December 29, 2013 6:50:15 PM
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- The first thing Mississippi State coaches noticed when they popped in the tape to scout its AutoZone Liberty Bowl opponent was to not judge a football team by its conference.
Rice (10-3) will enter the game on New Year's Eve hoping to win a physical battle in the trenches instead of completely avoid the pain - what other mid-major opponents or even Southeastern Conference tempo offenses have exhibited against the Bulldogs this season.
""We're certainly not a team that is looking to go in a game thinking we'll be able to push anybody around," Rice defensive coordinator Chris Thurmond said. "However, we like our matchup though and we have seniors and leaders that know what we're trying to do from a execution standpoint. That makes all the difference."
In the last four years, Rice's defense has gone from last in scoring defense to fourth in Conference USA. The Owls, which won its first league title since joining the conference in 2006, have absolutely no interest in playing in the typical offensive shootout games.
"I don't mind saying that those shootouts that you see in Conference USA and even in the major conferences to be honest, aren't any fun for us to be involved in," Rice senior linebacker Michael Kutzler said. "Whether you win or lose those as a defensive player, you leave a shootout feeling really bad about yourself."
Mississippi State defensive coordinator Geoff Collins even said Sunday during his media opportunity that he and the MSU coaching staff have increased the physicality in the on-site practices at Rhodes College leading up to the game because Rice averages 295 pounds on its starting offensive line.
"It's hard to replicate with a scout team just how physical they are compared to the teams we've actually played in our league this season," Collins said. "Coach Mullen has done a good job letting us work earlier in preparation with (first-string) versus (first-string) in practice, which we normally don't do."
Rice leads Conference USA in rushing yards per game by 33 yards over the next highest team of Middle Tennessee State. Rice is seventh in the country in time of possession, which all the players and coaches have said is a major issue in the Owls averaging 4.5 yards per play in the last six schools they've faced from Bowl Championship Series conferences (Baylor, Northwestern, Kansas twice, Texas A&M and Purdue).
"I'm sure their fans look at us and think we're just a small, unathletic school from Conference USA," Rice safety Paul Porras said. "I don't see why we can't match up well with any team in the country in the trenches. We've won 10 games already doing exactly that."
Collins suggested the symmetry of the season is unique in the tempo offense dominated SEC where MSU will begin its season with the running attacks of Oklahoma State and Auburn but then will see a power running system in Rice behind tailback Charles Ross. Ross is currently 15th in the country in rushing at 113.8 yards per game and had 109 yards against Marshall in the Conference USA championship game on Dec. 7.
"It sounds so basic and obvious but they are so dead set on getting in good plays," Collins said. "They're always trying to move you around as a defense to get the look they want before they snap the ball for a play."
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