Notre Dame Football 2014 Off-Season Preview: Rice Owls

Stacy Revere

It's been a quarter century since the Irish lined up against Rice.

RICE OWLS

Rice_medium

2013 Record: 10-4

F/+ Rank: 69

Wins: Kansas, Florida Atlantic, Tulsa, UTSA, New Mexico State, UTEP, Louisiana Tech, UAB, Tulane, Marshall

Losses: Texas A&M, Houston, North Texas, Miss State

~~~

Season Recap

They led A&M 14-7 in the 1st half while Johnny Manziel was suspended. When Johnny Football came back the Aggies cruised to an easy win. Rice's win over Kansas was the second straight year beating the Jayhawks. They won 9 out of their last 11 games and took their conference division title. They cruised in the Conference-USA title game against Marshall to win their first league title in 57 years. A shellacking at the hands of Miss State in the Liberty Bowl prevented Rice from winning a program-high 11 games.

Series: 4-0 Notre Dame

This is one of those ridiculously lopsided series for the Fighting Irish. Over the 4 game series Rice has been out-scored 147-16 and that's with a 10-3 loss in 1974--what was Parseghian doing that day!?? The most recent game saw Rice come to South Bend as the second-to-last home game of the year for a 1988 Irish squad that was on its way to a perfect 12-0 season. Notre Dame piled up a season-high in points with a 54-11 victory and some skinny freshman nicknamed Rocket scored two kick return touchdowns.


Coach Resume: David Bailiff (40-48, 8th season)

A quintessential Texan. Aside from a 5-year stint with New Mexico as their defensive line coach, he's been playing and coaching in the state of Texas since the late 1970's. First head coaching job was with his alma mater Texas State (2004-06) going 21-15 overall and taking them to the FCS national semi-finals in 2005. Hired by Rice prior to the 2007 season. Up and down career featuring 3 double-digit win seasons but 6 seasons with 5 or fewer wins. Only second coach in Rice history to lead the program to 2 bowl appearances. He's beaten a major conference opponent in each of the last 3 years and received a new 5-year deal back in February.

Linemen Situation: Solid but Needs Work

The offensive line is in solid shape with 3 starters coming back and 41 total starts from a year ago. They do have to replace their left tackle and center which is the two positions on the line you'd really like to have experience, but 4 players total are back with starting experience from last year.

The defensive line is going to need some players to step up. Defensive ends Cody Bauer (11 starts, 39 tackles, 11 TFL, 5.5 sacks), Tanner Leland (11 starts, 30 tackles, 5 TFL, 1 sack), and Josh Skinner (6 starts, 19 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks) are all gone. For a team that only totaled 20 sacks (93rd nationally) last year they need to figure out a way to get after the quarterback.

The interior of the defensive line should be pretty good, though. Stuart Mouchantaf (8 starts) and Ross Winship (6 starts) both return at nose tackle while 1st-team All-Conference USA defensive tackle Christian Covington (11.5 TFL) is quietly one of the more disruptive players in the country.

Returning Quarterback: No

Taylor McHargue started every game last season and is leaving behind 6,117 passing yards, 1,406 rushing yards, and 60 touchdowns in his career.

Rising redshirt junior Driphus Jackson did make a couple starts 2 years ago and impressed but really struggled as a passer this past year (5 for 16 with a pick) in a backup role. There was some thought a couple other QB's on the roster might challenge for the job but it appears Jackson's athleticism and leadership will be too much to overcome.

Biggest Problem for 2014: Figuring out the Offensive Backfield

Rice won 10 games last year largely because of a strong offense that rushed for over 3,000 yards and a put up a solid 29.6 points per game. This year they are replacing their starting quarterback, a 1,200 yard running back, and 20 out of their 31 rushing touchdowns from a year ago.

Driphus' ability to use his feet should help out the run game plus a couple sophomore backs who combined for 872 yards last year should step up as well. This is clearly not a dire situation for Rice. Yet, they have to replace a couple important players from a tremendous season in 2013.

Biggest Strength for 2014: Secondary

