I'm a little surprised by some of the angst over the defense, the gist of which seems to be that we were run on a little (how unexpected) and that people didn't feel particularly entertained or something. Rice's game plan had a lot to do with that. If you expected Rice to throw 50 times from 7 step drops, start reading my previews.
Rice's longest pass from scrimmage was for 15 yards and they had a 20 yard run. That was the extent of their big plays. They had 224 yards of offense at 3.7 yards a play, never scored a touchdown, totaled 9 points, all 3 scoring drives were abetted by 15 yard personal fouls and a bad PI call, and we pitched a shutout in the 2nd half when the offense pulled its weight.
Bailiff's entire game plan was built around bleeding us slowly, hoping for assignment busts, and playing Four Corners offense. Every pass was a three step drop or a screen and they were able to run a little because Rice is actually pretty clever at running the ball. Had we decided to man up across the board and outnumber the box, I'm guessing Rice wouldn't have run too well. Why expose your corners in their first game?
Also, let's remember how Diaz evaluates his defense:
We sort of have a plan for success involving being tough to run the ball against, not giving up big plays, being great on possession downs and third downs, and being great in the red zone. They’re starting to see that if we’re hard to run on and don’t give up big plays, the worst that can happen is the ball ends up in the red zone.
- No big plays. Check.
- Rice had four trips to the red zone and got two field goals out of it. Check.
- 2 of 12 on 3rd down. Check.
- The only box we didn't check was being consistently hard to run on. But we weren't exactly being gashed.
They were adequate and quiet, but most of Rice's game plan was built around making our DEs irrelevant (though they still got some pressure) and trying to influence our interior DL into losing their run discipline. Okafor and Jeffcoat will have opportunities when we play a team that decides they'd like to throw five yards past the LOS. We didn't lose physical battles in the running game - mostly it was guys not getting their proper run fit. Lining up incorrectly because Rice's formations don't always convey strength traditionally (if they split out the TE three feet, is he still strong side or now a slot?) Not fighting back across the Rice OL's face when their initial movement is influenced. Slanting out of the hole instead of settling. Stuff like that. No one was getting destroyed or anything. We didn't learn much here beyond what we already knew. Kind of cool to see Chris Whaley get quality snaps.
Our starting three combined for 23 tackles and they did a nice job cleaning things up sideline to sideline. I thought Hicks was particularly good in pass coverage, but they were all disruptive in taking away McHargue's quick route options from TEs and the slot. They made some plays that don't show up in the box score. From a critical perspective, their mentality is pure OLB and I'd still like to see them trust their speed: anchor down inside a beat longer, watch the play develop, let the cutback fall in your lap. Some of this is just attitudinal - they'd all rather chase down a greyhound than step into a 310 pounder and stuff him in the hole. Steve Edmond excepted. Against more traditional teams, this unit will shine. Against more power oriented teams, they'll need to bring a different mentality.
Byndom was physically overwhelmed on a screen block early in the game, but the next series he fought through on the identical play and made a tackle for loss. I thought he grew in confidence and played tough. Quandre Diggs isn't shy about run support either. Obviously, Rice didn't have the personnel or inclination to test them meaningfully downfield, but they certainly passed the tests posed.
Vaccaro covered well and notched 7 tackles, 5 of them solo. That latter number led the team. Any game without a Vaccaro kill shot is a disappointment, but BYU should provide some better opportunities.
Gideon disappointed me a bit. He spent most of the game lined up at deep punt return safety, totaled 2 tackles against a spread running team, and had a foolish 15 yard penalty that allowed a Rice field goal. For a starting safety to have fewer tackles than both corners and the nickel back (Phillips had 5 in about 40 snaps) pretty much tells you that Diaz is consigned to playing him the way Muschamp did. I'm not sure if the substitution for Brewster in the early 4th quarter was Diaz's desire to get some depth in the game or a sign of irritation.
Adrian Phillips played really well. He will put a lick on you and like a lot of high level former offensive players who play defense, he seems to have a knack for knowing where the ball is going.
Overall, this secondary passed the toughness, tackling, and assignment test posed by Rice, but we still have zero clue how they cover. Enter BYU.
Tucker flubbed his left footed rugby punt, but was great otherwise. 2-2 on field goals. We're not getting great depth or hang time on kickoffs, but coverage was good on 4 of 5. Not much happened on our punt or kick returns, but the forced fumble in punt coverage was obviously a positive. We'll see what happens when the competition ratchets up. Last year's special teams cost us a lot of hidden yards. It would be nice to get back on the positive side of that ledger.
I thought we played well, Diaz has plenty to work on from a teaching standpoint in the run game, and it's on to BYU and an offense that, if we can cover downfield, will give us a good demonstration of Diaz's blitzing schemes.