And in that corner… The Rice Owls

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Notre Dame opens the 2014 season with a visit from Rice on Saturday afternoon. While on paper, a matchup with the Conference USA squad looks like it could be a good way to get the rust off, taking the Owls lightly would be a large mistake.

Head coach David Bailiff has slowly built up his program, with 2013 the high-water mark. The Owls won their conference and 10 games, relying on a strong ground game, an inventive offense and a stingy defense.

To get us ready for the Owls, the Houston Chronicle‘s Joseph Duarte was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about Rice. With just 10 starters back, the Owls will certainly look different than they did last season, though they’ve got some returning weapons that make for a good challenge.

Hope you enjoy.

 

Q: Coming off a 10-win season and a Conference USA title, Rice is the type of opening game opponent that might not draw headlines, but certainly deserves some respect. For those of us getting our first look at the Owls, tell us about head coach David Bailiff and the work he’s done building this program.

After a 10-win campaign in Bailiff’s second season – fueled by one of the nation’s top pass-catch combos in Chase Clement and Jarett Dillard – the Owls went 2-10, 4-8 and 4-8 and there were rumblings about his job security. But a funny thing happened on the way to the unemployment line: the Owls got hot during the second half of the 2012 season, becoming bowl eligible on the final day, and have been on a roll ever since.

Rice has won 15 of its last 19 games, matching the best two-year stretch in the 102-year history of the football, and is coming off a second straight bowl appearance. With his Texas roots, Bailiff has proven to be the right fit for the academic-first Owls program and is well-respected and liked by his players. He received a new five-year contract this offseason.

 

Q: Driphus Jackson takes over at quarterback after playing a supporting role in 2012 and 2013. All reports show a very capable athlete. Is he the type of quarterback that can break open a game with his legs? Will he be able to take advantage of some very solid wide receiver depth the Owls return?

Jackson isn’t your typical first-year starter, having received plenty of meaningful snaps the last two seasons as an injury replacement for former starter Taylor McHargue (graduation). He’s pulled off two big rallies in his brief career, a second-half comeback to beat Air Force in the 2012 Armed Forces Bowl and against Kansas in 2013. McHargue was a running threat, and that will continue with Jackson.

While the coaching staff knows Jackson can take off at any moment the big test early on will be how he develops a comfort level in the pocket and takes advantage of what should be a deep receiving corps, led by Jordan Taylor (55 receptions, 848 yards, 8 TDs) and Dennis Parks (29 receptions, 508 yards, 3 TDs). One injury-related note out of camp: starting tight end Connor Cella will be out 4-to-6 weeks with a fractured rib.

 

Q: It looks like Rice has a star along the defensive line in Christian Covington, and then it gets pretty dicey. After a solid defense propelled the Owls last season, the ability to reload is in question. With a lack of size up front, do you expect Notre Dame’s large offensive line to try and win a power game?

The defensive line is the Owls’ biggest concern. Covington is on most of the major preseason awards lists and could become a rarity at Rice and leave for the NFL a year early as a projected first-rounder. Rice had counted on a formidable inside combo of Covington and Stuart Mouchantaf, but those plans were derailed when Mouchantaf suffered a knee injury in the offseason. The Owls also went through camp without Derek Brown, who was expected to start but has been absent due to an undisclosed reason. Even so, the Owls will break in a pair of new inexperienced players at defensive end (junior Brian Nordstrom and senior Zach Patt).

 

Q: For Notre Dame fans getting their first look at the Owls, who are the playmakers on both sides of the ball that could be primed for big games?

On offense, Jordan Taylor has a knack for making big catches. He sat out most of the last week of camp with a sore foot but that was as a precaution and he is expected to be fine for the season opener. He is a big part of the offense and a regular target for Jackson.

On defense, keep an eye on senior cornerback Bryce Callahan. Last year the Owls had Phillip Gaines, considered the best cornerback in school history who was drafted in the third round by the Chiefs. Teams rarely threw in Gaines’ direction – a strategy that will likely be the case with Callahan, who has 11 career interceptions and needs four more to tie the school record.

 

Q: What’s the recipe for a Rice victory? Will the Owls try and overwhelm a young Irish defense that could be getting younger without KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams? Is the run game capable of limiting Notre Dame’s touches? What’s your take on the Owls’ best way to win, especially early in the season?

The Owls led Conference USA in rushing (227.4 yards) last season and have regularly been among the nation leaders in time of possession – just the type of grinding, time-consuming style that they will need to have a chance against the Irish. They must replace 1,200-yard rusher Charles Ross and will do so with a backfield that is five deep with Jowan Davis, who had 476 yards in a strong freshman season; C-USA title game MVP Luke Turner, a former high school quarterback who works out of the Wild Owl formation; Darik Dillard, the younger brother of former Rice All-American receiver Jarett Dillard; and Brandon Hamilton, considered the bruiser of the bunch who redshirt with an injury last season. The Owls won’t be scared to pull a few surprises with the deep pass, but expect them to try and establish the run game early.

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For more from Joe in the lead-up to Saturday’s game, you can find his work here or follow his Rice coverage on Twitter @Chronicle_Owls