spencer Havner and Justin London. London had a poor showing against SDSU, over-pursuing and missing tackles, and you'd hope that he shows better against Rice, getting a game under his belt after sitting out a great deal of last season due to the ankle injury. Havner was the Pac-10 defensive player of the week with his 13 tackles and interception. Those two, along with strong safety Jarrad Page, will be key in plugging holes and stopping Rice's running game. Good pursuit and tackling by the back seven will probably be the key to whether UCLA can limit Rice's offense. Page will probably be the guy assigned to shadowing Armstrong.

When Armstrong and Clement occasionally do decide to throw the ball, they'll have almost all new receivers. Their primary target will be the H-backs, but then next will be redshirt freshman split end Jared Dillard (6-0, 175), who is fairly unknown. Junior Andy Hall (6-4, 215) is their bigger, more physical receiver, but he didn't get many balls thrown his way last season. Rice only gained 828 yards total through the air in 2004. Like with their running game, they do like to spread the wealth, with 12 different receivers catching a pass last year.

Advantage: UCLA. Even though there is a great deal of talk about Rice's offense being such a mystery, don't expect Rice to be stupid and not realize that running the ball is its only true chance against UCLA's defense. Everything points that way – with running the ball being what Rice knows how to do and defending the run being UCLA's weakness. If Rice throws the ball more than 15 times it will be shocking and, well, stupid.

UCLA's defensive line will be a bit better in its second game. It has to be. It's facing a far smaller, less-talented and less-experienced offensive line than San Diego State's a week ago. It's also the second game for guys like Moline and Skaggs, which makes for a big difference. But you can probably still expect Rice to run for 150 yards or so, with Armstrong making SDSU's quarterback Kevin O'Connell look big and sluggish. It could be a fairly long day of UCLA tacklers whiffing on Armstrong as he weaves his way out of the shotgun to find running room.

UCLA's defense, though, just has too much experienced talent to let it get too serious. Also, UCLA's best defense will be its offense, with either UCLA being explosive and out-scoring Rice like it did last week against SDSU, or holding onto the ball for long drives to keep the ball out of Rice's hands.

Also working for UCLA is Rice's youth and inexperience. It doesn't start one senior on the offensive side of the ball, while trying to institute a new offense, a recipe for mistakes that UCLA's opportunistic defense is bound to capitalize on.

UCLA'S OFFENSE V. RICE'S DEFENSE

With the Rice defense, it's really a matter of perspective.

They return seven starters, which could be viewed as either good or bad.

Many might consider getting seven starters back, with one more year of experience, to be good.

Rice DE John Syptak.
Others would think getting seven starters back from a team that gave up 365 yards and 34 points per game bad.

The three seniors that are listed as Rice' projected starters are all on the defensive side. The team is led by senior defensive end John Syptak (6-2, 255), a Lombardi Award candidate who plays more like a linebacker, with good speed and pursuit. He had eight sacks a year ago, and helped Rice actually mount a good pass rush, the team finishing with 28 sacks on the year, which led the WAC.

Syptak and returning starter, junior defensive tackle DeJaun Cooper (6-2, 305), anchor the line, even though Rice tends to rotate their tackles liberally. They're expecting good things from junior defensive end Courtney Gordon (6-4, 250); if he can hold up the other side of the line, it won't allow opposing offenses to work away from Syptak as much.

The linebackers, sophomore Buck Casson (6-1, 205) and senior Adam Herrin (6-0, 225) are on the smallish side but have experience.

Rice runs a 4-2-5 defense, with two corners, a free safety, a rover and a "bandit," with the rover and bandit positions functioning more or less like strong safeties. Rice didn't really have any standout players in its defensive backfield a year ago, with its defense being very susceptible to the pass against the pass-crazy WAC. Again, you'd have to think that three returning starters have improved just through experience: junior bandit Chad Price (6-0, 205), junior free safety Andray Downs (5-9, 185) and junior cornerback Lance Byrd (5-11, 185). What sticks out when matching up against UCLA is Rice's considerable lack of height, with its defensive secondary going 6-0, 5-9, 5-9, 5-9 and 5-11. UCLA's three starting receivers, which go 6-2, 6-4, and 6-6, have to be a bit intimidating. Of course, UCLA would have to throw to two of them – Junior Taylor and Joe Cowan – if it really wanted to take full advantage of the height differential.

