Tulsa is now in the thick of its conference schedule and hits the road to face Rice in Houston. The Owls (2-4) are struggling on both sides of the ball and present an opportunity for TU to pick up its second league road win if they play well.
Here is a look at this week's match-up for the Golden Hurricane, as they attempt to stay undefeated in conference play.
When Tulsa has the Ball
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Rice has routinely fielded one of the worst defenses in the country and 2011 has been no different through six games.
Rice currently ranks 118 out of 120 schools in the country, allowing 472.3 yards per game. This comes as no surprise given the fact that the Owls have ranked in the bottom 20 in both total and scoring defense since head coach David Bailiff arrived in Houston four years ago.
The good news if you're a Rice fan is the Owls have actually improved on defense over the last two games. After allowing a combined 41 points to Memphis and Marshall, Rice 'improved' to 95th in scoring defense, allowing just under 32 points per game.
It is worth noting Rice's defensive improvement against two Conference USA teams, because like Tulsa, the Owls faced a brutal non-conference schedule. Rice was the only team in America to play its entire non-conference schedule against BCS opponents. The Owls faced Texas, Purdue and Baylor before starting conference play.
One thing the Owls do well on defense is put pressure on the quarterback. That will be a big key this week when facing the red-hot G.J. Kinne. When Kinne has time in the pocket, he's close to unstoppable, so Rice will try and make him as uncomfortable as possible. The Owls rank in the top 40 with 14 sacks on the season.
The strength of Rice's defense is at the linebacker position. Justin Allen and Cam Nwosu have combined to make 124 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss through six games. Those numbers are even more impressive when you consider Allen and Nwosu are both first-year starters.
The Golden Hurricane have averaged over 50 points per game in their last four meetings with Rice, and it could be more of the same on Saturday, as the Owls come in banged up on defense. Cornerback Phillip Gaines and safety Gabe Baker are both expected to miss the game, while cornerback Chris Jammer suffered a concussion last week against Marshall, and his status is also in doubt.
It's not a good time to have injuries in the defensive backfield. Since playing against Boise State with an injured knee, Kinne has been close to perfect. He's thrown for 655 yards and six scores in his last two games. Unlike earlier in the year, Kinne has started to spread the ball around more. Bryan Burnham, Willie Carter, Jordan James and tight end Clay Sears have all had a big impact in recent weeks.
While the passing game is humming, Tulsa has found a ground game to go along with it thanks in large part to Ja'Terian Douglas. The sophomore rumbled for 137 yards on just 14 carries last week against UAB. Douglas has now eclipsed 100 yards in two of his last four games, and he's averaging a robust 8.1 yards per carry on the season. Douglas should see a lot of running room against a Rice defense that allows 229 yards per game on the ground.
One area Tulsa needs to improve in is turnovers. The Golden Hurricane committed four turnovers last week and they now rank next to last nationally in turnover margin. Tulsa has more talent than Rice, but turnovers can be a big equalizer when playing on the road.
When Rice has the Ball
Rice was expected to have a prolific offense in 2011, but so far that hasn't been the case. The Owls have only scored 13 touchdowns in six games. Most surprising has been Rice's lack of a passing game. The once high-flying Owls are averaging just 188 yards per game through the air this season.
The big problem for Rice has been its offensive line. Center Keshawn Carrington and right tackle Tyler Parrish came into the year as starters but have both been benched for poor play. Meanwhile, left tackle Jack Hicks and left guard Davon Allen have been battling injuries and neither is 100 percent.
Things won't get any better this week for Rice. In Tulsa's three games against Tulane, North Texas and UAB, the Golden Hurricane defense has controlled the line of scrimmage and allowed very little on the ground.
Rice's running game has been sputtering to begin with, so it's unlikely to get on track this week against Tulsa. Big things were expected from last year's leading rusher and Michigan transfer, Sam McGuffie. However, McGuffie has only managed 250 total yards through six games and has basically been a non-factor. Rice's leading rusher on the year is Tyler Smith, who has recorded 265 yards.
Starting quarterback Taylor McHargue is dealing with a concussion and his status for Saturday's game is up in the air. McHargue has thrown for 1,029 yards and eight touchdowns this year, but if he can't go, Rice will turn to backup Nick Fanuzzi. Fanuzzi started much of last season, but he struggled against Marshall when he relieved McHargue, completing just one pass.
Another possibility at quarterback is true freshman Driphus Jackson. The dual threat Jackson hasn't played yet this year, but there's a chance Rice could take the redshirt off him if Fanuzzi struggles early in the game.
Since Bailiff took over as head coach, Rice has been known for playing wild, high-scoring games, but that hasn't been the case this year because of the offense's struggles. The Owls will need to fix their offensive problems in a hurry. Their defense simply isn't good enough to shut down Tulsa. Rice will need to score some points this week if it plans on pulling the upset.
The Final Verdict
Rice is a desperate team right now and a desperate team playing at home is always dangerous. However, Tulsa holds a pretty big edge in every aspect of this game. The Golden Hurricane has the much better offense, and Tulsa's defense has done the job against teams it's supposed to beat.
Expect Rice to come out strong and make this a game for a while, but sooner or later, Tulsa's talent and depth will take over. The Golden Hurricane should take care of business on the road and remain undefeated in conference play.