Notre Dame Football: Pre-Spring Opponent Preview: Rice
In recent years, Notre Dame has added some unfamiliar opponents to its football schedule. Western Michigan, USF and Temple all have met the Irish for the first time during Brian Kelly’s tenure. 2014 will feature only one first-time opponent (Louisville), but the Irish’s season opener against Rice will be just the fifth meeting between the two academically prestigious universities.
The Owls surprised many by winning a watered-down Conference USA title last season dropping just one league game and hammering Marshall 41-24 in the Conference USA Championship Game. A third-year starting quarterback and a senior-laden defense propelled the Owls to their second double-digit win season in six years.
Losses are significant for the 2014 Owls, but Conference USA bids farewell to three of its better programs (East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa) while adding Western Kentucky from the Sun Belt and Old Dominion from the FCS. Can a school with fewer than 4,000 students repeat as conference champions?
Rice begins spring practice March 11 and will hold its spring game April 11. Let’s take an early look at the 2014 Owls.
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Date: Aug. 30 (3:30 p.m. ET, NBC)
Location: Notre Dame Stadium (Notre Dame, Ind.)
Last Meeting: Notre Dame 54, Rice 11 (1988)
Last Meeting at Notre Dame: Notre Dame 54, Rice 11 (1988)
Current Win Streak: Notre Dame—4
Record: 10-4 (7-1 Conference USA)
Bowl: Liberty Bowl (lost to Mississippi State, 44-7)
Leading Passer: Taylor McHargue (Sr.)—169-of-324, 2,345 yards, 17 TD, 8 INT
Leading Rusher: Charles Ross (Sr.)—211 carries, 1,280 yards, 15 TD
Leading Receiver: Jordan Taylor (Jr.)—55 receptions, 848 yards, 8 TD
Stats That Matter
Yards Per Play: Rice—5.51 (78th nationally, sixth in C-USA); Opponents—5.58 (68th nationally, seventh in C-USA)
Turnover Margin: +7 (29th nationally, fifth in C-USA)
Red Zone Touchdown Percentage: Rice—76.92 percent (sixth nationally, second in C-USA); Opponents—63.04 percent (78th nationally, ninth in C-USA)
Third-Down Conversions: Rice—39.35 percent (72nd nationally, eighth in C-USA); Opponents—34.91 percent (27th nationally, third in C-USA)
Explosive Plays*: Rice—57 (70th nationally, fourth in C-USA); Opponents—58 (65th nationally, ninth in C-USA)
*Explosive plays are plays in which a team gains 20-plus yards.
When David Bailiff replaced Todd Graham as head coach prior to the 2007 season, Rice looked much like many of the other spread-to-pass offenses in Texas with all-time leading passer Chase Clement. Since Clement’s departure after the 2008 season, the Owls have gradually become more of a running team.
McHargue was a part-time starter for two seasons before assuming the full-time role in 2012. He never completed more than 60 percent of his passes in any season but kept plays alive with his mobility totaling more than 1,100 yards on the ground and 16 touchdowns in his final two seasons.
As Rice prepares for life without McHargue, don’t expect many philosophical changes. Junior Driphus Jackson played in eight games last season finishing with 27 carries and 16 pass attempts.
As a recruit, Jackson was featured in MTV’s The Ride, a miniseries that documented a training program for high school quarterbacks that culminated with Jackson winning an invite to the 2011 U.S. Army All-American Bowl.
After rushing for almost 1,300 yards last year and being named to the All-Conference USA team, Charles Ross closed his Rice career at No. 2 on the Owls all-time career rushing list. At 230 pounds, Ross was the type of power back we don’t see as much anymore in an era of spread offenses.
With Ross gone, Rice will turn to a pair of sophomores. Jawon Davis burst onto the scene a year ago as a true freshman with 95 carries and 476 yards. He’s only 5’7”, but a low center of gravity makes him a challenge to not only find but bring down. Davis hails from Sealy, Texas the same town that produced SMU and NFL legend Eric Dickerson.
After redshirting in 2012, Darik Dillard joined the running back fray last season earning 82 carries and playing in all 14 games. Dillard’s older brother, Jarrett, was an All-American receiver for the Owls in the mid-2000s. Rice will miss Ross’ power, but Davis and Dillard should minimize the drop-off in production.
Gone are the days when Jarrett Dillard was putting up 1,300-yard seasons in Houston. Rice completed only 177 passes last season—10 or fewer in half of its 14 games. While the statistics won’t wow anyone, this group is the most experienced of any on the team.
Senior Jordan Taylor, who needs less than 700 yards to reach No. 2 all-time (behind Dillard), was a model of consistency last season catching multiple passes in all but one game. At 6’5”, he poses a matchup problem for opposing defenses, particularly in the red zone, where the Owls thrived a year ago.
