Fresh off of a thrilling 38-35 Friday night win over Utah State in week one, the Wake Forest Demon Deacons return to action this week on the road against the Rice Owls. Rice, projected to be one of the worst teams in the FBS entering the season, surprised many by staying neck-and-neck at Army for three and a half quarters before ultimately falling 14-7. The Owls’ defense largely kept Army’s option offense in check but gave up two lengthy touchdown drives and Rice’s offense was unable to consistently get anything moving when they had the football.
With a new football season afoot, I am going to take a weekly look at the upcoming opponent and provide some analysis of what the Deacon faithful can expect to see on the field come kickoff. This may be a specific area of the game, it may be an overall team overview, or it may be a story I personally find interesting. Regardless of the form these articles take, I hope you will join me in diving into each opponent over the next few months and enjoy what we have to offer.
As Rice took on an option offense week one, it is difficult to glean what we will expect to see from a defensive perspective based solely on the opener. This is particularly true given the differences in style between Wake’s up-tempo offense with a healthy run-pass balance compared to Army’s stack-the-box and keep the ball on the ground focus. For this reason I took a deep dive into how Rice’s offense operated (or as you will see below, failed to operate) and take a statistical look into how second-year head coach Mike Bloomgren’s offensive scheme plays out.
While watching the Rice-Army game live, as well as again over the weekend on replay, the first thing that struck me was how “old school” Rice’s offensive sets were. In an era of spread football Rice does not shy away from the more traditional sets which are not particularly common in 2019. Note that “old school” does not necessarily mean “effective” as the Owls gained only 243 total yards, with 181 of those yards coming on the ground. Taking a look at the formation breakdown, the first thing you may notice is how frequently Rice lined up in the I-formation (that is, with a quarterback under center and two backs in a line behind him).
Rice Formation Breakdown
As a general note, these plays do not include those where penalties were called and the “unknown” formation was Rice’s first offensive play of the second half, which the live feed did not capture (it was a seven yard run).
Jumping right in, two things stood out to me: 1) Rice only had 44 snaps that counted, a tiny number limited by their own conservative play calling as well as the Army option offense which quickly ground the clock down, and 2) Rice’s play calling was very well balanced as they ran an approximately equal number of shotgun sets (20) compared to those where the freshman quarterback, Wiley Green, was under center (23).
It is unlikely that Rice runs as few as 44 offensive plays again this season as Army is the only option team they play. They will certainly run more than 44 this week (given Wake’s high octane offense) unless the Owls truly are unable to get anything going and go three and out several times.
As far as Rice’s offensive balance goes, they were particularly keen on establishing the run early in drives. Overall, the Owls had nine offensive possessions on the night and ran the ball on the first play of every single drive. Further, they used the I-formation almost exclusively to run the football - primarily in a tight set overloaded with tight ends. In fact the Owls had at least two additional blockers on the offensive line every time they ran the I-form and with limited exception had multiple tight ends each time.
|Formation||Frequency||Pass||Run||Yards Per Play|
|Formation||Frequency||Pass||Run||Yards Per Play|
While watching the game it felt as if Rice was far more successful when navigating out of the I-form. Given the number of times Rice threw the ball out of the shotgun compared to the run, it would ordinarily make sense that the offense would gain more yardage from that set. However, the Owls’ passing game was, in a word, horrible on Friday night. While the I-form yards per play average is somewhat skewed by the Owls’ lone touchdown - a 54 yard run counter to the left/middle side of the field - Rice also had 12 plays where they gained 3 yards or fewer from the shotgun (or 60% of the time). This makes sense when examining Green’s line for the night, a putrid 7-14 for 62 yards.
One more table below breaks down how Rice was able to gain yards on a per play basis from their various formations.
Yards Per Play
Rice does not appear to be a team heavily reliant on explosive plays. They had only five plays of ten or more yards and only two plays went for more than 15 yards. It may be harsh, but I do not expect Rice to finish above the bottom 10-15 in the country offensively this year and that may be generous.
