THE MATCHUP: PITT (1-3) VS RICE (1-3)
WHEN: 12:00 P.M. EST
WHERE: HEINZ FIELD, PITTSBURGH, PA
HOW TO WATCH: AT&T SPORTS NET PITTSBURGH
HOW TO LISTEN: 93.7 THE FAN & THE PITT IMG SPORTS NETWORK
After seeing their opponent’s backup quarterback two weeks in a row, and not due to injury, the Pitt Panthers could really use a victory this weekend to revitalize their season. Luckily for Pitt, the struggling Rice Owls come to town Saturday, making a win in week-5 very attainable.
Under 11th year head coach David Bailiff, Rice entered the season looking to rebound from a subpar 3-9 record in 2016. With a 1-3 record, the Owls have regressed far from their 10-win 2013 campaign.
Rice began the season with a 62-7 blowout loss to Stanford in Sydney, Australia, but rebounded with a road win versus UTEP. After a 38-3 road loss to Houston in week-three, they fell at home last weekend to Florida International, 13-7. Despite their underwhelming record and non-Power 5 status, Coach Narduzzi warned those who may underestimate the Owls this weekend.
“They’re bigger and faster than you want them to be, as you think they are, to be honest with you,” he said during Monday’s press conference.
The Owls’ offense is struggling, scoring 7 points or fewer in three of their four contests. They favor the run, electing to run the ball on 63% of their plays thus far. Through the air, Rice is averaging 121.8 yards-per-game, ranking 122nd in the FBS. On the ground, they average 170.2 yards-per-game, distributing their carriers between all skill position players. Occasionally, their tight end will even receive a hand off on an end-around, so any skill player can carry the ball on a given play.
Just as with Georgia Tech last week, the Owls struggle with ball security; they have committed seven fumbles in four games, losing four of them to the opponent. Of course, turnovers only matter if a team can capitalize on their opponent’s mistakes. Against Georgia Tech, the Panthers failed to convert any of their 4 fumble recoveries into points.
Behind center, the Owls began the season starting redshirt freshman Sam Glaesmann. Glaesmann completed 22-of-45 passes for 229 yards, 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions before sustaining an injury during the loss to Houston. In Glaesmann’s absence, Rice has turned to Jackson Tyner, a 6-foot-5-inch, 245-pound sophomore. Tyner has produced very similar numbers in Glaesmann’s place, completing 24-of-48 passes for 241 yards, 1 interception and no touchdowns. With Glaesmann questionable for Saturday, it remains unclear which quarterback the Panthers will see take the field.
At running back, the Owls face quite a predicament. Samuel Stewart, Rice’s starter and leading rusher, is out. Without Stewart, the Owls must find a way to replace his production in both the running and passing games. The junior has registered 191 yards on 44 carries, and 10 receptions (team lead) for 109 yards. His primary backup, Nahshon Ellerbe, is questionable and may also miss the game.
One potential solution for the Owls may be to line the versatile Austin Walter up at tailback, where he does have experience. Standing at 5-feet-8-inches tall and 200-pounds, Walter is listed as a starter at wide receiver despite being considered a running back on the team’s website. He has 22 carries for 114 yards and 1 touchdown on the ground, with 4 receptions for 39 yards through the air. Walter may line up outside of the tackle, but his primary contributions come as a runner.
At wide receiver, the Owls have height, especially on the outside. Starters Kylen Granson and Lance Wright are both listed at 6-feet-3-inches tall, and their backups on the two-deep top 6-feet-3-inches, too. Aaron Cephus, a 6-foot-4 inch freshman, has been the most productive Owl wide receiver in 2017 with 7 receptions for 133 yards and a touchdown.
Up front, Rice’s offensive line returns four starters and is led by a pair of 2016 honorable mention All-Conference USA honorees: junior left tackle Calvin Anderson and senior center Trey Martin. On the season, the Owls’ line has allowed 9 total sacks.
The Owls’ offense must improve if they are to upset the Panthers. On Tuesday, coach Bailiff expressed that his offense will not improve, though, until they can reduce the amount of mistakes they make throughout a game.
“Last week, everybody took turns making a mistake,” he said, regarding his offense. “This play, it may be the center. The next play, it was the tackle. Next play, it was a route. It can’t be jazz. Everybody has to be in symphony and we haven’t been. It’s not effort. They’re playing extremely hard. We just have to get them all on the same page. You have to have 11 guys and you truly do have to have one heartbeat.”
