Rice football opens CUSA play against Southern Miss in Week 4. What do the Owls need to do to begin conference play 1-0?
1. Play mistake free football
Rice has been the underdog in each of their last two contests. In both cases, they’ve found themselves in the game in the fourth quarter with a legitimate chance to win. That doesn’t happen without a remarkably disciplined offense that doesn’t beat themselves.
The Owls have committed three turnovers in three games. Their giveaway rate of one turnover per game ranks second in CUSA. Add that to a defense which has generated a few takeaways of its own (three) and you have a recipe for a road upset.
In one sense, playing disciplined football isn’t all that complicated. But this team, filled with a large portion of the same players, was -23 in turnover margin last season with 29 giveaways and only six takeaways. Mike Bloomgren hasn’t let the team forget the value of playing disciplined football, and the Owls will continue to reap the benefits of that wisdom throughout this season.
2. Hit a home run
The Rice offense has exceeded expectations in many ways. They’ve moved the ball effectively both on the ground and through the air. They’ve made some big plays and ground out some tough yards. In addition to their normal offensive flow, Rice needs to generate at least one big play.
Emmanuel Esukpa‘s 51-yard touchdown run against Hawaii turned a potentially precarious situation into a one-score game. It gave the team confidence that they could and would go toe to toe with one of the better offenses in college football. They’ll need another chunk play to set the tone on Saturday.
If I’m calling my shot, look for Austin Walter on a pass play out of the backfield. We’ve only just begun to glimpse his quickness and versatility. Walter has the potential to put the Owls on the board with a single burst.
3. Win the line of scrimmage
This has been an area of focus on both sides of the ball all week for the Owls. The defensive front seven is having a good, not great season. The Owls inability to get consistent pressure with their starting four has been noticeable, especially against offenses like Houston and Hawaii that make opponents pay for their lack of pressure up front.
A successful outing up front doesn’t necessarily require big sack totals (five so far this season), but it does mean Southern Miss quarterback Jack Abraham can’t be allowed to look downfield from a clean pocket. Rice must get his eyes focused on the pass rush and distracted from the passing game. That creates opportunities for mistakes and alleviates pressure on the back end of the defense.
On offense, getting a push from the offensive line is the engine that makes this unit function. Winning up front opens running lanes and provides quarterback Shawn Stankavage with the time to look for those big plays downfield. A great offensive line performance won’t win the game by itself, but a poor outing could render the offensive extremely unproductive.