Rice (+21) at Notre Dame
Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana
Kickoff: 3:30 PM ET
Series: 4-0-0 Notre Dame
Here is the One Foot Down preview of this week's season opener against the Rice Owls.
This is Rice's record against major conference opponents since 2007. However, those three wins have come in the form of a victory in each of the past 3 seasons. They beat Purdue in 2011 and Kansas in 2012 and 2013. The Owls are 3-7 against power conference teams over the past 3 seasons.
- 26 yards
That is the difference in punt return yardage from 2013 between Rice and Notre Dame. The Owls gained more yards but the Irish (7.07 vs. 6.29) netted a higher average per return. Talented corner Bryce Callahan is back to take punt return duties while the Irish will break in 5th-year Florida transfer Cody Riggs or Greg Bryant.
- 16 points
In the 4 games Rice has played against Notre Dame (and granted they've only met once in 40 years) the Owls have scored only 16 points. Will they be able to score that many points on Saturday against a new Irish defense?
The Owls scored an impressive 31 rushing touchdowns last season. They were one of 15 teams in college football to rush for 3,000+ yards and at least 30 touchdowns. Their now-graduated quarterback and running back from 2013 accounted for 20 of those scores a year ago. Over the past two seasons Notre Dame has scored a total of 35 rushing touchdowns.
- 76.9% vs. 53.3%
Those are the red zone touchdown percentages for Rice and Notre Dame last year. The Owls (6th nationally) were among the best in the country (thanks largely to those 31 rushing touchdowns) while Notre Dame's struggles have been well documented as the Irish finished at 100th nationally last year. Although they play in the Conference USA, the Owls did convert 12 touchdowns out of 15 red zone attempts against Texas A&M, Kansas, Houston, North Texas, Marshall, and Mississippi State in 2013.
4 Players to Watch
- DT Christian Covington
There's usually one opponent player who Mike Mayock will not stop talking about during the game. Prepare yourself for that player to be Christian Covington. The 6-3, 300 pound redshirt junior is coming off a 1st-team All-Conference USA campaign and has made several pre-season All-American lists this summer.
Last year Covington led Rice with 11.5 tackles for loss and also chipped in 4 sacks, 3 passes broken up, 4 quarterback hurries, and 1 forced fumble in addition to his 59 overall tackles. Through his two years in Houston he has an impressive 10 sacks and 24 tackles for loss from the interior. With the season ending knee injury to Stuart Mouchantaf that means Covington is the only returning defensive line starter for Rice so expect Notre Dame to give him plenty of attention on Saturday.
- CB Bryce Callahan
We already mentioned that Callahan returns as the punt returner but he's one of the top corners in the Conference USA and has quite the resume through 3 years on the field as a freshman All-American in 2011 and a member of the 2nd-team All-Conference USA last year. Callahan has 11 interceptions and 25 pass break ups in his career too. With some depth concerns in the secondary expect Golson to focus on other defensive backs against Rice and stay away from Callahan.
- K James Hairston
Rice lost a major weapon in kicker Chris Boswell who had a huge leg and finished his career as the Owl's all-time field goal leader. He was signed by the Houston Texans and is currently trying to unseat Randy Bullock as the regular season approaches.
Rice benefited from the transfer of LSU's James Hairston who comes in this fall as a graduate student. However, he was the Tigers kickoff specialist and has not attempted a field goal in his career. If Hairston wins the job (he's fighting two others going into game week) keep an eye on Rice's kicking game because it could be an issue.
- QB Driphus Jackson
Jackson fought off some mild competition during the off-season and has been working with the first team since the spring. He's a quarterback similar to Everett Golson in many ways only a little stockier. He's yet to start a game for the Owls but has 85 pass attempts in his career largely due to a handful of relief efforts when now graduated Taylor McHargue was injured or ineffective. He's known to excel in Rice's short passing game but they were working on his pocket presence and deep passing during the summer. With a running backs' body-type and 156 yards on 27 carries last year Jackson has the ability to hurt a defense with his feet.
- Losing Contain on Jackson
The recent editions of the Rice offense have made their name by running the ball. Departed running back Charles Ross and quarterback Taylor McHargue combined for 1,744 yards last year and leave behind a big hole in the run game. The Owls do like their young running backs and you can expect Driphus Jackson to help fill the void this season. Something in the neighborhood of 12 carries from Jackson wouldn't be a surprise this Saturday. While he's likely not a threat to get the edge quite like a Denard Robinson, Notre Dame will have to be careful not to recklessly fire off the edges and allow Jackson to squirt up the middle for considerable gains and big first downs.
