Rice Preview

The Rice Owls come to the Rose Bowl Saturday to take on the Bruins. UCLA pummeled them 63-21 last season, and while it might not be such a butt-kicking this year, every indication is that UCLA should easily beat Rice, a traditionally losing program in transition with a new coaching staff...

NOTEWORTHY FACTORS

-- In its second game of the season UCLA takes on Rice at the Rose Bowl Saturday at 7:00 p.m.  The game will be televised locally by FSN Prime Ticket, with Bill Macdonald and Petros Papadakis in the booth and Jim Watson on the sideline.

-- UCLA is 1-0 on the season, after beating Utah last week, 31-10. The Bruins have yet to edge into the top 25-rankings, currently 27th in the USA Today Poll and 28th in the AP Poll.

-- The victory over Utah was UCLA's 100th in the Rose Bowl.

-- Rice is 0-1 on the season, after losing in its opener, an inter-city rivalry game called the Bayou Bucket, to Houston, 31-30.

-- The Owls have won only one of its last 18 games. Last season it went 1-10, and Head Coach Ken Hatfield, who had been there for 12 seasons, resigned. 

-- Rice hired Todd Graham, an assistant at Tulsa the last three seasons, as its new head coach to try to kick-start a new era in Rice football. Graham and Rice Athletic Director Bobby May made a number of changes, including all new uniforms and helmets, and renovations to the home field, Rice Stadium. Graham installed a spread offense, to depart from Rice's signature option.  He's the former defensive coordinator at Tulsa, so Graham, 41, has been trying to make defense at Rice a priority.  Graham has been known to turn around defenses at various stops along his coaching career, at Tulsa and West Virginia.

-- Graham also hired Major Applewhite, the former Texas quarterback, as his offensive coordinator. If it seems like Applewhite is pretty young - he is, just 26 years old. He worked as the quarterbacks coach at Syracuse last season, and as a graduate assistant at Texas in 2004.

-- Graham hired a defensive coordinator and three other coaches that also made their 1-A debut last week, three of them coming from the high school ranks.

-- The Rice program will have a long ways to go, however. It hasn't been to a bowl game since 1961, and hasn't won a conference championship since 1994, when it was the co-Southwest Conference Champion, a season where it went 5-6 overall.

-- And this year could be considerably difficult for the Owls. After playing UCLA on Saturday, the Owls will face #2 Texas at neutral Reliant Stadium in Houston, and then go on the road to play #9 Florida State.

-- UCLA and Rice faced each other last year in the Rose Bowl, with the Bruins winning, 63-21. The Bruins scored on its first seven possessions and had a 49-14 lead at halftime. The Bruins gained 578 total yards for the game.

-- UCLA leads the series, 3-0, with the teams also playing in 1952 and 1966.

-- Rice is 1-12-1 in the state of California, with the only win coming against Stanford in 1957.

-- Rice hasn't won a game on the road since the 2003 season, having dropped 12 road games in a row.

-- Seven true freshmen played in the opener against Utah for UCLA last week: DB Alterraun Verner, DB Jeremy McGee (special teams), WR Terrence Austin, WR Dominique Johnson, DB Christian Ramirez (ST), RB Chane Moline, and OT Micah Kia.

RICE'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE

With Graham and Applewhite now calling the shots, the Owls have switched from the triple option to the spread to try to bring the Rice offense into the 21st century.

Utilizing that option, the Owls did average a whopping 234 yards per game on the ground.  It only averaged 212 yards per game throwing, however.

And that's what Graham and Applewhite are trying to improve upon, to make Rice's offense more multi-dimensional passing the ball out of the spread.

Rice quarterback Chase Clement.

Their new venture wasn't very effective in its first week, with Rice's quarterback, sophomore Chase Clement (6-1, 190) passing for only 152 yards against Houston, which was Clement's career high.  In fact, Rice still looked more like a running team than it did a passing team, looking somewhat similar to the spread option type UCLA saw last week against Utah.  Rice doesn't operate near as much out of the shotgun as Utah, and utilizes  a one-back formation quite a bit for its running game, but it does still option out of the gun with three wideouts in formation.

Last week, Rice couldn't get its offense on track in the first quarter against Houston, seemingly trying to throw too much, something that it wasn't comfortable doing. Then, it went to the ground game in the second quarter, and rattled off 27 straight points.

So, given UCLA's rep for being soft against the run, what do you think you can expect Rice to do against the Bruins?

Rice last year gained 192 yards on the ground against UCLA, and it returns ten starters to an offense that knows how to run.  Rice's passing game probably won't get amped up until it gets some more talent in its program, which it hopes to attract within the state of Texas with Applewhite as its OC.

