UTSA (2-3, 1-1 in C-USA) vs. Rice (0-5, 0-3)
Kickoff: 6 p.m., Saturday, Rice Stadium, Houston
Last meeting: UTSA 34, Rice 24, Nov. 21, 2015, Alamodome
Series record: Rice leads 3-1
SAN ANTONIO – What a difference a week can make.
Last Saturday, nobody gave UTSA much chance of staying within shouting distance of Southern Miss, then in sole possession of first place in the West Division of Conference USA.
By 2:30 that afternoon, the Roadrunners had not only upset the Golden Eagles, they’d plucked them clean in a 55-32 beatdown at the Alamodome.
Seven days later, UTSA is a solid favorite against a Rice team still looking for its first victory of the season. The Owls lost to Southern Miss 44-28 in their last game two weeks ago, giving up 702 total yards and getting torched for 591 passing yards by Nick Mullens, who threw four touchdown passes.
UTSA players stressed during the week that they wouldn’t be lulled into taking Rice lightly, regardless of the Owls’ record.
“Rice is going to compete,” junior wide receiver Josh Stewart said. “They’re going to fight hard. The thing is, we try not to get too high with a win and not get too low with the losses. We’re just going to play even-keeled, and attack this week just like we do every other week.”
Coming off a bye week, Rice will face a UTSA team brimming with confidence after ending a three-game skid with its record-setting demolition of Southern Miss. Playing with a sense of urgency to put together a complete game, the Roadrunners scored on their first four possessions to take a 28-0 lead.
Lest his players get overconfident, UTSA coach Frank Wilson reminded them at every turn this week that the Roadrunners have yet to beat Rice in Houston. The Owls were 3-0 in the series, 2-0 at Rice Stadium, before UTSA won last year’s meeting 34-24 at the Alamodome.
“David Bailiff is a class act,” Wilson said, referring to the Rice head coach, a 1976 MacArthur High School graduate. “Year in and year out, he gets his teams prepared to win. They’ll be coming off a bye week, and I’m more than sure they’ll be prepared to play a real good game at home.
“The reality is we haven’t shown the ability to go to Houston and be victorious there, so that’s something we certainly desire to do. They run the ball very well. They’re a solid football team, so we’ll need to be prepared to play them well.”
Wilson’s message apparently has gotten through to his players.
“We haven’t won at Rice yet, so we have to make that happen,” senior safety Michael Egwuagu said. “In order to be the type of program that we want to be, we have to make that happen.”
UTSA piled up a school-record 532 total yards – 339 rushing and 193 passing – in its rout of Southern Miss. The Roadrunners had 272 yards – 116 rushing and 156 passing – in the first quarter alone, a program record for the most yards in one-quarter.
Wilson was asked what his team has to do to sustain the momentum it generated last week.
“It becomes part of our DNA,” he said. “It’s kind of like someone decides I’m going to go on a diet. It can be your diet, or it can be your way of life. And so our way of life is going to become 60 minutes, four quarters, and finish until the end. It’s not a fad or some trick we’re going to do one time and not again. We’ll consistently build that into our DNA.”
The Roadrunners also had some outstanding individual performances in the decisive victory against Southern Miss. Sophomore running back Jalen Rhodes had a career-high 165 yards and tied a school record with three TDs.
Senior running back Jarveon Williams broke out of an early-season slump with 122 rushing yards and two TDs. He set up Rhodes’ last TD with a school-record 92-yard run. It also went into the books as the longest play in UTSA history.
Last week’s rushing performance was a major breakthrough for the Roadrunners’ offense, which had gained only 385 yards rushing for a 96.3 average in its first four games this season. Williams, who last year became the first UTSA player to rush for 1,000 yards, had gained only 131 yards on 45 carries for a paltry 2.9 average.
“As the team goes, the offensive line goes,” Wilson said. “Everything else will fall into place – the run game, the passing game, protection. Big men lead this team, so whether it’s offense or defense, big men are going to dictate the tempo and temperament of our football team.”
Junior quarterback Dalton Sturm also had a coolly efficient game, completing 10 of 12 passes for 193 yards and a TD.
“You look for efficiency for your quarterback,” Wilson said. “He goes 12 of 14 (10 of 12, actually), he manages the game, he controls the clock, he gets us in the right run check or the right pass check, and you do all the little things that sometimes statistically don’t show up, but from a team standpoint, it gives your team an advantage in all of those aspects. We were thrilled with the job that he did.”
The defense also had its standouts. Redshirt freshman linebacker Josiah Tauaefa continued his torrid pace with a game-high 12 tackles and the first interception of his career late in the fourth quarter. Junior safety Nate Gaines finished with 10 tackles, a pair of pass breakups and a forced fumble.
Mullens still had a productive game in the loss, completing 24 of 47 passes for 370 yards and three TDs. But his passing-yardage total was far below what it was in the victory against Rice.
Wilson praised Tauaefa for his work on and off the field.
“I’ve just been very pleased with his attention to detail, his studying of the opponent,” Wilson said. “You saw that last Monday when it was 8 or 9 o’clock and we have players on their own, volunteering to come in and watch film. They want to know our opponent best, and he’s (Tauaefa) one of those guys that’s a film rat. He just wants to put himself into position to make plays.”
Tauaefa was unavailable for comment because Wilson has a policy that prohibits freshmen or redshirt freshmen from speaking to the media.