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Behind Enemy Lines: Rice Thresher editor-in-chief previews Bayou Bucket

The Bayou Bucket has been in Houston’s possession since 2011, and the all-time record is 30 wins for Houston and 11 for Rice. | File Photo/The Cougar

The Cougars will travel across town to Rice Stadium to take on the Owls in the 42nd battle for the Bayou Bucket on Saturday.

To help preview the showdown, The Cougar spoke with the Rice Thresher editor-in-chief Andrew Grottkau about how Rice could handle Houston.

The Cougar: Neither quarterback played particularly well against PVAMU. What is the quarterback situation looking like after the PVAMU game, and who looks to be the starter against UH?

Grottkau: The quarterback competition has been shrouded in secrecy throughout training camp, but Saturday’s win over Prairie View offered some clarity.

Graduate transfer Shawn Stankavage started and played most of the first half and the entirety of the second half. Junior Jackson Tyner played in just two series.

The Owls scored 28 of its 31 points when Stankavage was in the game. However, in Tyner’s two series, he threw for 44 yards, one more than Stankavage managed in his 10 series.

Based on the opening game, however, we have a very small sample size. It seems as if Tyner will likely be utilized more in passing situations while Stankavage will be utilized more when Rice leans on the run.

Head coach Mike Bloomgren prefers a ground-and-pound style. As a result, it will be tough to break down the Houston defense, especially defensive tackle Ed Oliver with runs up the middle.

This means that, although Stankavage clearly performed better in the Owl’s opener, Tyner could play a significant role against the Cougars.

If I were to guess, Stankavage will start due to his performance against Prairie View, but Tyner will end up with more playing time when the game is over.

TC: Most of Rice’s yardage was gained by Emmanuel Esukpa. How confident are you that Rice will be able to have a strong run game against UH?

Grottkau: Not very. Esukpa is a very good running back, but he is going to have a lot of trouble finding holes.

In recent years as Stanford’s offensive coordinator, Bloomgren has coached Heisman Trophy finalists Christian McCaffrey and Bryce Love. If he can find any way to get the running game going, he will stick with it.

That being said, it is going to be extraordinarily difficult to break down the UH defensive line. Oliver is an All-American talent, and he is going to be going up against an offensive line whose starters had combined for just five career starts heading into the Prairie View game.

Against PVAMU, Rice’s players were bigger and stronger than the Panthers’ defensive line, so experience played only a small factor. Against Houston, with both a size and experience disadvantage, Rice’s O-line is going to have a long afternoon.

TC: How does the young offensive line of Rice handle UH’s defense linemen like Isaiah Chambers and Ed Oliver?

Grottkau: The best thing Rice has going for them on the offensive line is coaching. Bloomgren became known as one of the best offensive line coaches in the country for his ability to develop NFL talent while at Stanford.

There is no easy solution to stopping Chambers and Oliver. Double teaming one player would leave someone else on the Cougars’ defensive line free.

Rice’s strategy to contain Oliver and Chambers may be to make sure they never have a chance to get into the backfield. The Owls could rely on the short, quick passing game to get over them though.

That is one reason Tyner could see a great deal of playing time: Rice may want to use the short passing game as its go-to against the Cougars instead of the ground-and-pound style it used against the Panthers.

Sophomore receiver Austin Trammell showed great hands in the win over Prairie View, so he could be a target on quick slant routes. The downside of this strategy is that outside of Trammell, Rice does not have many other reliable receivers.

Sophomore Aaron Cephus has proven himself as a deep threat, but the deep ball might not be a factor if the quarterback doesn’t have time in the pocket. Tight ends are a Bloomgren favorite, but they had limited success against Prairie View in the passing game, and the Cougars are a big step up in competition.

TC: Many of Rice’s top tacklers graduated last year like Emmanuel Ellerbee, Brian Womac and Destri White. Who will need to step up to replace them, and did anyone surprise you in the PVAMU game?

Grottkau: Ellerbee’s departure is especially tough for a Rice defense that didn’t perform well even with him in the lineup the last couple years. Ellerbee was a force in the middle of the field; he finished second in the conference in tackles his junior year despite playing in only 11 games. 

Rice started senior Martin Nwakamma and sophomore Dylan Silcox at middle linebacker against Prairie View. Nwakamma registered just one tackle while Silcox had six. This was partially due to the fact that most of Prairie View’s success came through the air on deep passes to the edge.

Rice cornerback Justin Bickham racked up five tackles and, for the most part, successfully contained the Panthers’ receivers he covered. He will be a key against the Cougars, likely going against its No. 1 receiver.

On the defensive line, junior defensive tackle Roe Wilkins stood out, notching seven tackles including a strip sack in the fourth quarter. Outside linebacker Anthony Ekpe also recorded a strip sack in the fourth. Rice’s defense recorded just six turnovers all of last season, so to see the defense knock the ball loose twice late in the game was certainly a positive development.

TC: How do Rice fans feel about the rivalry with UH? Is it seen as worth a spot on the schedule, or do fans wish Rice played a smaller school to give the team a better chance at six wins and a bowl game berth?

Grottkau: Rice fans definitely value the Bayou Bucket. Winning the trophy would be cathartic, given the team’s recent history. Watching UH rise on the national stage after leaving Conference USA has been painful for long-time fans. Watching that happen as Rice has regressed and fallen to the bottom of the FBS landscape has been even more brutal.

Owls fans still believe that, with some savvy recruiting and a little bit of luck, Rice can be a good “mid-major” football team that competes for a berth in a New Year’s Six bowl some years.

The Cougars are essentially who the Owls want to be, at least assuming that moving conferences is not an option. Playing UH each year is a chance for Rice to see where it stands compared to that ideal.

In recent years, the Bayou Bucket has shown that the Owls have an extremely long way to go. It will likely be the same this year. But fans are nothing if not optimistic. So each season, Rice fans go into the Bayou Bucket hoping that this is the time the Owls can break their losing streak and prove that it isn’t Houston’s “other” college football team.

Owls fans would rather watch their team compete against UH than play against a team from the Sun Belt and have a better chance to qualify for a bowl. In a way, this is Rice’s bowl game. A Bayou Bucket win would mean much more than winning something like the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl.

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