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With a conference championship bid for UTSA and a bowl game invitation on the line for Rice, there’s certainly a lot for both teams to play for this Saturday. In anticipation of a great game this weekend, we spent some times with Matthew Bartlett of The Roost to learn more about the Owls’ season thus far.
Alamodome Audible: It seems that Mike Bloomgren’s Owls have gotten a bit better each season, but still appear to be a step away from competing for conference championships. If you had to pick one or two things, what do the Owls most need to make happen to take that next step?
Matthew Bartlett: It’s maddening to say at times, but I do believe this team is close to being there. Turnovers have torpedoed the Owls in most of their games this year. They rank dead last in turnover margin in Conference USA. If the Owls are at least league average in this department, they pick up another win or two in conference and they’re in the conference race. It’s not quite that simple, but the talent and depth are certainly good enough to compete in this league, as exhibited by wins over UAB (x2) and Marshall in recent years.
AA: I heard you guys call quarterback TJ McMahon “capital G Good” on your podcast recently. What differentiates McMahon from the many different starting quarterbacks the Owls have had over the past few years?
MB: He’s done a really good job of being resilient. In years past, bad outings have snowballed on Rice quarterbacks. He’s had games where he’s thrown three interceptions in the first half, adjusted, and come out and been near-flawless in the second half. He’s still only a first-year starter with room to grow. but from drive to drive, nothing phases him. He has a good command of the Owls’ complex offense and can make all the throws and can hurt opposing teams with his legs, too.
AA: Rice’s performances this year have been quite erratic. It’s hard to reconcile the UAB win with the loss to Charlotte, as an example. Have there been any commonalities across Rice’s disappointing performances?
MB: See above. Turnovers. Rice has had a positive turnover margin in two games this season (vs UAB, vs McNeese State). They won both of those games. The other commonality in the recent defeats has been defense on third down. Rice has given up a lot of big plays on third and long that have extended drives and given opposing offenses extra chances to score, which they’ve largely capitalized on.
AA: Where have you seen the biggest improvement in the program compared to last year?
MB: The offense is night and day different. The receiving corps, when healthy, is one of the best in Conference USA. Bradley Rozner and Luke McCaffrey have traded off 100+ yard games and each provided game-winning caliber play. Having a healthy quarterback has been a part of that success, but the talent as whole on that side of the ball has come a long way. Rice can score on 10-play, seven-minute drives and 4-play, 90-second drives. That latter is a very new thing around South Main.
AA: Where do you feel the Owls match up best with the Roadrunners this week?
MB: There’s a decent chance the trenches decide this game. I think the Owls have the advantage with their defensive line compared to the Roadrunners’ offensive line. Rice has at least one, if not a couple of pro-caliber players on that front and have found a way to get pressure on opposing offenses. If they can slow Frank Harris, that would be huge. On the other side, can the Rice o-line hold up against the UTSA front? That’s a more open-ended question, but it could have major repercussions in the path this game goes.
Thanks again to Matt for always being a huge help and keeping us informed on the Owls’ program! Be sure to check out their most recent podcast episode below.
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