Junior Dennis Parks was No. 2 on the team last season with 508 yards, including a career-high 75 in a win over Tulane that clinched a Conference USA Championship Game berth for Rice. Sophomore tight end Connor Cella caught 13 passes last season as a freshman.
The 37 sacks allowed last season don’t look good on paper, but it’s important to consider McHargue’s role. Extending plays, as McHargue so often did, doesn’t always lead to a good result. McHargue took a lot of sacks, but it was a calculated risk that often paid dividends.
Three starters return for the Owls this season. Perhaps the two most important positions on the line, however, left tackle and center, will have new starters. Center Nate Richards was a junior college All-American in 2011 before transferring and finished his career as an All-Conference USA selection last year.
Replacing Richards won’t be easy.
The guard positions are in great shape, as third-year starter Nico Carlson and fourth-year starter Drew Carroll are back on the left and right side, respectively. Right tackle Caleb Williams also returns. There will be competition to replace two-year starting left tackle Jon Hoode.
A strong defensive line helped Rice jump 28 spots in the national run defense rankings from 2012 to 2013. A pair of senior defensive ends and All-Conference USA selection Christian Covington were pivotal in the Owls’ climb from seven wins to 10.
After losing returning starting tackle Hosam Shahin in the summer due to personal reasons, Covington and classmate Ross Winship stepped in to stabilize the defensive front. They both return with Covington a viable candidate to be Defensive Player of the Year in Conference USA.
The end positions are an obvious concern. Cody Bauer and Tanner Leland depart after solid seasons. Bauer’s 5.5 sacks led the Owls. Senior Zach Patt is the only member of last year’s two-deep to return. Patt and junior Brian Nordstrom, who played in all 14 games last year, appear to be in line to start.
Rice plays the trendy 4-2-5 defense, so only two linebackers are on the field at most times. James Radcliffe has been a mainstay at weakside linebacker since 2012. At just 220 pounds, he’s undersized, but Rice, one of the most rigorous universities academically in the FBS, has a limited pool of players from which to recruit.
Radcliffe and his 23 career starts return, but the Owls aren’t so fortunate on the strong side. After a knee injury sidelined two-year starter Cameron Nwosu for the season, Michael Kutzler stepped in and led the Owls with 96 tackles.
Kutzler now departs, while Nwosu graduated and elected to use his final season of eligibility elsewhere. Sophomore Alex Lyons played in every game last season as a redshirt freshman finishing with 32 tackles.
The Owls play five defensive backs, using a hybrid position known as the “KAT”. Last year’s veteran group had five returning starters and lived up to expectations finishing 18th nationally in pass defense.
Three of the five are back led by second-team All-Conference USA cornerback Bryce Callahan. The 5’10” senior had three interceptions last year and has made 30 career starts. Speedster Phillip Gaines, who ran a 4.38 40-yard dash last month at the NFL combine, is a key loss at other cornerback spot.
Both safeties, Julius White and Malcolm Hill, return after combining for five interceptions in 2013. Paul Porras departs at the KAT position after 40 career starts. Senior Jaylon Finner played in every game last year as Porras’ backup after missing the entire 2012 season while injured.
Chris Boswell converted 65 field goal attempts in four years at Rice. The Owls now will be looking for a new placekicker for the first time since 2010. Junior James Farrimond has attempted only one kick in his career—a missed extra point in the 2012 Armed Forces Bowl.
Farrimond served as the team’s punter last season averaging just over 42 yards per punt in 71 attempts. He surprisingly won the job in fall camp over the more highly touted Cameron Decell. Whether Farrimond will perform double duty this year is an unknown heading into the spring.
Rice uses two of its defensive backs on returns—Hill for kickoffs and Callahan for punts. Neither posted dazzling numbers last season with Hill averaging 21.6 yards per kick return and Callahan 6.3 yards per punt return. The Owls did not have a return touchdown last season.
After bringing back 19 starters last season, 2014 will be a bit of a transition year for the Owls. There’s enough talent to compete for a second straight league title, but do they have the personnel to threaten Notre Dame in the season opener?
Jackson will cause the Fighting Irish some problems, but if he fails to improve as a passer from where he was a year ago, the Owls are probably too one-dimensional to compete against Top-25 opponents.
Rice went 2-0 in the past two seasons against Brian Kelly’s predecessor, Charlie Weis. It is unlikely to experience a similar fate against Kelly. However, the Owls are a far superior opponent than Temple, which the Irish defeated in the 2013 season opener. Notre Dame fans should expect a few moments of panic on Aug. 30, but shouldn’t feel any serious threat of defeat.