Clement won the starting position because he's supposed to be the better passer among the contending quarterbacks, but Clement still isn't a particularly great passer.  He's small and has arm strength issues. He is mobile, and Rice likes to get him out of the pocket to throw the ball.  Rice didn't throw down the field much last week against Houston, but tried to throw underneath quite a bit to spark a big play. It didn't work much.

It does have a fairly good wideout in sophomore Jarrett Dillard (5-11, 180), who has good hands and speed. Rice most of the time when it's throwing utilizes three receivers, so look for senior Mike Falco (5-10, 200) and converted option quarterback, Joel Armstrong (5-11, 190) to also be targets. Armstrong will also be utilized running the ball out of the spread.

Perhaps Rice's biggest threat catching the ball is also its biggest threat running it, and that's senior tailback Quinton Smith (5-11, 215). Against Houston, Smith caught a swing pass and, with very good speed, took it up the sideline for an 80-yard touchdown.  He set up Rice's first touchdown of the night with a 52-yard run where he showed that, once he gets past the line of scrimmage, he has an extra gear that makes him very dangerous.  He ran for 108 yards last week. 

Rice's offense will always have a chance to move the ball this season because of a veteran OL, with four of last year's five starters returning. Junior Robby Heos (6-4, 300) moved from tackle to guard, and should be a load for UCLA's interior DL to handle. Sophomore center Austin Wilkinson (6-2, 270) was a national all-freshman performer, but it might be the one time this season that the opposing center doesn't present a huge size problem for UCLA's smaller nose tackles, Kenneth Lombard and Chase Moline, who are 261 and 280.

UCLA's defense will be legitimately tested in its ability to defend against the run.  And it should be a good opportunity for it to prove it, since Rice, like Utah, likes to run off-tackle rather than pound it down your throat.  UCLA last week against the Utes showed that it had good defensive speed in sideline-to-sideline pursuit.  UCLA's defensive ends, particularly Justin Hickman, Bruce Davis and Nikola Dragovic, looked quick and hard to block on running plays to the edge. 

With Rice using only three wideouts most of the time, instead of Utah's four, UCLA's linebackers might see more playing time than last week (starting weakside linebacker Reggie Carter was in for only 10 plays against Utah).  But UCLA will still utilize its nickel package. Just when you thought freshman cornerback Alterraun Verner might not see nearly as much playing time as he did against Utah, he'll be back on the field quite often again (In fact, looking down UCLA's schedule, they should be utilizing nickels and dimes quite often this season) .  Because of this, and because of UCLA's new philosophy of using its safeties more against the run and putting its corners in man coverage, UCLA's cornerbacks are key to their defense. Last week, the starters, Rodney Van and Trey Brown, played very well against Utah, for the most part keeping Utah's good receivers under a blanket.  Van showed in particular that he's ready to step up and possibly emerge as an elite Pac-10 corner, always having had the quicks, but not with the mental part catching up with the rest of his talent.  Verner again will be challenged; expect Rice to go at Verner, both passing and running the ball, and the 17-year-old better get used to it for the entire season.

UCLA cornerback Rodney Van.

UCLA's safeties, Dennis Keyes and Chris Horton, both had good games against Utah, looking like the aggressive type of UCLA safeties of old. Horton particularly looks like he's always looking for a head to hunt.  They'll be keying on Smith, in both Rice's running and passing game, to keep him in check.

Advantage:  UCLA.  Ha! I said last week that UCLA would have to prove something first defensively if the were ever going to be given the "advantage" in a preview. They at least proved enough last week against Utah that they'll be able to defend Rice. 

Despite going to the spread, watch for Rice to revert to doing what it does best, and that's running the ball, particularly against UCLA's still unproven run defense.  With a shaky, new passing offense, and not a particularly strong-armed quarterback in Clement, going against UCLA's defensive strength, its secondary, you wouldn't expect Rice's offense to throw much. It will probably throw just to keep the defense honest while it mostly runs.  If it throws the ball down the field more than 25 yards more than twice in this game it'd be a shock. 

UCLA, having confidence now in its passing defense, will probably cheat up even more to defend against the run, and try to put Rice in third-and-long and obvious passing situations, and then blitz the hell out of Clements.  In fact, watch UCLA Defensive Coordinator let fly more blitzes than we saw against Utah, trying to this week actually get the quarterback on his back. 

UCLA'S OFFENSE V. RICE'S DEFENSE

Rice's defense didn't put up much of a fight against UCLA a year ago, giving up 63 points and 578 yards.

