The Rice Owls enter Saturday's C-USA tilt with UTEP on a four game winning streak and have also won five out of their last six after an opening week loss to Texas A&M. The Owls control their own destiny in the C-USA west race and have lived up to the expectations that come with returning 18 starters. We recently spoke with Joseph Duarte of the Houston Chronicle to break down the Owls and the interesting C-USA race for the title.
MinerRush: Rice comes into this game at 5-2 overall and 3-0 sitting on top of the C-USA west. Most people coming into the season were high on the Owls, is this what you expected coming into the season until now?
Joseph Duarte: Yes. After last year's strong finish ended with a blowout of Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl, this was expected to be the Owls' best chance at not only back-to-back bowl appearances for the first time since 1960-61 but to compete for the Conference USA title. The Owls have done exactly what was needed during the first half of the season, winning games they should and going on the road and beating defending champion Tulsa.
MR: The Owls are ranked 16th overall in rushing in the FBS, but only 108th in passing. Is that a reflection of the commitment to the run or are there serious issues in the passing attack?
JD: So far the philosophy has been take what opponents give you. The Owls began the season strong running the ball with 306 yards against Texas A&M, and last week against New Mexico State ran for a season-high 409 yards while attempting only 15 passes. The backfield is loaded, led by Charles Ross, who missed a couple of games with a knee injury, but returned last week for 167 yards and one touchdown. The Owls also have the benefit of a mobile quarterback in Taylor McHargue, who has 302 yards and five touchdowns.
MR: Defensively the Owls have only held one team under 300 total yards in a game so far this season, What areas might the Miners have success from what you have seen so far?
JD: The Owls are banged up at defensive end, with starter Cody Bauer not expected to play after having his knee cleaned recently. Rice still hasn’t put together a consistent pass rush this year, which could be trouble against a quarterback like Jameill Showers. A few defensive players to watch: defensive tackle Christian Covington is a load in the middle, Phillip Gaines and Bryce Callahan are arguably the best cornerback duo in C-USA and strongside linebacker Michael Kutzler is the team leader in tackles (52) as the replacement for injured starter Cameron Nwosu.
MR: What is your opinion of the job David Bailiff has done turning around the program?
JD: In my opinion, Bailiff is the right man for the job. He hasn’t always been a popular choice to be the football coach and has endured his share of lean years with three straight losing seasons before 2012. But he gets Rice. He understands the dynamics that come from coaching at an academic-first university and the struggles that come from being part of a football program that has gone neglected (in terms of funding) for many, many years. Bailiff has the program going in the right direction - there is currently plans to build an end zone facility but no official date has been set to break ground - and was rewarded with a three-year contract extension in the offseason.
MR: Is the turn around job that he has done a good example or a blueprint for programs looking to turn that corner?
JD: I'm not sure Rice is the blueprint for other schools. The biggest difference with those schools is they have the funding or facilities already in place. And the admission standards at Rice prevent them from getting prized recruits, especially in a state dominated by Texas A&M and Texas. But, then again, if you can win at Rice you can probably win anywhere.
MR: What is your overall take of the C-USA so far, and ongoing?
JD: Let's start in the East, where the division is likely heading to the season finale between Marshall and East Carolina for the title. In the West, Rice’s toughest challenges the rest of the way are at North Texas (Oct. 31) and against Tulane in the Nov. 30 regular-season finale. Tulane has been the feel-good story with its turnaround, but it’s schedule ends with three of the final four games on the road. I give Rice the edge. My pick for the C-USA title game: Rice vs. East Carolina.
UTEP MINERS @ Rice Owls
Sat. Oct 26th. 1:30 PM MDT
TV: CSS DirecTV Channel 696
Radio: 9.23 The Fox in English; ESPN Deportes 1650 AM in Spanish