- Staying Patient on Offense
It's no surprise to say that Notre Dame has more talent on offense than what Rice has to offer on defense. However, the Owls offer NFL-talent in the front of their defense with Christian Covington and in the back of the defense in Bryce Callahan. Many would point to the unproven bodies and lack of size up front for Rice and prescribe a heavy does of the run game. Yet, Owl fans have spent all off-season and fall camp fretting over the ineffectiveness and lack of depth in their secondary. The truth is the Irish should find a lot of success in both areas and as long as they stay patient and keep a nice mix of plays Notre Dame should be able to move the ball really well.
- Performing without the Suspended Four
We don't know much if anything about the investigations surrounding Kendall Moore, Ishaq Williams, DaVaris Daniels, and Keivarae Russell. What we do know is that they won't be available this weekend. Williams appears to to be the biggest blow where there were major concerns at the defensive end position as there are zero career sacks among the updated two-deep at the position. The receiving corps should be fine for this game as Corey Robinson (despite recent hand surgery) slides into the starting lineup and there is enough depth ready to make an impact. Corner is a little more questionable as the loss of Russell is pretty enormous in and of itself while the defense is likely looking at an increased role from the clunky Farley at the nickel corner spot.
2 Sides of the Line
Rice was to bring back 4 players with starting experience but 5th-year senior Drew Carroll (4 starts at right guard in 2013 and likely starter there this fall) had to retire due to autoimmune kidney disease. Redshirt junior Andrew Reue (6-5, 295) started 10 games at right guard last season and returns for 2014. Another veteran in 5th-year senior Nico Carlson (6-3, 295) is back as starter at left guard as is redshirt junior Caleb Williams (6-3, 290) at right tackle. Former walk-on and 5th-year senior Matt Simonette (6-2, 310) has won the center job after a promising beginning to 2013 was cut short due to injury. Massive 5th-year senior Ian Gray (6-8, 345) has made 1 start in his career back in 2011 and has won the left tackle spot for the Notre Dame game.
Rice is facing some major questions on the defensive line. Covington is the only returning starter while the spring's big surprise in converted receiver Derek Brown has missed fall camp due to personal reasons after grabbing a starting spot before summer. Redshirt junior Ross Winship (6-4, 290) started late in 2013 and is expected to step up on the interior with the injury to Mouchantaf. Fifth-year senior Zach Patt (6-2, 240) has been a backup throughout his career and looks to start at defensive end. Former walk-on and redshirt junior Brian Nordstrom (6-3, 230) saw some playing time last year and has grabbed the other end spot. Senior Dylan Klare (6-2, 270) is a key swing lineman who offers experience with 50 career tackles and early enrollee freshman Brad Luvender (6-3, 260) has impressed and looks to get some minutes.
I don't have many concerns about this game when matching up the Irish offense against Rice. I'm not predicting major offensive fireworks though and I do think Golson is going to be settled in nice and slowly with a majority of running plays called early. As Brian Kelly mentioned in his presser on Tuesday it's been a long time since Golson has faced contact and I wouldn't be surprised to see a 1st quarter similar to the 2012 opener in Ireland except with a larger focus on Golson running the ball.
I'm a little worried about the Irish defense for a several reasons. One, they are breaking in a new defense. Two, they are breaking in a ton of new starters. Three, the pass rush has a lot to prove and it would shock me if it's a strength out of the gate on Saturday. Four, Rice should have a serviceable offensive line at worst, and a pretty decent one at best. Five, Jackson is a mobile quarterback capable of being a pain in the ass.
However, breaking in a new defense also means that Rice has not been able to prepare for what the Irish are going to be throwing at them. This could be an X-factor that favors Notre Dame and allows them to build an early lead following a handful of key big plays.
Rice's best receiver Jordan Taylor has been nursing a bruised foot and is questionable this weekend although most expect him to suit up. That's another factor in this matchup as is the weather which is expected to be rainy at game time. Rice should be more comfortable with their run game in crummy weather so keep an eye on that.
I'd like to see Notre Dame show off some up-tempo (Rice has made it an emphasis this off-season) and really get to work on the full play-book with Golson back at the helm. Don't hold anything back for Michigan--do what you do and get used to performing at a high level in games. If there are multiple series where up-tempo is utilized and the Irish are snapping the ball quickly to get the ball into the hands of the running backs I think Notre Dame has the opportunity to overwhelm Rice.
In the end, I expect both clubs to have success on the ground but Golson's passing abilities and a couple forced turnovers by the Irish allow some breathing room to an easy but not-quite-a-blowout victory.
Notre Dame 38