Head to Head: Rice vs. Notre Dame
Observer Sports Staff | Thursday, August 28, 2014
Rice must replace quarterback Taylor McHargue, who threw for all but 150 of the Owls’ nearly 2,500 passing yards a season ago. Enter redshirt junior signal-caller Driphus Jackson, who has played in 21 career games but has made only one start during his three seasons with the Owls.
Jackson has completed just 51.8 percent of his career pass attempts (44-for-85), and the Cedar Hill, Texas, native could be without his top target in preseason all-conference receiver Jordan Taylor, who is battling a sore foot. Taylor, who Brian Kelly praised this week as a strong route-runner, has made 24 career starts and has racked up 112 total receptions in the last two seasons combined.
On top of that, Rice finished 2013 with the 103rd-ranked passing offense, averaging 178.2 yards per game. Will the Owls go to the air more in 2013?
Notre Dame’s pass defense certainly takes a hit without junior cornerback KeiVarae Russell, but the Irish are still deep in the secondary. Cody Riggs and Cole Luke shouldn’t have too much trouble holding down the perimeter, and Devin Butler and Matthias Farley can be successful on the interior.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
The Owls rumbled their way to the 17th-best rushing offense in the country last season, averaging a whopping 227.4 yards per game on the ground.
But Rice loses 63 percent of that rushing production with the departures of running back Charles Ross (1,280 yards in 2013), McHargue (464) and running back Turner Peterson (262).
Sophomore Jowan Davis and redshirt sophomore Darik Dillard are listed as the co-starters at running back, and both will be called on to continue Rice’s rushing success.
The Owls will go up against an inexperienced Notre Dame front seven. The Owls could find holes to exploit among a group that features five new starters. The Irish are undersized with linebackers Joe Schmidt and James Onwualu, but if they can hold up at the point of attack, Rice won’t be able to run completely rampant.
OWLS OFFENSIVE COACHING
There’s new coordinators all around this game, as Rice lost then-offensive coordinator John Reagan toward the end of last season. Kelly praised Rice’s offense for its creativity and innovation in 2013, so the logical question is how much of that carries over in 2014 without Reagan steering the ship.
Quarterbacks coach Larry Edmondson and wide receivers coach Billy Lynch are the co-offensive coordinators, and they’ll be tasked with producing a consistent unit despite new pieces at quarterback and running back, to name a few.
Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder is expected to be aggressive, and if he dials up pressure and exotic looks for Jackson, the inexperienced signal-caller could be forced into poor decisions.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
OWLS SPECIAL TEAMS
Punter James Farrimond earned a spot on the Ray Gay Award preseason watch list and was a third-team preseason All-Conference USA selection according to Athlon.
Rice added kicker James Hairston from LSU, where Hairston handled kickoff duties for three seasons, blasting 88 career touchbacks. Hairston’s leg could help Rice control some of the field position battle.
Chris Boswell, an All-Conference USA second-team choice in 2013, leaves a void in the field-goal game.
OWLS SCHEDULE (0-0)
Aug. 30 @ Notre Dame
Sept. 13 @ Texas A&M
Sept. 20 Old Dominion
Sept. 27 @ Southern Miss.
Oct. 4 Hawaii
Oct. 11 @ Army
Oct. 25 North Texas
Nov. 1 @ Florida International
Nov. 8 UTSA
Nov. 15 @ Marshall
Nov. 21 UTEP
Nov. 29 Louisiana Tech
This would be much closer to a landslide if the Irish had the services of senior receiver DaVaris Daniels on Saturday.
But they don’t.
That means Notre Dame’s active leading receiver will be junior Chris Brown, he of the 17 career receptions. Between Brown, sophomores Corey Robinson and Will Fuller, senior Amir Carlisle and junior C.J. Prosise, senior quarterback Everett Golson will have plenty of options.
The most reliable, at times, could be senior tight end Ben Koyack and the running backs.
But Golson, who will be making his first game appearance in 600 days, must face an experienced and talented Rice secondary. Kelly praised redshirt cornerback Bryce Callahan, who ranks third among returning FBS players with 11 career interceptions. In trusting Callahan, the Owls have the ability to play some man coverage on the perimeter.
Rice’s defense has been improving in recent years under defensive coordinator Chris Thurmond. Between Callahan and fellow defensive backs Julius White, Gabe Baker and Malcolm Hill, the Owls start four seniors with significant prior experience. They won’t be fooled easily by the Irish.
The Owls finished in the middle of the pack defensively last season against the run, allowing 161.4 yards per contest.
Notre Dame must really zero in on containing Owls defensive tackle Christian Covington, who led the team with 11.5 tackles for loss last year as a sophomore. Covington is a preseason third-team All-American, according to Phil Steele, and a consensus preseason all-conference choice. Kelly said Covington will be one of the better players Notre Dame faces all season long and praised his physicality and constant activity.
But Notre Dame’s running backs are more than a one-man band. In fact, they form a three-headed monster. Expect senior Cam McDaniel and sophomores Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston all to make plays in the season opener. It will be interesting to see how the rotation shakes out and if Kelly and Irish offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock elect to ride the hot hands at certain times.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
IRISH OFFENSIVE COACHING
Denbrock is in his first season as the team’s offensive coordinator, but Kelly will be the one calling the plays Saturday. The Irish are looking to play faster offensively, and Kelly has personnel that fits his ideal.
Much of Notre Dame’s offensive success will come down to its performance in the red zone. The Irish have struggled there in recent years, but Notre Dame thinks it has found some answers.
Don’t look past Thurmond defensively. The fourth-year coordinator has had the Owls causing turnovers and limiting points, as Rice finished with the No. 42 scoring defense in the country in 2013.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
IRISH SPECIAL TEAMS
It’d be difficult for Notre Dame’s special teams to be worse in 2014, especially as it relates to kick coverage and punt returns.
Kelly thinks the Irish have found some answers in both those areas, but until they become apparent, there’s ample reason to doubt the Irish on special teams.
Keep an eye, however, on new return men Cody Riggs and Greg Bryant (punts) and Amir Carlisle (kicks). They could add needed life.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
IRISH SCHEDULE (0-0)
Aug. 30 Rice
Sept. 6 Michigan
Sept. 13 vs. Purdue
Sept. 27 Syracuse
Oct. 4 Stanford
Oct. 11 North Carolina
Oct. 18 @ Florida State
Nov. 1 vs. Navy
Nov. 8 @ Arizona State
Nov. 15 Northwestern
Nov. 22 Louisville
Nov. 29 @ USC