It certainly hasn’t taken much time for Justin Rice to re-establish himself as one of the premier defenders in the Mountain West.
The Utah State linebacker was selected as the conference’s Defensive Player of the Week after contributing with game-high tallies in tackles (nine) and interceptions (two) in the Aggies’ 48-24 victory over North Dakota late last Friday night at Maverik Stadium.
Rice is currently tied with Boise State’s Tyric LeBeauf and Seyi Oladipo for the top spot in the conference in interceptions (two), plus the Arkansas State graduate transfer ranks fifth in the Mountain West in tackles per game (8.0).
Rice spent his first four seasons at Fresno State — — he redshirted in 2018 — — and was a first-team all-MW honoree as a redshirt junior in 2019. The Modesto, California, native was picked by the media to be the league’s preseason Defensive Player of the Year in 2020, but elected to transfer to Arkansas State shortly after the Mountain West initially decided all fall sports would be moved to the spring of 2021. The conference ultimately reversed course and played a truncated schedule last fall.
The former high school star running back sparkled in his lone season at ASU as led all FBS players in tackles for loss (18.5) and chipped in with team-high tallies in 76 tackles and 7.0 sacks en route to earning first-team all-Sun Belt Conference accolades. Rice then decided to follow Anderson from ASU to USU for his final season of eligibility, and he has clearly made an immediate impact.
“Oh man, Justin, he’s the man,” USU defensive tackle Hale Motu’apuaka said during Monday’s press conference. “He makes big plays and he’s been a great addition for us. ... He helps the D-line out a lot and he’s really smart. A lot of times, we know when it’s run or when it’s pass because he’s able to sniff it out, so it’s great to have him back there.”
Rice’s first interception against FCS power North Dakota took place during the final two minutes of the second quarter on a tipped pass by teammate Dominic Tatum. No. 3 struck again late in the fourth quarter against the Fighting Hawks as he picked off a Tommy Schuster pass inside the red zone and returned it 36 yards to the UND 41-yard line.
Aggie back-up quarterback Andrew Peasley turned on the jets and scampered 59 yards to paydirt on the ensuing play to provide the final exclamation point in a memorable fourth quarter for the hosts. USU scored North Dakota 21-0 during the final 15 minutes of action.
“The last interception clearly was (Rice) just making a great play,” Anderson said during Monday’s press conference. “He noticed the alignment of the (running) back as compared to how he had been lining up earlier in the game and knew he was going to swing that way, and it carried him right to the ball. That’s something you can try to teach all you want, but that’s just innate experience and ability, and he’s playing at a very high level. I never get tired of talking about him. I love the kid to death, glad he came with us (to USU). He’s been a kid I’ve fallen in love with just over the last year of really getting to know him.”
Anderson also praised Rice for how much time he spends studying film and went on to rave about how infectious his personality is.
This is the second time Rice has received this award from the Mountain West as he was the Defensive POTW once during the 2019 campaign. Rice, who graduated from FSU in the spring of ‘20 with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, contributed with 112 tackles, 3.0 sacks, four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and a pair of INTs during his final season with the Bulldogs.
Rice is the first Aggie to pick off a pair of passes in a game since cornerback DJ Williams accomplished that feat during USU’s regular season finale against New Mexico on the road in ‘19. Rice, who is currently pursing a second bachelor’s degree in journalism, is also the second Aggie to receive one of the MW’s weekly awards in as many weeks as kicker Connor Coles was the conference’s Special Teams Player of the Week after booting three field goals in his team’s come-from-behind 26-23 triumph over Washington State on Sept. 4.
Coles was successful on both of his field goals attempts against North Dakota and is now 8 for 8 on field goals during his time in Logan.
Meanwhile, New Mexico quarterback Terry Wilson was named the MW Offensive POTW after throwing for a career-high 381 yards and three touchdowns, vs. zero INTs, in his team’s 34-25 win over visiting New Mexico State. The Kentucky transfer has helped the Lobos get off to their first 2-0 start since 2005. USU is 2-0 for the first time since 2012.
San Diego State’s Kaegun Williams is the league’s Special Teams POTW. The senior running back blocked a punt that teammate Tyrell Shavers returned 27 yards to the house as the Aztecs blew out Arizona, 38-14, on the road.
Boise State’s Oladipo is the conference’s Freshman of the Week. The safety intercepted two passes, broke up another and had a tackle for loss in his team’s 52-14 drubbing of UTEP in its home opener.