On Friday night, Rice Stadium will be rocking. In Rice’s first home game of the season, the Owls will take on No. 21 Baylor University in a primetime game on ESPN. Baylor brings one of the nation’s best offenses into the game, but Rice is hoping its attack can match the Bears point for point. The following six players--three Owls and three Bears--will lead their respective teams into the Friday night showdown.
Senior Running Back Darik Dillard:
Dillard, a 5-foot-10, 215-pound senior from San Antonio, is the lead running back for the Owls. Following in the footsteps of his older brother, former Rice wide receiver Jarett Dillard (Baker ’09), Dillard delivered an inspired performance during his junior season. Along with a team-leading 698 rushing yards, Dillard added five touchdowns in 2015 to back up a career-high 11 touchdowns during his 2014 campaign.
College football pundits regard Dillard as a premier running back. In fact, Athlon Sports selected Darik as Preseason All-Conference USA. Yet, Dillard’s accomplishments extend far beyond the gridiron. He is on the Wuerffel Trophy watch list, which recognizes athletes who best combine community service with academic and athletic achievement. Additionally, he is a nominee for the AFCA Good Works Team, a team that honors players for their community service. As a three-time member of the Conference USA Commissioner’s Honor Roll, Dillard is a true student-athlete.
The 2016 season has started slowly for Dillard, though he started to heat up in the game this past Saturday against Army. He ran for 52 yards on eight carries, leading all Rice running backs in yardage. He also finished on the receiving end of a five-yard completion from senior quarterback Tyler Stehling. Dillard will likely play a substantial role in carrying the ball against Baylor as the Owls look to dominate the time of possession to keep Baylor’s offense off of the field.
Senior Linebacker Alex Lyons:
One common adage has long existed in sports, notably the game of football: Defense wins championships. If Rice is to compete for the Conference USA championship in 2016, senior Alex Lyons will have to anchor an improved defense from 2015. Standing at 6 feet 1 inch and 225 pounds, Lyons has been a consistent presence in an often vulnerable Owls defense. Last year alone, Alex registered 77 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and four passes defended.
Lyons’ dominant junior campaign has catapulted him toward the top of Conference USA. He is both a consensus preseason All Conference-USA choice and a Preseason All-Texas College choice by Dave Campbell’s Texas Football website. Like Dillard, Lyons is also a stellar student-athlete. He is a three-time All Conference-USA honor roll member and a leader both on and off the field for the Owls.
Lyons has continued to find his way to the ballcarrier at the beginning of his 2016 campaign, registering 17 tackles and one pass defensed in just two games this year. Against Baylor, Lyons will have to lead a disciplined and aggressive defense. The star linebacker looks to deliver a few crushing blows to the celebrated Baylor offense.
Senior Tight End Connor Cella
As former Rice quarterback Driphus Jackson electrified the crowd during his senior season in 2015, he relied heavily upon now-senior tight end Connor Cella. During his junior season in 2015, Connor garnered a career-high 209 receiving yards while tying his career-best in receptions with 13. Additionally, Cella demonstrated big-play ability with a 60-yard catch-and-run during a regular season game against the University of North Texas.
Like Dillard, Cella is a preseason All-Conference-USA selection. Additionally, Cella is on the Mackey Award list, which recognizes the most outstanding tight end in the nation. His nomination is no surprise, considering he was added to the midseason Mackey Award list in 2015. The experts are in agreement: Cella is one of the premier tight ends in college football.
Though he struggled to find a connection with Stehling against Western Kentucky University, Cella started the game strong against Army. Stehling found Cella on a 64-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter, which started to get the offense rolling. Cella said the touchdown was the high point of the game against Army.
“It felt great,” Cella said. “I’ve been waiting for something to happen like that since I got here.”
Senior Quarterback Seth Russell
Quarterback Seth Russell threw for 424 yards and six touchdowns in his first two games of the season, a 55-7 win against Northwestern State University and a 40-3 win versus Southern Methodist University. Russell, a senior from Garland, Texas, is attempting to build off his 2015 season, during which he was limited to just seven games due to a neck injury.
Prior to the injury, the signal caller had captured the starter’s role after spending two seasons backing up star quarterback Bryce Petty, who led the program to back to back Big 12 titles. Russell earned tremendous respect in his brief stint by throwing for 2,104 yards and 29 touchdowns with just six interceptions. Despite his truncated season, Russell was named an honorable mention All-Big 12 team member by league coaches and a semifinalist for the Davey O’Brien Trophy, awarded to college football’s top quarterback. He was also an early candidate for the Heisman Trophy after his strong start to the year.
Last year, when Russell and the nation’s number one ranked offense played Rice, he played only three quarters but still threw for 277 yards and six touchdowns in a 70-17 win.
Senior Running Back Shock Linwood
The Baylor Bears consistently rank as one of the top rushing teams in the country, and senior Shock Linwood is one of the main reasons. A 5-foot-9, 200-pound running back from Linden, Texas, Linwood is on pace to break numerous school records, including all-time rushing yardage and rushing touchdowns.
After a breakout in 2013, in which the rookie rushed for a Bears freshman record of 881 yards, Linwood was named to the freshman All-American first team. As a sophomore, Linwood started 12 games and played in all 13, accumulating 1,342 all-purpose yards and scoring 16 touchdowns while being named first string All-Big 12 by league coaches. The star running back was enjoying his most productive season last year, rushing nearly 111 yards per game, when he broke his right foot in the first half of the regular season finale against Texas and was forced to miss the Russell Athletic Bowl.
After rehab, Linwood has two games under his belt. He rushed for 10.8 yards per carry against Northwestern State in the first and accumulated 63 yards on 18 carries and one reception against SMU in the second. Last year, when the Owls took on Baylor, he ran for 158 yards and one touchdown on 16 carries.
Junior Linebacker Taylor Young
Baylor’s defense took a hit this season as several key players moved on after the school’s sexual assault scandal; however, junior Taylor Young will look to anchor the defense as a weakside linebacker. From DeSoto, Texas, Young broke onto the scene in 2014 by registering 92 tackles and earning the Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year award. His rookie season was highlighted by a 15 tackle, one interception performance against No.7 Michigan State University in the Cotton Bowl. Despite the 42-41 loss, Young was named the game’s Defensive MVP.
Last season, the linebacker started 12 of 13 games, averaging 1.12 tackles for loss and totaling 80 tackles (60 solo, 13.5 for loss) while being named honorable mention All-Big 12 by league coaches. Young’s ability to rush the passer (21 pressures) and stop the run were on display when Baylor played the Owls last season, when the 5-foot-10, 225- pounder recorded one sack and four total tackles in the win.
Young is looking to continue this level of production this season. So far, he has registered eight tackles including three tackles for loss and one sack.