The Rice football offense changed over the course of the 2019 season, but to what degree? Carter Spires breaks down what changed and what remained the same.
We’re entering that time of the year where we’d be most starved for football content even in a normal year—which 2020 is most assuredly not. So with that in mind, here’s the first installment of a new project I’m working on, documenting the evolution of Rice’s offense in 2019 and beyond.
In this piece, we’ll be looking at how Rice’s offense changed in 2019 after Offensive Coordinator Jerry Mack took a greater role in the offense following Mike Bloomgren’s declaration of “Something will change” after the Southern Miss game. Future installments will include a data-driven look at the QB candidates for 2020 and a Film Room on TCU transfer Mike Collins’ time as the starter in Fort Worth in 2018.
Using the Wake Forest game as a “before” sample and the MTSU game as the “after,” I charted every offensive play from those games. I looked for things like personnel, formation, pre-snap motion, and whether the quarterback was in the shotgun or under center. By taking a quantitative look at these aspects of offensive design, I hope to give a clearer picture of what Mack’s influence on the offense was and perhaps what this portends for Rice’s offense in 2020 and beyond.
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It’s simple enough to say that Mack will push Rice’s offense in a more “modern” or “spread” direction, compared to the under-center, heavy-personnel, run-focused offenses Bloomgren ran at Stanford, but charting these elements gives us a more detailed look at what exactly that means.
The included sample from the Wake Forest game comprises 63 plays. That’s every Rice offensive play up to the point where Wake took a 41-14 lead early in the 4th quarter. After that point Rice began playing almost exclusively from the shotgun and passing heavily, as offenses tend to do when they’re down big. I excluded this set of plays from the sample, because they were so situationally-influenced as to not represent Rice’s “normal” offense at this time. Additionally, the first 14 plays of the Wake game were quarterbacked by Wiley Green, after which Tom Stewart took over. The MTSU sample includes 65 plays, covering the entire game, all of which featured Tom Stewart at QB (aside from three Wildcat plays).
As a final note, I can’t guarantee that the charting here is 100% accurate, due mostly to poor quality video and TV camera angles. (In particular, it was sometimes difficult to tell exactly which players were lined up wide, and thus whether Rice was in 11 or 12 personnel). But I’m confident I charted these plays accurately enough to depict the way the offense was called in these two games.
Under Center vs. Shotgun
Perhaps the simplest thing we can chart is where the QB lines up. More often that not he’ll be under center or in the shotgun. Rice did use the pistol formation, with the QB shallower than in shotgun and the running back directly behind him in 2019, but not that I saw in either of these two games.
Having your QB under center is more old school. It facilitates both traditional running plays (by allowing the RB to have some downhill momentum at the handoff) and play-action passes (the fakes are generally easier for the QB to sell than in the shotgun). The shotgun is generally considered better for most passing plays. It allows the QB to have a better view of the defense both before and during the play and by putting more space between him and the pass rush. It’s also necessary to have your QB in the shotgun to run RPOs and spread option plays like the zone read, staples of many or most modern offenses.
In the Wake sample, Rice was under center 46% of the time and in the shotgun about 54% of the time. In the MTSU game, Rice was under center 27.7% of the plays and in the shotgun 72.3% of the time. The three Wildcat plays were charted as shotgun. [Note: all percentages rounded to the nearest tenth of a percent.]
This is a pretty stark difference! Keeping the QB under center is relatively rare in college football now. Many offenses don’t do so at all. In the Wake game, Rice stayed relatively true to Bloomgren’s Stanford roots. The Owls lined Green or Stewart up under center nearly half the time. By contrast, they did so with Stewart in the MTSU game only about a quarter of the time (though again that’s still more than most teams do).
Personnel packages are typically denoted by a two-digit system. (Those of you who have read my Film Room columns will be familiar with it). The first digit is the number of running backs or fullbacks and the second is the number of tight ends. The number of wide receivers is five minus the sum of the two digits (since the other six offensive players are typically the QB and the OL). So 11 personnel, the most common personnel group at essentially all levels of football now, means 1 back, 1 tight end, and 3 wide receivers.
There are several possible combinations, of course, and during the data collection I charted them in pretty granular fashion. I charted 10, 11, 12, 20, and 21 groupings individually. I lumped 22, 23, and 32 groupings together as “heavy” packages. But for drawing conclusions, I think it’s more instructive to bin them into two groups: 10, 11, 12, and 20 personnel in one (which I’ll call the “spread” packages) and 21 and the “heavy” packages in the other (which we can just again call “heavy”).
How Rice used personnel
A quick primer on why some of those groupings are where they are: all of the 20 personnel plays (six from MTSU, two from Wake) had the QB in the shotgun with a running back on either side and three receivers. The 12 personnel plays were all from the shotgun as well. Most had at least one of those tight ends split wide. (Only 9 of 28 total 12-personnel plays between the two games had both TEs tight to the formation, either inline or at H-back).
So what’s the tally? In the Wake sample, Rice used “spread” personnel 54% of the time and “heavy” personnel 46% of the time. In the MTSU game, they used spread personnel on 64.6% of plays and heavy personnel on the other 35.4%. Not as big a difference as the under center/shotgun splits, but still a fairly significant one.
Perhaps more instructive than personnel is the formation. I charted those in three bins based on the number of players lined up as receivers. (n.b., *not* the number of players who are “wide receivers” on the roster). Four- or five-wide sets were labeled as “spread” formations. Three-wide sets were labeled as “base” formations (reflecting the prevalence of these formations). Two-or-fewer-wide sets were labeled as “heavy” formations. There are a million more granular and specific ways to describe formations, of course, but I think this way is instructive enough for our purposes and could be charted with relative ease and speed.
