Rice football has amped up its aggressive decision-making this season. Leaning on analytics and going by “the book” has served them well.
Analytics is a hot-button topic in the world of football today. From the NFL to the college game, everyone has an opinion on what the “computers” say to do in any given situation. Those estimations have made it into broadcasts beyond any individual commentator advising, “You gotta go for it here,” as the teams trot onto the field.
“There’s actually a book,” Rice football head coach Mike Bloomgren explained, going on to detail how he approaches such situations in live games. “Whether it’s going for it [on fourth down] or going for two, there are options the book gives you, and there’s sometimes it makes a lot of sense to me. I appreciate the mathematical data behind it because it makes me feel better about my gut decision.”
As the discussion around the subject grows, Bloomgren maintains that he’s kept the same philosophy on analytics. “I haven’t had a proverbial shift in terms of my beliefs,” he said. The caveat? “Where our team is has allowed me to do some of the things I want to do, maybe that’s a better way to say it.”
Bloomgren’s aggressive decision-making is intertwined with the team’s success this season. There are examples in every game the Owls’ have played, win or lose, but their most recent outing contained one pivotal moment that summed up where this team and its coach stand on rolling the dice.
Let’s set the scene. It’s fourth-and-one from the UAB 2-yard line. Rice is trailing 27-24 with just over nine minutes remaining in the contest. The Owls’ ultra-successful short-yardage offense was just stonewalled on third-and-one on the previous play.
Bloomgren has a decision here: Kick the gimme field goal and tie the game. Go for it and risk no points at all.
Given how well the defense had played, an argument for either side would have been plausible. Still, it wouldn’t have surprised many watching on to see the Owls take the sure-fire points, tie the game and hope for one more shot with the ball following a defensive stop. It doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to suggest Rice teams of the recent past would have probably opted for that approach. This one didn’t. Bloomgren didn’t. He chose the aggressive option.
Rice ran the ball again, converting on fourth down to move the chains. Following a false start penalty, quarterback TJ McMahon hit Dean Connors in the flat for the go-ahead touchdown which made the score 28-24. Rice would win by that exact margin.
Bloomgren did say “the book” would have recommended going for it all the way up until fourth and four. In that scenario, one in which the Owls’ short-yardage offense wouldn’t have been a real option, Bloomgren conceded he might have taken the points. But when it comes to those high-percentage plays that require physicality in the trenches, Bloomgren was unwavering.
“It’s who we are,” Bloomgren said when asked about the decision. “We’re gonna win games on fourth and one on both sides of the ball. It’s what we’re built on. It’s what we’re built for. I would have been cheating kids if we hadn’t gone for it.”
As Bloomgren joked earlier in the week, “When it works you made the right call.” But even if it hadn’t succeeded, UAB would have taken over from their own one-yard line and been forced to go the full length of the field to score. Those odds aren’t very good in a neutral situation, much less so on the road against a Rice defense that had started to lock things down.
And thus weighs the delicate decision that decides the fate of real games. Art versus science. Numbers versus gut. Rice football versus everyone.
And that might be the real truth that describes the Owls’ newfound appetite for risk this season. Bloomgren says he’s “tried to be aggressive for our team in games that we needed it” and added that he’s become “more comfortable with that mindset right now.”
“I think our defense is so good,” he elaborated. “We have some much trust in our quarterback and everybody to make it work that its easier to go with what the book says.”
If appearances are indicative of reality to any degree, Rice football has embraced “the book” more than they ever have before. They have the best team they’ve had in a long time and are 3-2 for the first time since the won the season they won the Conference USA Championship in 2013. Leave it to the scholars to dust off history and reinvigorate it. The 2022 Owls hope to ride that inspiration to an equally compelling season.
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