With the above cold hard statistics for you all to peruse, I will also provide some general commentary that I had while watching the Owls’ first game. All-in-all I found the offense to be as vanilla as it comes - with a large number of plays coming from a base formation with very few wrinkles. This could be due to a young quarterback who is technically a freshman (even though he did get some snaps last year throughout the season) but even with a young quarterback it is difficult to envision Rice having any sort of long-term success with this offensive game plan.
Despite this basic offense, one Rice insider, Matthew Bartlett from TheRoost, does not expect much variation to the underlying game plan moving forward:
As an aside, TheRoost provides the best Rice coverage I have found online over the last few days and I encourage you to click the link above and read what they have to offer about the Owls as well as their perspective on the Deacs this week.
Despite the limited number of passing opportunities - or perhaps the reason why the opportunities were limited - Wiley still struggled when forced into action. He very much looked the part of a young, inexperienced quarterback having a difficult time adjusting to the speed of FBS football. He missed several throws that any QB at this level simply has to make but beyond that was not pressed into many difficult throws overall.
By my count Rice threw exactly two balls that went more than ten yards in the air: one on a fake bubble screen deep bomb down the right side where Army committed pass interference, and the second on the last play of the game for Rice’s offense, a play action call out of a jumbo set on fourth down which the tight end dropped in tight coverage.
Wiley’s best throw of the day went for 15 yards to Ellerbe on a wheel route on third and four, perfectly placed down the right sideline in the second quarater. This was honestly the only throw he made where I thought he appeared to be even an average quarterback. Beyond this throw, he did not do anything noteworthy that I would chalk up in the “positives” category.
The longest pass play on the day for Rice was a 38 yard route to Wiley’s favorite target, junior Austin Trammel, who operated primarily out of the slot throughout the game. Wiley placed a ten-yard strike between two defenders to Trammel who caught the ball in stride and scampered for an additional 30 yards before he was brought down well inside Army territory. Trammel struck me as the best Rice receiver by far and even though the tight end sets were ubiquitous throughout the game, I was not impressed at all by their tight ends - either blocking or in the passing game.
While the fast nature of this game due to both team’s preference to run the football limited the total number of downfield passes, it is simply not realistic that an offense can succeed over sixty minutes without stretching the defense downfield and forcing the secondary to respect a potential threat over the top. Ultimately, if Wake is given the opportunity to stack the box to limit Rice’s rush game and the Owls do not look downfield more than a handful of times, it is going to be difficult for Rice to move the ball against the Demon Deacons. If you cannot move the ball consistently to stay on schedule while you also lack explosive plays, you simply will not win many football games.
The brightest spot for the Rice offense appeared to be a bit of a surprise in the form of 5’9” redshirt senior Nahshon Ellerbe. Ellerbe, who only had four total rushes a season ago (including three touches against Wake) in limited action due to injury, was the featured back for the Owls and ran the ball nine times for 103 yards including Rice’s only touchdown.
He thrived primarily out of the I-form where Rice’s most consistent play was a toss sweep to the left with a stacked front. Army struggled to adapt to this play throughout the night and the Owls ran it three times alone on their last possession of the game for an impressive 27 yards. Rice’s offensive line was able to get good push throughout the game against Army’s front but I did not get the sense that the line would be a particularly difficult challenge for a bigger, more physical defensive front - whether or not Wake’s defensive front will be up to the challenge remains to be seen.
Ultimately, I did not come away from this game impressed by what Rice had to offer offensively. Frankly I do not remember the last time I saw a team run such a basic offense even when stymied by a younger quarterback trying to get his feet wet early in the season. Given Wake’s struggles to stop Utah State’s offense, this should be a good time for the Deacs to find their sea legs.
Although the matchup between Rice’s offense and Wake’s defense seems to be the undercard battle of the evening (compared to Wake’s high-octane offense and a disciplined Rice defense who prevented a potent Army offense from consistently establishing the run out of their option) I believe that this will be the greatest proxy for Wake’s success in Houston Friday night. If Wake shuts down Rice’s ability to run the ball between the tackles and the Owls do not dial up some downfield threats, I anticipate Wake absolutely romps in this one.
If anyone has questions or comments about the above, do not hesitate to let us know. Also if there is any interest in the total drive chart, breaking down Rice’s offensive efforts on a play-by-play basis, I will be more than happy to include a link to the article. And as always, go Deacs!