The mantra out of Houston in the off-season and fall camp was kind of similar to the one we heard in Westwood - that of a new defensive attitude.

Last week against Houston, Rice's defense definitely looked improved from a season ago.  It's hard to determine if it's legitimate, or if Houston's offense was just mediocre.  But the Owls only gave up 329 total yards to Houston, which was less yards given up than in any game last season.

Now, comparing its defense to last season's isn't exactly holding it up to a high standard. Rice had one of the worst defenses in the country a year ago, and all it could do is go up from there.

New Defensive Coordinator Paul Randolph has instituted a 3-3-5 alignment, which Rice calls "the stack" and it's a bit funky. It's meant to take advantage of Rice's speed rather than get exploited for its lack of brawn. Houston not gaining a great deal of yardage might have been attributed mostly to not having any idea how this new defensive scheme would be on the field.

UCLA, though, benefits from playing Rice in its second week, and game film from the Houston game. But even so, one game doesn't provide you deep insights into a unit's tendencies, especially one as new-fangled as "the stack."

While Rice's defense a year ago was poor, it did lose five starters and possibly two of its best defenders, lineman John Syptak and linebacker Adam Herrin. Herrin, if you may remember, was easily the most active player against UCLA a year ago. 

If you go by the Houston game as even a slight reference, Rice has improved considerably against the run. It gave up an average of 212 yards per game on the ground a year ago, but allowed Houston just 96 yards rushing last week. That is the lowest amount of rushing yards allowed by Rice in a game since 2004.

The defensive line returns three veterans, and they look to have improved. Senior nose guard DeJaun Cooper (6-2, 285) had a good game against Houston, as did senior defensive end Courtney Gordon (6-3, 270). But if you may notice, Rice's d-line, which also includes junior end George Chukwu (6-2, 300), doesn't have the size of Utah's interior DL, which gave UCLA problems last week.  In Rice's new scheme, with just three down linemen, they'll shuttle in fresh bodies, and coming off the bench. Linebackers and safeties, in this scheme, commonly come up to the line and become essentially a fourth lineman, however.

With its new scheme, Rice then revamped its linebackers, and is starting three new ones.  The scheme calls for smaller, faster linebackers, and that's definitely what Rice has. The strongside linebacker is senior Marcus Rucker (6-1, 225), the converted running back. Converted defensive lineman, sophomore Vernon James (6-1, 220) starts at the middle spot, and sophomore Brian Raines (6-1, 220) looked like Rice's real potential player among the 'backers in his first start last week, with 10 solo tackles, 7 assists and a sack. 

Rice's defensive strength should be its defensive secondary, not only because it runs five across, but because it returned four starters from a year ago. Senior "bandit" safety Chad Price (6-0, 210), is the playmaker. It will be his 31st career start, and he has a nose for the ball, both in coverage and against the run, with 208 career tackles.

Rice's "bandit," Chad Price, on the tackle.

Against Houston, Rice had four sacks, with good pressure coming from both the DL and the back eight. "The stack" intends to attack with blitzes from its linebackers and defensive backs, and true freshman "spur" safety Andrew Sendejo (6-2, 210) moves all over the field, and got himself a sack last week.

UCLA's offensive players have commented this week about studying the different style of the Rice defense.  But even beyond studying and trying to find weaknesses, UCLA is going to attempt to do what it wants to do, and that's a precision passing game with a power running game. 

Quarterback Ben Olson made just about the biggest splash he could last week in his first start ever as a Bruin.  He's looked sharp in practice this week, too, continuing to throw extremely accurately and playing very confidently.  Again, if UCLA can get Olson time, like they did last week against Utah's blitzing defense, Olson should be able to come close to at least repeating what he did against Utah.  While you can't expect Olson to always be as near-perfect as he was a week ago, there is the factor here that Utah's defense overall should be better than Rice's. The possibilities for Olson are, well, exciting.

Rice's new scheme is meant to counter all the new offensive schemes seen around college football, particularly all the variations on the pass-happy spreads.  But its strength wouldn't be run defense, and UCLA probably has recognized this, and has made getting its running game on track a particular priority for this game.  The UCLA coaches emphasized it in practice this week. While UCLA's interior OL struggled against Utah, they'll be called on to move the pile against Houston's smaller DL.  UCLA center Robert Chai has to improve this week from his performance a week ago.  The younger and less experienced OLs, like guard Chris Joseph and freshman tackle Aleksey Lanis, should be improved from week one to week two, after getting a game under their belt. Pay attention to whether Lanis plays and how much, since he was nursing tendinitis in his knee yesterday in practice and was walking pretty stiffly. 

