Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. Rice Owls Complete Game Preview
After an eventful preseason camp, Notre Dame will kickoff its 2014 season when Rice visits South Bend on Saturday afternoon. Coming off a 10-win season, David Bailiff's Owls hardly resemble the previous Rice squads that went winless against Notre Dame, with those past teams only managing a single touchdown in the four games between the two programs.
For Brian Kelly's Irish, it's an opportunity to see Everett Golson back on the football field, his first game in over 600 days. It's also the debut of new coordinators Mike Denbrock and Brian VanGorder, with expectations set for both units if Notre Dame wants to challenge for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
With Kelly pronouncing that the Irish's four academically suspended players will miss Saturday's game on Tuesday, it means the team will be without starters DaVaris Daniels, KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams. But Rice has suffered a few injuries during fall camp, including a foot injury to star receiver Jordan Taylor that has him still questionable for Saturday.
The last time Notre Dame played Rice, Lou Holtz's Irish squad kicked off their 1988 national championship season with a 54-11 victory. Let's take a closer look at Saturday's matchup.
Date: Saturday, Aug. 30
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
Place: Notre Dame Stadium, Notre Dame, Indiana
Radio: IMG College Sports, SiriusXM Channel 129
Spread: Notre Dame -21, according to Vegas Insider
Notre Dame Keys to Victory
Hold onto the Football and Dictate Terms on Offense
When Notre Dame opened up the 2011 season at home, the offense short-circuited early and often, imploding against Skip Holtz's USF team with five turnovers and helping the Bulls to pull off a shocking 23-20 upset. As Everett Golson returns to action, it'll be critical that he takes care of the football and makes good decisions.
Capable of running the football, the Irish need to establish the ground game and allow Golson to get a feel for the playing again, something Kelly talked about on Tuesday.
"We need to be cognizant of that fact that this will be his first game since playing against Alabama," Kelly said. "We need to get him into the game...have some success early on with him and get him into the flow of the game. I think once he starts to get comfortable playing the game at fast pace, then we just call the game like we normally would. But I think we need to get him off to a good start."
There will be butterflies in the stomachs of all players, and you especially can't blame Golson if he struggles to control his emotions early on Saturday. But by keeping the Irish in smart circumstances and dictating the terms of the game up front, Kelly can help his quarterback get his feet wet and ease into things.
Eliminate Mental Mistakes and Big Plays on Defense
After former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco built his defense around avoiding big plays and keeping the opponents scoring opportunities down, new coordinator Brian VanGorder will finally unveil an attacking defense that has been long discussed but still never seen.
But aggression means a new set of risks for the Irish defense. And with a large group of inexperienced defenders getting their first taste of action, VanGorder's troops need to make sure they eliminate the big plays, forcing Rice to earn every point they put up.
Quarterback Driphus Jackson brings a run threat to the Owls offense, capable of moving the chains with his legs, especially if the Irish secondary is locked up in man coverage. Giving up first downs isn't going to kill Notre Dame. Giving up the big play over the top will.
All along the two-deep, Irish defenders will be getting their first taste of game action. Staying in the moment and playing within the system will be key for Notre Dame's rebuilt defense.
Rice Keys to Victory
Get Off to a Good Start
If there's one thing Rice needs to do on Saturday, it's make sure it stays in the game early. David Bailiff's defense has shown that ability, holding 22 of the Owls' last 23 opponents scoreless on their opening drive.
The Owls have been dominant early in football games. In their last 16 games, the Owls have yet to allow a point on opening drives, forcing nine punts, creating six turnovers and surviving a missed field goal. If Rice can manufacture some offense early and keep the Irish off the scoreboard, playing with a lead could completely dictate the terms of the game.
Craft a Game Plan That Keeps the Clock Moving
Last year, the Owls led Conference USA in rushing yards while finishing 12th in the country in time of possession. Paired with an Irish offense that plans to move quickly, a recipe for success could be to limit touches for the Irish offense and play situational football.
Having Driphus Jackson as a runner should take some of the pressure off a ground game that's likely going to be by committee. Add in cornerback Bryce Callahan, who currently sits at third nationally among active players with 11 interceptions, and the Owls can take a few shots at creating pressure with Christian Covington and hope that the Irish get sloppy with the football. From there, they should let the clock run and make sure they get production out of their offense.
Last year, Rice played stingy defense on its way to a conference title. With only five starters returning, they'll need to manufacture enough defense but, more importantly, play good defense by keeping the Irish offense off the field.
Notre Dame Players to Watch
Greg Bryant, Tarean Folston and Cam McDaniel
Notre Dame's three-headed running back monster will be going against a rebuilt defensive front outside of Covington. With Bryant having patiently sat out with a medical redshirt after being shut down early last year, expect the sophomore to try and make up for lost time on Saturday.
In Folston, the Irish have a back who can be a star and also be a key contributor in the passing game. Add to the mix the senior McDaniel, who grew up in the state of Texas, and all three backs will want to put their stamp on the game.
Notre Dame's next star linebacker makes his first start from the middle of the Irish defense. We'll see fairly quickly how he'll impact the game. Will Brian VanGorder use Smith as a pass-rusher, coming off the edge to wreak havoc? Will he lend support in coverage?
Smith avoided talking about his statistical goals during his media day appearance. But expect a big day at the office for Smith come Saturday.
Rice Players to Watch
Expect the Irish to do everything they can to force Jackson to beat them with his arm. As mentioned before, he could be without top receiver Jordan Taylor. He'll definitely be without starting tight end Connor Cella, who will miss four to six weeks with a fractured rib.
Jackson has played a lot of football, but he will be making only his second start. Finding a way to keep him out of rhythm will be key for the Irish defense.
Up front, Covington might be a one-man army for the Owls. Kelly paid him more than a few compliments on Tuesday, looking back at his game tape against a very talented Texas A&M offensive line.
"I think he is one of the better guys, very active, physical. Watching him against some All‑Americans at Texas A&M and what he did, Covington can play against the best in the country," Kelly said. "[He's] a guy we have a great deal of respect for and will be considered one of the better players that we play against all year."
Covington won't have much help up front, with Stuart Mouchantaf out after suffering an offseason knee injury and Derek Brown being held out as well. That will leave Covington to pick up the slack while new starters Brian Nordstrom and Zach Pratt get their chance.
What They're Saying
While some are dismissing Rice as a warm-up for Michigan, it's clear that Brian Kelly isn't taking the Owls lightly.
"It is certainly a football team in Rice that we have a great deal of respect for," Kelly said. "I do for David Bailiff. He has done a great job, worked his way up through the ranks, like I have as well. Now, over the last couple of years, [he] has done some things at Rice that nobody has done in years."
Meanwhile, Bailiff is being smart with his star receiver Jordan Taylor, only willing to play him if he's healthy, especially with a Conference USA title to defend.
"If he’s pain-free he’ll play," Bailiff told the Houston Chronicle's Joseph Duarte. "If not, we’re going to hold him. We’re going to be smart with him."
It's not all negatives with Kelly's defense. His defenders might be young, but that doesn't mean they can't be good.
"Defensively, it's one of the more inexperienced groups, but it's probably one of the more athletic groups, too," Kelly said.
Notre Dame 40, Rice 17
If this was last year's Rice team, maybe the Irish would be on upset alert. But with the Owls needing to replace over half of their starters and having already been hit hard during preseason camp with injuries, I just can't see them having enough firepower to hang with a Notre Dame team that's very talented on offense.
Ultimately, the Irish run away with this football game.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.