The Owls run a lot of 4-2-5 base looks and lose a couple defensive backs from last fall, including three-year starter Paul Porras who played their hybrid safety Kat position and was second on the team in tackles and broke up 6 passes. Nevertheless, they are experimenting with moving safety Malcolm Hill (started all last year) to corner which could give Rice an entire secondary full of senior starters from a unit that was pretty strong against the pass last year causing 14 interceptions and a boat load of broken up passes.

Offensive Scheme: Run-First Spread

Rice will be breaking in new co-offensive coordinators this season. Former OC John Reagan left to run Charlie Weis' offense at Kansas after the Owls beat Marshall in the Conference-USA title game. Billy Lynch (wide receivers coach) and Larry Edmondson (quarterbacks coach) will team up to run the offense this fall. Lynch called the plays in Rice's bowl game.

I'd be surprised if much changed schematically. Rice ran the ball 57.8% of the time last year and has a 3-year average of 58% as well. They heavily use a 3 wide receiver base with lots of motion and running by the quarterback. Since 2011 their quarterbacks are averaging 173 carries per season so they are a big part of the ground attack. In Jackson's two starts in 2012 he ran the ball a combined 25 times.

Special Teams: 3/4

Senior corner Bryce Callahan returns as the team's punt returner and had similar numbers to TJ Jones in that role last year. A trio of players who totaled at least 7 returns on kickoffs are back as well.

Former walk-on punter James Farrimond returns for the Owls after winning the job last year and having a pretty solid year. A big loss is place-kicker Chris Boswell who was a 4-year starter and nailed 65 of 88 (73.8%) field goal attempts over his career. In addition, he was a touchback machine on kickoffs with a huge leg that allowed him to make 13 field goals from 50+ yards. Boswell is largely considered the top kicker in the upcoming NFL Draft.

Famous Alum: Howard Hughes

Technically, he didn't graduate. Hughes dropped out of college shortly after his father passed away. I think he did okay for himself the rest of his life. Moving to Los Angeles in the mid-1920's Hughes amassed a personal fortune through the movie, airline, investing, and engineering industries. He was one of the wealthiest people in the world at the time of his death in 1976.

Random Stat: 10

That's how many times Rice lost the ball in 2013 by way of fumbling. It's not an obscene high number but still not very good. The Irish only lost 4 fumbles last year, tied for 1st nationally. I'd expect both teams to move closer to the national average in 2014.

SUMMARY

Rice seems poised for a step back from 2013. They have to replace 10 starters, including the ever important quarterback position, and I don't know if they have the talent to re-load. This is a program that almost never strings together back-to-back strong seasons in football.


That said, there are some things to like about the Owls. Their top 2 receivers are back (if Jackson can get them the ball is another matter), a stout interior defensive line should help against their top opponents, and a strong secondary returns. If they can figure out some pass rushers in August the defense might be a little better than last year.

Rice's schedule last year was pretty horrid though, which makes it hard to get a handle on their talent level. They played 4 teams that lost 9+ games and both Texas A&M and Mississippi State gained over 7.0 Yards Per Play on the Owls defense. Their win over Marshall (10-4 in 2013) was a highlight, but their next best wins were UTSA (7-5) and Tulane (7-6), and both of those victories were by less than a touchdown.

I'd be more worried if Rice was preparing to play a Bob Diaco defense but Brian VanGorder's aggressiveness and flexibility should help out the Irish in this game. I also like that the Owls will be facing a new Notre Dame defense instead of having an entire off-season planning against Diaco.

Bailiff is a good coach and this should be yet another season in which one of the bottom feeders on the schedule really isn't that terrible. I still expect Notre Dame's athleticism to give Rice a lot of problems and ultimately a game that is comfortably in hand in the fourth quarter.

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