The Rice Owls will try and keep their bowl hopes alive this weekend when they meet the No.18 Houston Cougars, who are looking to match their best start in school history this week.
Rice has lost two straight, including last weekend's 38-20 setback against Tulsa, in a game that featured three turnovers by the Owls in the first nine minutes, and led to 17 Tulsa points. Rice has the 96th rated passing defense in the country, and this week's test against Houston's Case Keenum is likely the toughest challenge of the season for the Owls' secondary.
Keenum and Houston are simultaneously climbing ladders; Keenum became the NCAA's all-time leader in total yardage in last weekend's 63-28 win over Marshall, as Houston won its seventh straight game and jumped up to No.18 in the national polls this week (Houston is No.17 in the BCS poll, up two spots from last week). Keenum passed Hawaii's Timmy Chang for the total yardage mark, which was previously set at 16,910 yards. Keenum now has 17,173 yards of total offense; he also has now accounted for 150 touchdowns in his career, which also shattered an NCAA record last weekend (Central Michigan's Dan Lefevour had 149). Keenum needs 799 yards to become the all-time passing leader, and needs five touchdowns to set the passing touchdowns record.
"It feels good. I thought about it after one of the throws but now that it's over its time to move on," said Keenum following the win over Marshall. "It's all about Rice now."
With a win over Rice, Houston will match its best start in school history.
Houston leads the all-time series with Rice, 26-11.
Nick Fanuzzi completed 20-of-37 passes for 234 yards and one touchdown last weekend against Tulsa, in his most extensive action of the season. Taylor McHargue, who has started most of the season, threw just four passes last week, two of which were intercepted. McHargue has thrown for 1,045 yards with eight touchdowns and five interceptions this season. Rice is 11th in C-USA passing, averaging 197 yards per game.
Rice averages 326.4 yards and 22.2 points per game.
Tyler Smith has been the club's most dependable runner, although he has picked up a 100-yard rushing game this season. None of Rice's three top backs, Smith, Turner Petersen or Sam McGuffie, have turned in 100-yard games for that matter; Smith leads the team with 340 yards through seven games, while Petersen has 240 yards and four touchdowns. McGuffie's production has waned considerably compared to last season, as he has just 38 carries this season for 158 yards and one touchdown.
Luke Willson leads the receiving corps with 28 catches for 311 yards and three touchdowns this season, and had his best game last week against Tulsa, hauling in seven balls for 103 yards and a score.
Rice is 115th nationally in total defense, giving up 472.4 yards per game, (allowing 253.8 passing yards and a 116.1 passing efficiency rating per game). The Rice offense pinned the defensive unit back last weekend against Tulsa with three quick turnovers in the first half, and the Owls gave up 473 yards of total offense to the Golden Hurricane (including 318 yards passing and three touchdowns to quarterback G.J. Kinne). Getting pressure on Keenum this weekend figures to be an important key to Rice success, and Rice has been able to get to the quarterback at times this season. The Owls average about two sacks a game and nearly six tackles for loss, with defensive end Scott Solomon ranking fourth in the C-USA with 4.5 sacks through seven games.
"You have to have great field distribution. You've got to be able to tackle in space," said Rice head coach David Bailiff of preparing for Houston. "And offensively, you have got to somehow keep the ball out of their hands. It's one of those games where time of possession could be important."
Keenum is the catalyst for the Houston offense which ranks first nationally in total offense (606.1), scoring offense (49.2) and passing offense (441.7). Individually, Keenum ranks third in the country is pass efficiency (184.7) and has thrown 23 touchdowns against two interceptions this season. Keenum has thrown 266 attempts, but has only been sacked nine times.
Patrick Edwards leads the C-USA in receiving, posting 751 yards and six touchdowns on 44 catches this season. Tyron Carrier and Justin Johnson have also been key contributors in the passing game. Carrier has caught 46 balls for 553 yards and three scores, while Johnson has 31 grabs for 462 yards and five touchdowns.
For as much attention as the passing game commands, the rushing attack still registers 164.4 yards per game. Charles Sims and Michael Hayes are the eighth and ninth leading rushers in the league, respectively, averaging 55 and 54.8 yards respectively per game. Bryce Beall averages 47.6 per game, and the three running backs have scored six rushing touchdowns apiece this season.
"We've got to be physical. You can't make errors with Case," said Bailiff. "When you are blitzing him, he knows right where that blitz is coming from and where to go with the football. You can tell he is a veteran."
Houston's defense has held the last two opponents, East Carolina and Marshall, to a combined 31 points (the Cougars allow 23.4 points per game). Houston has been very aggressive up front, and the numbers back the assertion up. The unit leads the C-USA in sacks per game (2.7), and are fourth in the country in tackles for loss (8.2). Sammy Brown is second in the league with 7.5 sacks in seven games. The Cougars also ranks seventh in the country in the turnover margin (1.2) and have recorded 11 interceptions this season. Overall, the unit allows 408.1 yards per game (168.5 rushing, 239.5 passing). Marcus McGraw, who has started 46 consecutive games for Houston, leads the team with 72 tackles.