The offensive game plan was to protect Garrett Gilbert - mentally and physically - work the running game, even if meant being stubborn, and prep our offense for a mindset which will attempt to shorten games, limit turnovers, and win ugly in big games.
I thought Garrett Gilbert played pretty well considering that we gave him Greg McElroy's game plan. Safe throws, limited options, stay away from the middle of the field, throw it deep 3-4 times to back up a safety, and don't turn it over.
Though 14 of 23 for 172 yards is a good quarter and a half of work at Lake Travis.
I would have preferred a legitimate wide open attack of whatever Rice was doing and if that meant Gilbert has to learn a lesson about throwing over the middle late, I'd prefer that lesson be learned in Reliant rather than in Lubbock.
He skipped a few balls in front of receivers, but he also had some nice moments including the Chiles skinny post, hitting Malcolm deep, handling a botched shotgun snap for a 5 yard gain, and an impressive athletic play where he kept his feet after a pass rusher hit him backwards and he managed to throw it away. Similarly, I like that Gilbert doesn't bail from the pocket and engage in self-sacking behaviors.
Barrett Matthews was the forgotten man in the passing game, but he did block with tenacity and good feet. Greg Smith was hit on a check down on 3rd and 17 for a three yard gain. We saw little traditional use of the H-back as a lead blocker, whether as a fullback or wing. Either that's because we don't want to show it, or because we don't think Smith can root people out of the hole as a lead blocker.
I was pleased to see Malcolm Williams catch the ball and demonstrate a rapport with Gilbert. 4-77 with a 47 yarder is something we can build on. However, Malcolm needs to relax about catching the ball and give himself the opportunity to make a play.
Marquise Goodwin got one downfield target which might have been a touchdown save for the Rice cornerback's arm bar and he was excellent in the screen game. 4-50 and he looked like his normal composed self. I was pleased he and Malcolm got the lion's share of targets.
John Chiles had a nice route and catch on a 31 yard skinny post.
James Kirkendoll rewarded an entire offseason of the coach's talking him up with 1 catch for 5 yards and a miscommunication with Gilbert near the end zone.
Mike Davis played, but didn't scratch the stat line.
The first two series of the game are instructive. Let's break it down.
We open in a three WR/one TE/one RB set.
We man block the first run, leading with the backside guard for a play meant to go off tackle. Huey doesn't get a hat on anyone and Johnson bulldozes into the line away from the intended hole as Huey loiters. On the next play, we run the same play the other direction, Mason Walters erases a Rice defender, Barrett Matthews and Hix get good play side blocks and Cody hits the seam.
18 yard gain.
We continued with positive runs running zone schemes with Cody making good decisions and running through arm tackles. His first 5 carries go for 37 yards including runs of 18, 9, 7.
We sub out Cody for Tre Newton who gets a 5 yard gain to the Rice 5 yard line. Confidence is blooming and our running game is rocking.
At this point, Rice puts in their goalline defense. We line up a in regular two WR set and decide to run the old backside guard pull play.
1. Rice is now in their goal line D. GOAL LINE. We are outnumbered at the LOS.
2. We still pull a backside guard.
Cody gets a yard and it should have been a negative run.
We line up and do the exact same thing personnel-wise, except now it's a zone blocking scheme. Still outnumbered. Cody creates a 3 yard gain.
Now it's 3rd and 1, on the 1. We finally decide to put in our goalline package.
We block it OK, but Hix and Huey are submarined and Cody doesn't get his feet up. No gain.
4th and 1. We run a sweep against a nine man front. Ha ha. It actually would have scored but a Rice LB runs under a block and lead blocker Jared Norton never even looks at him. Four yard loss.
In one four play sequence, we erased our confidence in the running game, we put our guys at a disadvantage with personnel and play calling and we were reminded of Davis' bad historical habits of not matching formation and play with field position (see Greg Davis I formation runs from own end zone against Tech, UCF etc).
We get an interception and then run this redemptive play sequence, which is laughable for its completely grab bag Playstation nature.
1st and 10. Reverse from Cody Johnson to Marquise Goodwin which goes -3. Rice had not been over pursuing at all.
We throw a screen to Cody. Why? Rice hasn't blitzed yet. It's just...because. 1 yard.
Offsides on Hix. Now 3rd and 17.
It's 3rd and long. Greg Smith is in the game. Why? Because. We hit him for...3 yards.
4th and 14. Field goal.
I don't care what offense we want to run. I just want to run that offense competently.
The OL pass protected well after a couple of early hiccups and we surrendered no sacks or meaningful QB hits. Gilbert had clean pockets, particularly after play action. Rice doesn't have (m)any legitimate pass rushing threats, but that's preferable to the alternative.
We did very little schematically in the running game to help the OL and they didn't help themselves with high pad levels. Mitchell and Hix were the worst offenders.
We still refuse to cut backside pursuit, which is a necessity to run zone effectively. Unlike what we've seen in practice, opposing DLs will now just submarine legs to prevent them from getting to their spots, disrupting cutback lanes and creating giant sideways-moving pile-ups at the LOS.
Giant Sideways Moving Pile-Up is the name of Greg Davis' fantasy football team.
Tre Newton ran much better than Cody Johnson. This is demonstrated here:
Newton 18-61-3.4 ypc
Johnson 15-59-3.9 ypc
Whittaker 9-51-5.7 ypc
Actually, I did think Tre showed marginally better vision and patience than Cody as the game wore on. He fits zone schemes better. That this resulted in no actual tangible benefit to the running game is the real learning point. It's worth observing that Johnson's first 5 runs averaged over 7 yards per carry. Tre Newton's first 6 runs averaged 4.7.
Their next 22 carries combined went for 55 yards. 2.5 ypc.
I can see how one would diagnose a personnel problem.
Fozzy had some nice runs late after Newton and Johnson softened up Rice a bit, but I don't know what can be gleaned from his statistical outperformance.
This was a disappointing effort, but some of it was purposefully stubborn. I'm fine with that. I don't mind our new identity, but we need play calling and an approach that supports it. I tuned in to the Kansas State game and it was amazing what Bill Snyder managed to do with smoke and mirrors in the running game with no WR threats, a stiff at QB, and an OL of two and three stars.
I don't think the coaching staff cares how much we beat Rice by and I don't either. Embrace the idea that we're going to be a SEC style team and your psychology will shift accordingly. What is concerning is that we still aren't pairing personnel and game management with what we do best.