If Rice Football wants to achieve their postseason aspirations, they’ll need to get past Western Kentucky. How to watch, key stats, x-factor picks and more.
For the second consecutive Saturday, Rice football lost an overtime game. This one was different though. Instead of trailing for the duration, Rice had a two-score lead and was unable to finish. Meanwhile, Western Kentucky was taking care of business against Middle Tennessee, their fourth win in a row. Can Rice right the slide? Will the Hilltoppers stumble? Here’s what you need to know:
Audio / Visual Preview
We’ll preview Rice football vs WKU on this week’s episode of the Blue and Gray Preview Show, streaming live on Wednesday at Noon on the Rice Athletics YouTube channel. You can also catch the recap of last week’s game on The Roost Podcast, which should be released shortly. Find us on the podcast page or wherever you like to listen to podcasts. (And consider leaving us a 5-star review while you’re at it.)
Sizing up the contenders
There’s a lot on the line for both teams at Rice Stadium on Saturday. The home team has reached do-or-die status when it comes to their bowl game aspirations. Sitting at 3-6 with three games to go, Rice has to be perfect down the stretch and that starts with Charlotte.
As linebacker Antonio Montero pointed out after the Charlotte loss, while the circumstances are far from ideal, “3-0, my sophomore year we did it,” he recalled. “It’s not impossible at all. Very, very possible, actually. There’s not a conference team that we can’t beat.”
On the other side of the field, Western Kentucky can clinch a bowl berth of their own and keep pace with Marshall for the top spot in the East Division standings.
All Time | WKU leads Rice, 2-0
Last Five | WKU leads Rice, 2-0
Last Meeting | Away 2016, WKU won 46-14
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Rice Stat Notables
Passing | Constantine – 84/131 (64.1 percent), 1059 yards, 5 TD, 3 INT
Rushing | Broussard – 87 carries, 473 yards (5.4 yards per carry), 2 TD / Myers – 89 carries, 334 yards (3.8 yards per carry), 8 TD
Receiving | Bailey – 46 receptions, 576 yards (12.5 yds/rec), 2 TD / Patterson – 24 receptions, 341 yards (14.2 yds/rec), 2 TD
Tackles | Montero – 60 / Garcia – 49 / Smith – 48
Pass Breakups | Dunbar – 6, McCord – 5, Smith – 4
Interceptions | Smith/Nyakwol – 2, Four others tied with one
Western Kentucky Stat Notables
Passing | Zappe – 308/441 (69.8 percent), 3688 yards passing, 37 TD, 6 INT
Rushing | Cofield – 64 carries, 321 yards (5.0 yards per carry), 4 TD / Whittington – 60 carries, 317 yards (5.3 ypc), 1 TD
Receiving | Sterns – 104 receptions, 1276 yards (12.3 yards per reception), 11 TD / Tinsley – 43 receptions, 680 yards (15.8 yds/rec), 6 TD
Tackles | Kincade – 62 / Malone – 62 / Ignont – 43
Interceptions | Cain/Bishop -2, Seven tied with one apiece
Pass Breakups | Ignont – 6, Edwards – 4, Four others tied with three apiece
WKU X-Factor | Keep your foot on the gas
Rice doesn’t want this to turn into a shootout. The Owls did win a 48-34 affair with Texas Southern earlier this season, but their ideal style of game is much lower-scoring. They want to maximize time of possession, grind out the clock and win on the margins. Falling behind early, as they did recently in losses to UTSA and North Texas, can be dangerous.
The Owls struggled in the kicking game too, missing three straight field goals between the end of the North Texas game and the start of the Charlotte contest. They then proceeded to go for it on fourth down in areas of the field where a long field goal might be an option.
If Rice struggles when they fall behind and the Owls have learned towards a “touchdown or bust” offensive philosophy, all Western Kentucky has to do is keep putting points on the board. Force Rice to play the style of game they don’t want to play and, more importantly, to execute at a high rate on their third and fourth down conversions in the redzone. That’s been a pain point for Rice in recent weeks.
Rice X-Factor | Force Bailey Zappe to make mistakes
Western Kentucky is far and away the most proficient offense in Conference USA. They’re going to score points and Bailey Zappe is going to attack down the field early and often. The Rice secondary had the chance to win the game against Charlotte but couldn’t limit the 49ers on their final fourth quarter drive nor could they stop the bleeding in overtime.
If the secondary can’t contain Zappe, they need to make him mortal. Rice forced 11 turnovers in 12 games in 2019, 0.92 per game. They had nine in five games in 2020, 1.80 per game. This season, they’ve forced 11 in nine games, 1.20 per game. They’ve finished better than +1 in the turnover margin once, that came against Southern Miss, a game they won at home.
Relying on turnovers and big plays to win games can’t be the entirety of the Owls’ game plan, but it’s going to have play some role in the outcome. Even an offense this good has its hiccups. Rice absolutely has to expose those and make it count when they do.
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Injury Report (Subscribers only)
One Final Thing
For better or worse, Rice football will know for sure whether or not their postseason hopes remain alive after this weekend. Western Kentucky is a good football team, and possibly if not probably the best team remaining on the Owls’ schedule. If they can upset the Hilltoppers, they’ll have a chance to run the table. They’ve beaten good teams before, and fairly recently at that, but they’re out of wiggle room.
“Some of the games we may be a favorite, some of the games we may be an underdog, but it doesn’t really matter,” Bloomgren said of this upcoming stretch. It’s going to come down to how we play and how we finish. But we’re good enough. We’re going to be good enough to win these games. Now when we get to that deep water that we talk about and work for, now we’ve got to finish.”
The UAB upset proved this team is good enough. Their ability to rally from behind against North Texas and force overtime proved they could fight back, even on a bad day. But when it’s come to execution, this team hasn’t been able to weather the storm. Now they’re on their last chance.