- Peter Yoon, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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When UCLA visits Rice Thursday in Houston, it will mark the third consecutive year the Bruins have opened the season against a nonconference opponent on the road.
That last two haven't gone so well, with a 33-21 loss at Kansas State that set a bad tone for the 2010 season and a 38-34 loss at Houston last year that foreshadowed defensive deficiencies to come.
On paper, the game at Rice looks like a good bet for UCLA to end their season-opening road woes as the Owls are coming off of a 4-8 season and had one of the lowest-ranked defenses in the nation last year.
But Rice was 4-1 at home last season, including a victory against Purdue--a Big Ten team that made a bowl game last season. And UCLA isn't exactly the world's best road team, having gone 7-24 in road games over the last five seasons.
"You don’t want to put too much emphasis on it," coach Jim Mora said about the approach of playing on the road. "It’s about playing the game on the field. But I think you do have to prepare for some uncertainty that you are going to see. You are going to be in a hostile environment. I think you have to make them alert to those things without overdoing it."
Calling Rice a hostile environment might be a stretch. Despite playing in football-mad Texas, the Owls drew an average of only 17,329 fans last season, among the bottom 15 attendance figures among FBS schools.
The biggest home crowd for Rice last season was 25,317 for the Purdue game. The stadium currently configured seats about 50,000, but that is because the end zone seats have been covered in tarp since 2006, taking away about 20,000 seats.
It's probably going to feel pretty empty in there, but Mora is treating it like any other road game. He's had team meetings about the mindset needed to succeed on the road and the importance of sticking to a routine no matter where you are playing.
"You create a routine that takes you from the first day of the week to the end of the game and no matter where you are playing you try to follow that routine to the best of your ability," he said.
Nickel and dime defense: Rice runs a 4-2-5 base defense, but Mora said that uncommon scheme is not much of a cause for concern.
"It’s just a nickel defense really so it’s something that we practice against every day when we are playing against our team," Mora said. "It’s nothing that we haven’t seen before. They’ll have some wrinkles in terms of the coverages and the way they play them. Of course there will be things that we see during the game that we haven’t seen on film, things that they’ve put in in the offseason so you have to be ready to adjust to those things. But in terms of the 4-2-5 scheme, that’s just a nickel package for us."
Something in common: Rice and UCLA had two common opponents last season in Texas and Houston. Rice lost at Texas, 34-9, and lost at Houston, 73-34. UCLA lost to Texas, 49-20, and lost at Houston 38-34.
No news is good news: Mora reiterated to the media his stance on talking about personnel matters during a game week saying "I’m not going to comment on injuries, I’m not going to comment on who is playing where and I’m not going to comment on who practiced well. That would be really ridiculous to do in light of the fact that our opponent is going to read your stuff and watch it."