The opposition: Previewing the Bayou Bucket Classic
Coming off a crushing defeat in which Houston allowed 31 unanswered second half points to fall in its 2021 season-opener to Texas Tech, the Cougars have their hands full in Week Two as they take on cross-town rival Rice in the Bayou Bucket Classic.
While the Owls have not been to a bowl game since 2014, Mike Bloomgren has constructed a roster that could help Rice snap its streak of six straight losing seasons.
Here is everything you need to know about the Cougars’ weekend opponent:
Rice’s offensive identity is found in controlling the battle in the trenches, frequently utilizing its fullbacks along with a heavy use of two-tight end formations in its pro-style offense.
UH defensive coordinator compared preparing for the Rice offense to getting ready for Navy’s triple-option offense because the Owls line up in many “foreign” formations that are rarely seen in college football.
“They’re level of execution is elite. They got smart kids. They’re well-coached,” Belk said. “You can tell they understand the scheme and they got a great coaching staff. If you’re out of position they’ll find a weakness in your defense.”
One of the biggest weapons on the Rice offense is sixth-year senior Jordan Myers, a 6-foot-2-inch, 216 pound Swiss Army Knife who lines up all over the field.
Myers can hurt the opposing defense in a variety of ways, lining up at tight end, out wide, in the slot and in the backfield throughout the game.
Along with Myers, running backs Khalan Griffin and Ari Broussard will split the majority of the time in the backfield for the Owls.
On the outside, Rice is led by 6-foot-5-inch receiver Bradley Rozner, who missed the 2020 season due to an injury but led the Owls with 770 receiving yards and five touchdowns in 2019.
But the big story for Rice comes at quarterback, as the Owls have two starting-caliber players to lead the offense in Wiley Green and Luke McCaffrey, the younger brother of the Carolina Panthers star running back Christian McCaffrey.
Green, who has been in the program since 2018, got the start for the Owls in their opener against Arkansas and was solid through three quarters before throwing three interceptions in the fourth quarter as Rice’s efforts to upset the Razorbacks fell short.
Belk was extremely complimentary on Green’s football IQ and knows the Cougars’ defense has to be on top of things or Green will exploit their mistakes.
“(Green) get’s them in the right plays and you can tell his high level of intelligence,” Belk said. “You can tell the coaches trust him by what they allow him to do.”
On the other hand, McCaffrey is new to the Owls program after transferring from Nebraska in June but took some snaps behind center in the Owls loss to Arkansas.
McCaffrey is a dual-threat quarterback who can hurt a defense with both his arm and his legs.
“(McCaffrey’s) got an athletic ability and a big arm,” Belk said. “He hasn’t been in (Rice’s) system as long (as Green), but I know he’s very capable.”
While Green is expected to start against UH, it is likely that the Cougars will see McCaffrey at quarterback at some point on Saturday.
The Rice defense is the bread and butter of the team.
The Owls not only had one of the best defenses in Conference USA but one of the best scoring defenses in the country in 2020, giving up a mere 18.8 points per game which ranked 12th best in the FBS.
The Rice defense entered 2021 returning 10 starters from last season, only losing linebacker Blaze Alldredge at weakside linebacker.
Despite the loss of Alldredge, the Owls have experienced playmakers at the linebacker position in Antonio Montero and Treshawn Chamberlain, who both enter their fourth year of being a starter.
Upfront, the Owls are led by nose tackle Elijah Garcia, who has the most tackles of any current C-USA interior lineman.
The biggest improvement on the Owls defense from 2020 comes in the secondary as free safety George Nyakwol, who missed the entirety of last season, is healthy and joins free safety Naeem Smith to man the back end of the Rice defense.
The Owls defense stood up to the test against Arkansas last week, preventing the Razorbacks offense from establishing any type of rhythm and holding to 17 points through three quarters before turnovers plagued Rice in the fourth.
How does UH match up with Rice?
Rice’s defense struggled against Arkansas, allowing 5.6 yards per carry but the UH offensive line struggled mightily against Texas Tech as the Cougars failed to establish a run game. This should make for an interesting battle in the trenches as both the Rice defensive line and UH offensive line look to have bounce back performances Saturday.
On the other end, the Owls offense prides itself on the ground and pound game plan but UH has the depth and talent on the defensive line to create problems for the Owls and force them to go the air attack more than planned.
Belk said he will rotate around 10 players on the defensive line against the Owls with the most notable addition being Nelson Ceasar, who missed UH’s season opener.
Both team’s starting quarterbacks also have something to prove with their arms as UH’s Clayton Tune and Rice’s Green look to turn the page after multi-interception performances last weekend.
Expect Tune to spread the ball out and get more receivers involved early to test the Owls secondary and try to develop an early rhythm.
Where to watch
Kickoff is set for 5:30 p.m. and the game can be watched on CBS Sports Network. Fans can also listen to the game on KPRC 950 AM.