UCLA's Marcedes Lewis.
Given the smallish linebackers and defensive backs, just about every indicator is pointing toward UCLA's tight end Marcedes Lewis having another big day. UCLA will undoubtedly split him out wide like it did against San Diego State last week, to get him matched up against those 5-9 defensive backs that tend to look like little ants crawling on his back in pass coverage. Now, of course, it's very smart to use Lewis as a decoy, with him drawing double- and triple-teams and thus opening up other UCLA receivers. But on the other hand, if the double- and triple-teams can't stop him, why not keep going to Lewis until someone can?

While Rice was giving up good chunks of yardage through the air a year ago, they also did pretty well in giving up sizeable pieces of real estate on the ground. They gave up 150 rushing per game, while most teams were predominantly throwing the ball against them.

UCLA's Maurice Drew, if he can stay in the game for more than a half, should also have another big day. Back-up tailback Chris Markey looked good last week after he got warmed up, and those two look to be just too much for Rice's run defense to stop. UCLA's offensive line, in its first game last week, did indeed look more athletic than it has in years.

Special teams offer UCLA a huge advantage, if last week is any indication of the Bruins's special teams play, and if last season is an indication of Rice's. UCLA was excellent in every phase of special teams, not only returning punts and kicks well, but providing very good coverage. On the other hand, Rice had some considerable problems on special teams a year ago. Punter Jared Scruggs had an excellent freshman year in 2003 and then had the sophomore jinx hit in 2004 when he averaged just 28.5 in net punting, which was last in the nation. Senior Brennan Landry and sophomore Luke Juist have been jousting for the starting kicker position, after sharing it in 2004. They shared it since neither really earned the position. Landry missed five field goals and three extra points last season, while Juist also missed an extra point.

Advantage: UCLA. Probably the biggest strength on Rice's team is its front defensive seven, and they're not anything to particularly fear. Syptak is a legit talent, and he has some solid players and depth around him on the DL. Combine that with the fairly quick linebackers and Rice is pretty good at flying to the ball and putting pressure on a quarterback.

With UCLA not showing much in its passing game last week besides Marcedes Lewis, look for Lewis to be bracketed and the rest of the Rice defense in the box to stop the run, to force UCLA's Drew Olson and its receivers to beat them.

Expect, though, UCLA to be stubborn, as it has been for years, and be overly determined to run the ball against Rice. It will probably prove to be successful as the UCLA OL wear down the Rice DL by the second half, but it will probably make for some tough running early on. UCLA could probably just run the ball all day, gain an average of four yards a play on nothing more than its straight-ahead, off-tackle runs, eat up the clock and win. But it wants to get its receivers involved, so look for a key to this game being UCLA's efficiency in getting the balls to its receivers quickly in the flat to get past the stacked box – at least to a limited extent.

Even UCLA's conservative offensive game plan probably won't be able to keep down the Drew and Lewis Show. It looks to be Lewis' week; while Rice is stacking against the run and doing what it can to contain Drew, Lewis will be too much for those small Owl DBs – and UCLA's conservative offensive game plan – to keep under wraps.

Prediction:

One of the biggest curiosities about this game is UCLA's defensive line. It's really the key to UCLA's season. If they can somehow play solidly, it could be the difference between a clearly successful season and, well, a disappointing one. Will getting over those first game issues help UCLA's young DL be much better in its second game?

Beyond that, there really isn't much else that's too suspenseful about this game. Perhaps whether UCLA's tacklers can actually contain Armstrong and Co. after its fairly poor showing against SDSU in pursuing and tackling.

But other than that, there isn't too much drama. UCLA's offense should control the game, as it did against SDSU. It probably will try to grind it more, to get more time of possession and keep Rice's offense off the field. It's the reason why this game could possibly be lower scoring than the SDSU game was, with Rice probably fine with UCLA getting 4-6 yards per play but trying to limit the big home runs from Drew and Lewis.

UCLA 37 Rice 17


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