Defending Conference USA champion Rice takes on FIU Saturday from FIU Stadium (12 p.m. My TV Ch. 33 & ESPN 1210 AM radio). The Owls are on a four-game winning streak. The Panthers are looking to get back on track after starting conference play with back-to-back wins.
For more on the Owls here is their play-by-play radio voice J.P. Heath to answer "5 Questions on" Rice.
1. What has sparked the turnaround for Rice, winners of four straight games? It seems like the Owls improved defensively to spur the win streak?
JPH: The huge turnaround has been getting some injured guys back. Christian Covington got back in the middle of the D-line and Jordan Taylor sparked the receiving game after an off-season injury. But that should not discount what Bryan Nordstrom has done at one defensive end spot. Coach Bailiff calls him a “training tape” on technique for that position and Redshirt freshman Graysen Schantz has given a lot of pressure from the other edge. There are many things that have sparked the turnaround, but those would be my top few.
2. Who are some of the playmakers on the Rice offense? Is it mostly a run-oriented offense?
JPH: The numbers say Rice is very balanced and they are, but they are definitely a run-first team. Having two dynamic backs like Davis and Dillard (whose brother is the NCAA TD receptions record holder) with their varying styles has been fun to call. That’s not to sell Driphus Jackson and the passing game short. He has been amazing at protecting the ball and coach Bailiff credits his high football IQ for being a huge reason for the Rice four-game winning streak.
3. What does Rice do well on defense and who are some of the defenders that FIU has to be wary of? Do the Owls like to blitz a lot or is it more of a zone scheme?
JPH: Like the first answer, my biggest surprise on the whole team has been the consistently great play of the defensive line. The defense has already matched its sack total from all of last season in SEVEN games compared to 14 in the championship run a year ago. The last few weeks they’ve been adept at getting in the backfield and I’d say they have a lot of schemes they use.
4. How is this year's Rice team different from last year's C-USA champion Rice team?
JPH: Very tough question. Rice lost its second all-time rusher Charles Ross, but Davis and Dillard have teamed up to more than make up for that loss. Coach Bailiff has repeatedly cited Jackson’s ability “under” center as being a huge reason that he thinks this team could even be better than the special team a year ago. He is showing acumen for the position that everyone raves about in just his ninth career start. Jackson’s leadership is very telling, too. Guys on both sides of the ball say that he will confront them about something that needs to be addressed. Cornerback Phillip Gaines is gone to the Chiefs as a third round pick, but recently Ryan Pollard has stepped up to provide some punch at that spot opposite another great cornerback Bryce Callahan. Pollard had a pick-six against North Texas. The addition of Kevin Yoxall (14-year strength coach at Auburn with stints at Minnesota, UCLA, and TCU) has been a tangible difference. Multiple players have said unprompted that he and his staff have taken them to new heights physically.
5. How do you see Saturday's game playing out?
JPH: I think a lot of it comes down to Rice’s ability to control the clock, which could be tough against the stingy FIU defense. The Owls have been one of the best teams in the nation on third downs and converting red zone chances so they must continue to do that in order to win Saturday.