We can describe in some broad ways how these formations reflect the intent and goals of offenses that use them. Sets with two or fewer receivers will seek to gain advantages in the run game by outmanning the defense at the point of attack, using a large number of blockers. This also allows the outside receivers to get one-on-one matchups. That’s advantageous if you have, say, 6’5” Bradley Rozner on a shorter cornerback.
How Rice used formations
Four- and five-wide sets seek to spread defenses out, giving more space for receivers to get open. This also forces the defense to keep fewer (and often lighter) players in the box. That can open things up for the run game as well. Three-wide sets are the most balanced. They allow offenses to put several players into the pass formation without compromising the number of blockers or pass protectors much.
In the Wake sample, Rice used base formations on 33.3% of plays, spread formations 15.9%, and heavy formations 50.8%. In the MTSU game, Rice used base formations 52.3% of the time, spread formations 6.2%, and heavy formations 41.5%.
The big takeaway lines up exactly with what we expect: Rice significantly bumped its usage of three-wide sets under Mack’s influence in the MTSU game, with a notable drop in the number of two-or-one-wide sets.
The odd part is that Rice actually used four-or-five-wide “spread” sets *more* in the Wake game, by a fairly notable percentage. I think there are two explanations for this. The first (and easily the most important) is game state. About half of the “spread” plays in my Wake sample occurred late in the game, when Rice was down 34-14. While they had not totally abandoned the “Stanford offense” stuff by this point, the deficit and dwindling clock were clearly influencing playcalling by this point. If you limit to say, the first half of that game, when Rice was either tied with Wake or trailing by 10 points or less most of the time, Rice only ran three plays in a “spread” formation.
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It may also have been influenced by player usage. It’s not noted in the section above because of the way I grouped them together, but Rice actually used 11 personnel more in the Wake sample than in the MTSU game. (The increase in “spread” personnel was driven largely by a big uptick in 12 personnel plays).
Early in the season, August Pitre had a clear role as the third wide receiver. By the time of the MTSU game, it had become clear that the only two players the staff truly were going to consistently trust as receivers were Rozner and Austin Trammell. (The two combined for almost 65% of Rice’s total receptions in 2019). They may have been hesitant to use sets with four or five players wide but only two of those players being true wide receivers (especially as Jake Bailey and Zane Knipe continued to battle injuries late into the season).
The final thing I tracked that’s worth noting here is the use of pre-snap shifts and motions. To clarify, a “shift” is when a player changes positions before the snap, such as a running back splitting out wide. They must be set in the new position for at least one second before the ball is snapped. “Motion” means that a player is moving at the time the ball is snapped. Such actions are legal as long as the player is not moving toward the line of scrimmage. Both types were lumped together in one count during data collection here.
In general, an offense that shifts or motions before the snap is either trying to catch the defense off-guard or out of position at the snap by forcing them to adjust on the fly, and/or trying to force the defense to declare its coverage. The way a defense responds to shifts or motion will often reveal whether they’re playing zone or man coverage, or possibly whether they’re playing two high safeties or just one.
In the Wake sample, I counted only three times when Rice used motion or a shift, just 4.1% of plays. In the MTSU sample, I counted 13 such plays, for exactly 20%. Not a particularly high percentage of the plays, but still a significant increase.
What Didn’t Change
In a nutshell, Mike Bloomgren loves to run the ball and use fullbacks. In addition to the above, I also charted whether each play was a run or pass—a *called* run or pass. More specifically, sacks and scrambles were charted as passes. I did not attempt to track which plays were RPOs—and the number of plays in the I-formation.
Rice actually ran the ball more in the MTSU game. (58% of plays compared to 52% in the Wake sample, though again I think that can be largely attributed to game state). In addition, Rice used the I-formation or some variant of it (QB under center, RB deep, at least one FB in between QB and RB) on 100% of their under-center plays in both games.
We didn’t need to do all this charting to just say that Rice’s offense got “more spread” or “more modern” for the last four games of the season. But this exercise does allow us to be much more precise in describing how it changed. I think it was valuable just for that.
It’s also worth noting that, while I didn’t chart the exact play each time, the types of plays Rice ran didn’t really change, just the proportions. The RPOs and spread option runs that became more prevalent late in the season were there early. (I highlighted the Glance RPO in my Wake film room and Tom Stewart scored on a zone read keeper in that game as well).
The ultra-heavy sets and power toss plays that Rice relied on early in the season didn’t disappear. The proportions of those plays (and the formations/personnel groupings used to run them) just altered, which of course makes sense. They weren’t going to install a new offense overnight. They were just going to do more of what their players were comfortable with.
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It’s that last point that it’s important as we go forward—do what your players are comfortable with. Tom Stewart took the reins for the majority of the 2019 season. Naturally, the staff had to maximize what he did best coming out of a modern spread system at Harvard. If TCU transfer Mike Collins is the 2020 starter, it’s likely the offense will continue to look as it did over the last third of 2019. If JoVoni Johnson takes the reins, the coaches may install more plays resembling the multi-TE pistol option plays he ran at Conway HS in Arkansas. They used a bit of that style in his one start against Marshall last year.
It’s great to have a wide repertoire of plays, formations, and personnel groupings in your arsenal as Rice does. The Owls are clearly blending the old school approach of Bloomgren’s Stanford offense with modern spread principles brought by Jerry Mack. But it can make finding the right blend of those disparate styles a challenge. More still, it can be difficult to strike the balance between teaching players new things that could make them more successful or sticking to what they already know.
Rice found the winning combination over the last section of the 2019 season. Can they do it again with a new quarterback in 2020? Time will tell.