UCLA's Chris Markey.

UCLA's running game, too, isn't just about its offensive line being more effective. Last week the running backs had a mediocre day, at best. Starting tailback Chris Markey looked slow to hit the hole and soft. There will be some pressure on Markey to perform this week - pressure, as in, perform or you could see your playing time going away.  The problem is that second-stringer Kahlil Bell didn't look much better. True freshman Chane Moline, actually looked the best in his vision and ability to find and hit a hole. With how quickly the holes closed up last week, finding them is key. Last week, fullback Michael Pitre had quite a good game and you can probably expect his role to continue to broaden, particularly in catching the ball out of the backfield because of his effectiveness.

It will be interesting to see the UCLA game plan in throwing the ball against Rice's funky D.  You can probably expect UCLA to stick pretty close to its philosophy of controlled, precise short passes. Why not, when you have Ben Olson throwing accurate darts?  UCLA's receivers looked good in practice this week, with Matt Willis looking particularly flushed with confidence after his four-reception, one-touchdown performance last week.  Junior Taylor looks like he's continuing to get his legs back.  Also looking good this week was Gavin Ketchum, the 6-4 threat that has gone somewhat un-noticed this fall compared to last.  He's looked big and quick in routes in practice. You might expect him and Terrence Austin to get more plays this week.  While UCLA knows it can throw short successfully, it's critical that it stretches the field every now and then, and if Ben Olson is getting time, he'll burn you down the field.  UCLA's duo of sophomore tight ends, Ryan Moya and Logan Paulsen, have a chance for big days against Rice's defense, which doesn't feature much size in its back eight to match up.

Advantage:  UCLA. While Rice's new defense is based on many moving parts in trying to confuse the offense, with it being a new, different scheme, there is a chance to exploit the fact that it could confuse itself. There is a great deal of inexperience, both on the field and in the scheme among its players.  It's only Rice's second game in the scheme, so it's still working out the kinks and seeing if it can get it to gel. UCLA's offense will be a completely different level of a test than Houston's was last week.

There probably will be improvement from Rice's defense from a year ago, just based on the new sense of dedication that you commonly see among units with new coordinators and coaches (sound familiar?).  There is also the element of UCLA having to work through Rice's new scheme. Also, UCLA's offense isn't near as potent as it was compared to last year's - well, yet, anyway.  So, it'd be surprising if UCLA put up another 63 points. 

But having said that, there are far too many indications here that UCLA's offense should move the ball fairly easily.  UCLA's strength is throwing the ball, and it does it better than Rice defends against it, which is Rice's strength.  Despite last week against Houston, you'd have to think that Rice's weakness will be run defense, especially in a new scheme that doesn't emphasize it.  While you can expect Rice to still stack the box a bit against UCLA, don't expect it too much with the way Olson easily cut up Utah's secondary. And UCLA will be getting after it trying to get its running game going. So, UCLA looks to have an advantage through the air and the ground.

On special teams, Rice has a weapon in kick-off returner, senior Andray Downs (5-10, 175).  It also has a decent punter in senior Jared Scruggs. UCLA's punt and kick-off coverage teams looked solid last week, but it's return teams looked shaky, especially the returners in just catching the ball. Chris Markey was supposed to be the guy with the hands to make sure the punt was caught, but he didn't look strong. Receiver Marcus Everett will get a try-out to see if he can hold on to the ball with certainty.  Watch for Terrence Austin to get a chance at a punt return when UCLA isn't backed up.

Prediction:

As we stated above, it'd be a surprise if UCLA went over 60 points like it did a year ago. Rice's defense will probably play better, and UCLA's offense won't probably be as effective as it was a year ago. 

On the other hand, Rice's offense will probably be overall less effective than it was in last year's game, and UCLA's defense should improve upon its performance. 

As stated, you can probably expect UCLA to almost come close to ignoring Rice's new defensive scheme, and concentrate on what it does best, getting Ben Olson time to throw to his many options at receiver, running back and tight end.  UCLA's play-calling was very good last week, so watch for the variety to continue. UCLA might, though, emphasize the run a bit more this week since it will perceive it can do so more against Rice than Utah.

Overall, with Rice still getting used to its new schemes, and with still about the same level of talent it's had in its program in the last couple of years when it won 1 game in its last 18, it'd be shocking if Rice had a hint of still being in this game by halftime.  If this game is even slightly close in the second half, UCLA will have highly under-achieved.


UCLA 44
Rice  13


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