Defensively, Rice implements a base 3-4 defense under first year defensive coordinator, Brian Stewart. Stewart was hired to revive an Owls’ defense that was abysmal in 2016, but as Pitt is learning with Coach Narduzzi’s system, some changes don’t come overnight. The Owls are allowing 410.0 yards-per-game, ranking 87th in the FBS. Their 274.5 passing yards allowed per-game ranks 108th in the FBS, one spot behind Pitt. However, they are tied for 13th in sacks-per-game, matching up well with a Pitt offensive line allowing 3.25 sacks-per-game (tied for 116th).
Anchoring the defense is 6-foot-2-inch, 300-pound nose tackle Zach Abercrumbia. Abercrumbia was a relatively big recruit for Rice, earning 3-stars by most recruiting services while holding offers from schools like Louisville, Stanford and TCU. He is flanked by junior Preston Gordon and sophomore Roe Wilkins.
Linebacker Emmanuel Ellerbee, a first-team All-Conference USA honoree in 2016, is the star on Rice’s defense. Ellerbee led C-USA in tackles-per-game last season (10.7) and continues to produce at a high rate in 2017; he has 42 total tackles with 4 tackles-for-loss and a sack. Will linebacker Brian Womac is the other backer to watch. Womac leads the team in sacks (4) and tackles-for-loss (7), and earned the praise of Coach Bailiff earlier this week.
“He just plays extremely hard and uses his technique,” said Bailiff. “His effort on every play he’s out there; you can tell he loves football by how he plays football. I think we’re 10th in the country in sacks right now and he’s leading the way. He’s inspired and he inspires people around him. He’s really turned into a really fine teammate.”
In the secondary, a pair of corners are in their first seasons as full-time starters in Brandon Douglas-Dotson and Justin Bickham. Free safety Destri White and strong safety J.T. Ibe return as starters, bringing experience to the secondary. Bickham is the only Owl to register an interception this year.
Below is this week’s statistical comparison:
|Points Per Game||20.0||37.0||12.0||31.8|
|Yards Gained Rushing||638||880||799||680|
|Yards Lost Rushing||135||85||118||138|
|Average Yards Per Rush||3.3||5.2||4.2||4.2|
|Average Yards Per Game||125.8||198.8||170.2||135.5|
|Average Yards Per Game||203.3||273.8||121.8||274.5|
|Average Yards Per Play||4.6||7.4||4.5||6.2|
|Average Yards Per Game||329.0||472.5||292.0||410.0|
|KICK RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||16-313||7-150||11-182||1-35|
|PUNT RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||7-146||5-54||5-48||11-69|
|INTERCEPTION – RETURN YARDS||3-2||4-60||1-0||3-2|
|KICK RETURN AVERAGE||19.6||21.4||16.5||35.0|
|PUNT RETURN AVERAGE||20.9||10.8||9.6||6.3|
|INTERCEPTION RETURN AVERAGE||0.7||15.0||0.0||0.7|
|FUMBLES – FUMBLES LOST||3-3||7-5||7-4||5-1|
|PENALTIES – YARDS||15-131||14-108||16-121||13-117|
|Average Per Game||32.8||27.0||30.2||29.2|
|PUNTS – YARDS||20-946||15-612||24-1091||15-653|
|Net Yards Per Punt||41.6||31.1||39.2||39.0|
|TIME OF POSSESSION PER GAME||32:20||27:40||30:41||29:19|
|4th Down Percentage||75%||75%||20%||43%|
|SACKS BY – YARDS||3-21||13-112||13-107||9-41|
Rice’s injury list is extensive and significant. Nahshon Ellerbe, quarterback Sam Glaesmann, kicker Will Harrison, wide receiver Cameron Montgomery, and safety Cole Thomas are questionable; cornerback V.J. Banks, running back Samuel Stewart and V.J. Banks are doubtful; defensive back D Angelo Ellis, offensive lineman Cory Klingler, defensive end Blain Padgett and wide receiver Aston Walter are out.
For Pitt, Dontavius Butler-Jenkins, Anthony McKee, Jr., and Phillipie Motley are out. Tre Tipton and Quintin Wirginis were previously lost for the season.
The third ever meeting between Pitt and Rice, and their first meeting since 1951, kicks off at 12:00 Saturday afternoon at Heinz Field (the Owls lead the series, 2-0). The game will be aired on AT&T Sportsnet Pittsburgh and can be heard on 93.7 the Fan. As always, Pittsburgh Sports Now and its staff will provide in-game updates and observations via Twitter.