Rice's defense (currently 107th in points allowed) could have some trouble slowing down the Golden Eagles in Hattiesburg.
FACTS & STATS: Site: Roberts Stadium (36,000) -- Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Television: CSS. Home Record: Rice 1-0, Southern Miss 2-0. Away Record: Rice 0-2, Southern Miss 1-1. Neutral Record: Rice 0-0, Southern Miss 0-0. Conference Record: Rice 0-0, Southern Miss 0-1. Series Record: Rice leads, 2-0.
GAME NOTES: The Southern Miss Golden Eagles will try to stay hot as they host the struggling Rice Owls in a Conference USA matchup on Saturday night at Roberts Stadium.
Coming off a bye week, Rice did not look very sharp in last Saturday's 56-31 loss at Baylor to fall to 1-2 on the season. The Owls' two losses have come on the road against a couple of nationally-ranked opponents in Texas and Baylor. However, they'll have to get used to playing in unfriendly confines as their schedule features seven road tilts and only five home games.
While this marks the first league tilt for Rice, the Golden Eagles opened their C-USA schedule with a 26-20 setback at Marshall on September 10, their only loss so far on the season. Since that setback, they have picked up two straight victories and put a total of 82 points on the board. Last weekend, they went on the road at Virginia and came away with a 30-24 win to move to 3-1.
Rice has won both prior meetings in the series with Southern Miss, although this marks the first between the two since 2008.
The good news for the Owls is that their offense has showed improvement in each week so far. After scoring just nine points in a season-opening loss at Texas, they scored 24 the following week against Purdue and then put 31 on the board at Baylor last weekend. The Owls gained 24 first downs and 416 yards, but they were simply unable to keep pace with the Bears and their high-octane offense. In any case, Rice's offense did score on all four of its trips to the red zone, coming away with touchdowns on three of those occasions. Taylor McHargue completed 23-of-38 passes for 260 yards with three TDs and an interception in the loss, as he spread the ball around to 10 different receivers. After three games, McHargue is averaging 189.7 yards per tilt while completing 58.3 percent of his passes. He has thrown five touchdowns against only one interception. However, he hasn't gotten a whole lot of help from the ground game, as Tyler Smith leads the team with 115 rushing yards so far on the season. As a team, the Owls are averaging a mere 3.4 yards per carry.
Barring a major turnaround from the defense, the Owls figure to find themselves in quite a few shootouts this season. After all, the unit ranks 107th in the nation in points allowed (37.3 ppg), and 115th in total defense (515 ypg). Worse yet, they have struggled equally against the pass and run, as opponents are averaging 5.2 yards per carry and nearly 240 yards per game on the ground, while opposing quarterbacks have completed nearly 70 percent of their pass attempts. Last Saturday, Rice was the latest defense that had no answer for BU star quarterback Robert Griffin III, the nation's leader in passing efficiency. In only three quarters of work, Griffin torched the Rice defense for 338 yards and five TDs though the air, while adding another 51 yards and a score on the ground. For the game, Rice allowed 33 first downs and 673 total yards as the Baylor offense did virtually anything it wanted.
Make no mistake, Southern Miss is studying the Rice-Baylor game tape long and hard this week. Considering the Golden Eagles' offense is already averaging better than 30 points per game, any defensive holes they can discover from the Baylor game will surely be put to the test. USM quarterback Austin Davis has put together back-to-back sound games, and he really came to play last week on the road at Virginia. In that game, Davis completed 27-of-41 passes for 313 yards and three touchdowns. Just as importantly, he did not throw an interception for the second straight game, after throwing four picks in the first two contests. If the Davis from the last two weeks shows up, the Owls will have their hands full. In the backfield, the running back tandem of Kendrick Hardy and Jamal Woodyard is averaging a combined 5.1 yards per carry. However, their workload has been relatively light as they've netted only 406 yards through four games.
Defensively, Southern Miss ranks third in the conference in both scoring defense (18.3 ppg) and total defense (320.3 ypg). The Golden Eagles are coming off another solid defensive effort last week at Virginia, as they held the Cavaliers to 374 total yards. Against the run, they limited the Cavs to a net average of 3.8 yards per carry, while the Golden Eagles also came away with three interceptions and allowed only one touchdown through the air. However, there are still some areas of improvement, not the least of which is coming up with stops in key situations. UVA was able to keep the chains moving by converting 9-of-19 third downs and 3-of-5 fourth downs for the game. The Cavs also scored on all four of their red-zone trips, three of which resulted in touchdowns. USM will once again turn to defensive leader Korey Williams, who paces the unit with 35 tackles, three interceptions and five passes defended.
This matchup features a pair of teams that appear to be headed in opposite directions. While the Owls were busy getting routed by Baylor in their latest outing, the Golden Eagles were building confidence with their second straight victory. Expect USM to make it three in a row in front of the hometown faithful.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Southern Miss 27, Rice 13
Saturday, October 1st, 7:30 p.m. (et).