The Rice football offense hasn’t lived up to expectations yet in 2019, but Mike Bloomgren and his staff still believe they’re close to a breakthrough.
Mike Bloomgren isn’t one to shy away from conflict. An offensive line guru at heart, the second-year head coach has gone all in on the concept of Intellectual Brutality. At its core, the mantra relies on being tougher than the opponent in every respect, mentally and physically.
On defense, Rice is going to be relentless. They’re going to hit and hit some more. Coaches at schools the team played last season credited the Owls’ with that much, calling the Owls one of the most physical opponents they faced all season. Year 1 contained more growing pains than many on South Main would have hoped for, but the defensive effort was there even if the pieces weren’t fully in place.
This year the pieces on defense are there, and Rice has stormed out of the gates with zeal on that side of the ball. The Owls held C-USA’s top-scoring offense, Louisana Tech, to 17 points in regulation, but lost the game in overtime.
While the defense has been superb, the offense has drawn criticism. Committed to pounding the rock in the truest sense of the word, there is no trickeration or scheming. The Owls don’t beat around the bush. They come after their opponents with calculated aggression. But those calculations haven’t fully synced up just yet.
Close, but not close enough
If operated to perfection, the Rice offense works. Senior offensive lineman Brian Chaffin, who played with Bloomgren while the two were at Stanford, said the proof was evident in the Owls’ first two series. “I think the first quarter of the game we really shows what we can be,” he said, “We can go in big personnel… We can move the ball with the pass and we can get into goal line and get grimy, put everyone in the box and put them in a telephone booth and score touchdowns.”
For Chaffin, it’s not pie-in-the-sky optimism. He’s seen it happen in real life. At it’s best, Stanford averaged 37.8 points per game during the 2015 season with Bloomgren calling the shots. The jersey colors are different, but the scheme is more or less the same.
On their first two drives last Saturday the Owls racked up a combined 111 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 6.9 yards per play. Things were looking as good as they have on that side of the ball this season.
When it’s wasn’t working, though, you saw a team that was held to three points in their final 10 drives in regulation.
In the team’s first meeting since that loss, Bloomgren iterated the plays where the Owls fell short. “I showed them 16 clips,” he said, “If any one of them goes the other way, we win the ballgame.”
Missed blocks. Poor coverage. Dropped passes. Wrong decisions. The list of woulda-coulda-shoulda is long after such a heartbreaking defeat. The scoring woes, understandably, stick out. As Bloomgren saw it, “We knew it was a very winnable game. We knew we put ourselves in position to [win] and we know we shot ourselves in the foot.”
It starts up front
Precision is the bedrock of this offense. Offensive line coach Joe Ashfield, another Rice football leader who was with Bloomgren in Palo Alto, can point to the specific moments where his unit had breakdowns.
Ashfield called the Louisiana Tech game “as physical a game that we’ve had since I’ve been here.” He was proud of how his guys handled the pass rush and commended the entire unit on their ferocious blocking in the running game. But he did note there were a few plays where four of the five linemen did the right thing while the fifth man didn’t. Those were the plays, he said, were “really frustrating.”
The offense is complicated, featuring a playbook significantly thicker than most of the teams Rice will face on a given Saturday. The responsibilities put on starting quarterback Wiley Green and each offensive player are large. The opportunities for pitfalls will always be there, making the margin for error slim. For a team that prides itself on being disciplined, that’s one frontier they haven’t mastered.
What happens next?
It seems Rice football has two choices. They can push for perfection — eliminating the errors while remaining committed to their scheme. Or they can pivot to something new.
Reflecting on his unit’s respectable, but not quite perfect outing, Ashfield remained confident. “That last step, the smallest step to take, is the hardest step,” he said, “I just don’t know how long it’s going to take to overcome it. So you just keep working.”
At this point, the Owls feel they’ve come too far to do anything else. There’s no magic bullet, but early returns indicate the team might be closer than their winless record currently indicates.
“You can’t get any closer than that,” Bloomgren mused following the most recent loss. Acknowledging his team needs to learn how to win. “We’ve got to find a way and I really believe that when we break through, it will be habit forming.”
There’s no better time than the present. Rice takes on defending Conference USA champion UAB this coming weekend. The Blazers blanked the Owls 42-0 last year and haven’t lost a home game since their program was reinstated in 2017. A win, regardless the circumstances, would be loud.