The Week 5 edition of the Rice Football film room centers on Rice’s overtime loss to Louisiana Tech and their upcoming Week 6 opponent, UAB.
Hey y’all, Carter here, and welcome back the Rice Football Film Room. This week, we’ll take a quick look back at the heartbreaker against Louisiana Tech, before moving on to a couple plays from UAB quarterback Tyler Johnston III to get an idea of what the Owls will face in my hometown of Birmingham this week.
How the Rice Offense Should Look!
Rice’s offense, unfortunately, couldn’t get the job done Saturday night despite a stellar effort from the defense. That seems to be a theme this season. Still, in the first two drives we saw an extended glimpse of what the staff wants this offense to look like, and they were extremely effective in executing on those drives. Let’s take a look at Aston Walter’s first touchdown run.
We’re less than five minutes into the first quarter, and Rice has marched the ball downfield to the LA Tech 16-yard line on its opening drive. The Owls are in 22 personnel, with both Jaeger Bull and Jordan Myers on the left side of the line, Wiley Green under center, and FB Brendan Suckley and Walter in the I formation. LA Tech has three down linemen, three more guys walked up to the line, and four other guys in or close to the box to match Rice’s heavy personnel.
It’s a power toss, with Suckley kicking out the edge defender and RG Shea Baker pulling to lead the way for Walter. The OL do their jobs well. LG Nick Leverett does get driven back, but he stays engaged long enough to keep his man from blowing up the play (it’s not how you start a block—it’s how you finish it!). Suckley seals his man outside, Bull drives his two yards deep, Myers redirects his inside, and the gap is there for Baker to lead Walter through.
Amusingly, the LB that would’ve been Baker’s responsibility gets caught in the wash, and he never ends up having to block anyone at all. Bull’s man eventually manages to disengage, but only after he’s several yards downfield. At that point, Walter has built up too much speed for him to make the tackle. It’s a touchdown for Rice.
Great run blocking doesn’t mean every defender gets pancaked, especially when there are as many bodies involved as there are on this play. A lot of times it’s just about everybody doing their job just long enough to give the ballcarrier a chance to make the play. If Rice’s linemen, fullbacks, and tight ends can have the level of execution play in and play out that they did on these first two drives, they’ll be tough for C-USA teams to stop.
UAB’s defense has led the way for them so far, with the Blazers in the top 15 in the country in both total and scoring defense thus far. Those measures aren’t opponent- or tempo-adjusted (UAB hasn’t played any Power 5 opponents so far as compared to Rice’s three), but it’s safe to say they’re playing well on that side of the ball. The offense has lagged behind some—RB Spencer Brown (19.5 carries a game) and QB Tyler Johnston III (10.5 carries a game) are averaging a combined 3.4 yards per carry.
The Blazers use that ground game to set up aggressive play-action shots from Johnston. They’re at the best when he’s executing those, as he did in their 35-3 victory over South Alabama, when he threw for 313 yards and 3 TDs. But if he’s not on his game, that aggression can backfire, as it did in his 4-INT performance in their 20-13 loss to WKU last week. Let’s take a look at a play from each game to show the good and the bad for Johnston.
You Win Some . . .
It’s early in the first quarter against South Alabama (no score yet), and UAB has the ball 1st and 10 on their own 33. UAB’s in 12 personnel, with an inline TE to the boundary and an H-back, the RB, and two receivers to the field. USA’s in nickel personnel, showing a split safety look.
It’s a play-action rollout, cutting the field in half for Johnston. As the camera pans to Johnston, we lose sight of the receivers and DBs, but UAB looks to be running some form of the smash concept, with the outside receiver’s underneath route drawing the corner in to let the inside receiver Kendall Parham isolate on a safety with his corner route. This is exactly what happens, and Parham beats the safety cleanly. Johnston hits him over the top, and it’s a long touchdown for UAB.
Notice that Johnston hesitates a bit before throwing the ball once he finishes his rollout, but he drives the ball well enough that Parham only has to slow a little bit to catch it. The safety almost catches him afterwards, but Parham slips through his diving tackle attempt. It didn’t hurt Johnston here, but that hesitation can be costly for quarterbacks, as we’ll see in the next clip.
. . . You Lose Some
We’re about halfway through the 1st quarter of what will eventually be a tight loss for UAB. The Blazers have the ball 1st and 10 at about their own 38, up 3-0. They’re in 11 personnel, with two receivers to the field and a single receiver, the back, and an H-back to the boundary. WKU’s in nickel personnel with a split safety look.
It’s play action again, and Johnston is looking to hit the post route by the #2 receiver (the slot) to the field side. WKU drops into what looks to be Cover 4, commonly known as Quarters. It’s a 4-deep, 3-under look which is a very common way of defending spread offenses (which most college football offenses are now, of course) in today’s game. It’s predicated on having safeties who can read their keys quickly and flow downhill against the run, while also being athletic enough to play man on vertical routes by the inside receivers.
Here, the outside receivers release vertically, so the corners play man on them. The safeties read the releases of the No. 2 receivers (the slot and the H-back). If they go vertical up the seams, the safeties have them in man. The slot does so, so the free safety bails deep to stay over the top of his route. The H-back stays in to block, so the strong safety stays put and reads the QB. Meanwhile, the nickelback and the SAM (strongside) linebacker head to their zones in the flats. The MIKE, No. 36 Kyle Bailey, sinks back into the shallow middle (the “middle hook”) zone.
Johnston wants the slot receiver on the post route. Neither of the safeties have really bit on the play action and there are no, so he needs to throw it in front of the sinking free safety, but away from the strong safety, who’s read his eyes and is breaking hard underneath the route. Bailey, the MLB, takes a few steps forward on the run action, and I think that’s what keys Johnston to make the pass. Here’s what he sees as he reaches the end of his dropback.
The slot hasn’t made his cut yet, but the ball has to come out now. This is what we mean when we talk about throwing with anticipation. A great QB has to know when the ball needs to get to a receiver and trust that his guy will be there when it does. If Johnstown throws now and is accurate, the ball will get to his receiver right after he’s broken toward the middle of the field, with space to run away from the FS, who is still sinking to keep from getting beat. Neither the MIKE nor the SS will have time to get under the throw before it arrives.
But Johnston hesitates at the top of his drop, and that makes the difference. Bailey, who does a great job of recovering, has time to drop back into his zone and turn his eyes back to the QB in time to snag the ball.. Additionally, the SS has had time to break under the throw and probably would have made the pick if Bailey hadn’t. If Johnston releases the ball on time, he has space to fit this throw in. As it is, the receiver is essentially triple-covered by the time the ball arrives. It’s the first of four picks on the day for UAB’s QB.
Now, I don’t mean to pick on Johnston here. Even very very talented QBs can take a long time to develop the skill to make anticipatory throws—Oklahoma QB Jalen Hurts, who’s putting up superhuman stats so far this year, struggled to get the ball out on time during his first two years at Alabama. And UAB’s offense has him making very aggressive throws, which means that his INT numbers are going to be higher than they would in a safer system.
My point though, is I think Rice football has a really good shot of nabbing their first interception (maybe more) on Saturday. If the Owls’ DBs can be in tight coverage as they have most of the year, UAB’s aggressive throws and Johnston’s slow trigger will give them some opportunities to turn the ball over and maybe spark some life into their offense as well.