December 30, 2013 10:09:22 AM
Matthew Stevens - firstname.lastname@example.org
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- The Mississippi State football coaches know not to judge Rice by its conference affiliation.
While mid-major and even some Southeastern Conference teams have tried to avoid getting into a battle in the trenches with MSU, Conference USA champion Rice (10-3) will try to win a physical battle when the teams face off at 3 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN) in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.
"We're 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, 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 past four years, Rice's defense has gone from last in scoring defense to fourth in C-USA. The Owls, who won their first league title since joining the conference in 2006, have no interest in playing an offensive shootout against the Bulldogs (6-6).
"I don't mind saying that those shootouts you see in Conference USA and even in the major conferences, to be honest, aren't any fun for us," 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."
MSU defensive coordinator Geoff Collins said Sunday he and the MSU coaching staff increased the physicality in their 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 played in our league this season," Collins said. "Coach (Dan) 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 C-USA in rushing yards per game by 33 yards over the next highest team (Middle Tennessee State). Rice is seventh in the country in time of possession, which its players and coaches said is a major issue why it is averaging 4.5 yards per play against the past six schools -- Baylor, Northwestern, Kansas twice, Texas A&M, and Purdue -- they've faced from Bowl Championship Series conferences.
"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."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.