UAB is the next team up on the 2019 Rice football schedule. To get to know a bit more about the Blazers we go behind enemy lines with Evan Dudley of AL.com.
Rice Football is still looking for its first win of the season and figures to have another big test this weekend on the road against UAB. To get the inside scoop, we talked with Evan Dudley of AL.com.
Q. How does the 2019 team compare to the one that won last season’s 2018 C-USA Championship? Are expectations in Birmingham still set on another title?
Evan – It’s still very much a work in progress.
The Blazers have demonstrated proficiency in the passing game – despite Tyler Johnston having his worst game as UAB’s starter with four picks against Western Kentucky – but are still working out the kinks in the rushing attack.
The offensive line play has been pristine when it comes to pass blocking and decent in run blocking this season, but there are some concerns with senior center Lee Dufour after sitting out the last game with an undisclosed injury. UAB head coach Bill Clark said in his weekly press conference that they’re “hopeful to get (Dufour) back soon” so it may be a game-time decision relative to the matchup with Rice.
Defensively, the Blazers are right back where they were last season and lead the conference in three of the four major defense categories. Those ranks also translate nationally with the Blazers ranking 23rd in passing yards allowed (186.5 ypg), 15th in scoring defense (15.5 ppg) and 12th in both rushing (79.8 ypg) and total defense (266.3 ypg).
Additionally, UAB ranks 18th in tackles for loss per game (7.8), 12th in third-down defense (27.3 percent) and eighth in sacks per game (3.75).
Although the Blazers dropped their conference opener to the Hilltoppers, their conference title defense is still very much alive. After everything that has transpired that past two seasons, fan expectations are high – relative to repeating as league champions – but tempered.
Q. Spencer Brown is a talented running back, but he’s been relatively quiet this season. What needs to happen for him to have a breakout game?
Evan – Brown’s lack of production isn’t from a lack of trying as the junior running back averages 19.5 carries per game, even with the Blazers becoming a more proficient downfield passing team this season.
As far as what needs to happen for Brown to have a breakout game, the obvious answer is more consistency in run blocking from the offensive line. The commitment to that part of the offense is present but there’s an absence in rhythm that the Blazers have been accustomed the past two seasons.
As the offensive line becomes a more cohesive unit, the chances of Brown returning to his full dominant form increase exponentially.
Q. The Blazers lead C-USA in scoring defense. Can UAB maintain their impressive defensive start?
Evan – Short answer. Yes.
This defensive unit may be more talented than the last two editions and has yet to hit its peak this season. The Blazers have allowed no more than 20 points in any game this season and were even impressive in the loss to Western Kentucky in giving up only six points off four turnovers.
As long as the offense can get back on track with consistent scoring possessions, UAB will have no trouble keeping its defense fresh and aggressive throughout games.
Q. Who is one player on offense and defense Rice football fans need to know?
Evan – There are obvious names on offense like Spencer Brown, Tyler Johnston, Myron Mitchell, Kendall Parham and Austin Watkins, but look past the main attractions and you’ll find Markus Grossman.
The redshirt junior is the fourth leading receiver for the Blazers but with only six catches for 52 yards. However, five of his six receptions have come on third down with Grossman converting four for a first down and coming up a yard shy of the other. Such success on third down has easily earned him clutch status among a talented group of wideouts.
Garrett Marino is the alpha dog of the defense but it would be wise to be aware of linebacker Noah Wilder. A Gardner-Webb transfer, Wilder had an impressive fall camp resulting in a starting spot alongside Kris Moll in the middle where he currently leads the team with 25 total tackles.
Q. What does UAB absolutely have to do to beat Rice on Saturday?
Evan – Simple. Don’t turn the ball over.
Turnovers kept the Blazers from extending a close lead in the season opener against Alabama State and led to the loss in Bowling Green. When winning he turnover battle, UAB is as dangerous team as any in the league.
However, I expect a challenge from a Rice team that has showed obvious improvement in Year 2 under Mike Bloomgren. Both teams are built on physicality and the Owls have embraced their “Intellectual Brutality.” I don’t expect Rice to succumb to another lopsided shutout this time around.
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