I'm Shooting From the iPhone after catching this one in DKR and doing my part to support our in-stadium alcohol sales, so apologies if this is a tad bit disjointed.
The Norvell/Heard/Traylor offense started out ugly, ugly...beeeayuuuutiful as a couple of stuffed runs were followed by Heard hitting the jets and announcing that this dual threat was actually bringing some threat with him.
It was gratifying to see us let Heard air it out early, and he cashed in quick with a TD to Armanti Foreman. It helped that the corner's play on the ball looked like he was acting out a Charades clue for "Halt and Catch Fire," but "throw it up against one on one coverage and see what happens" is basically a modern offensive axiom and Armanti made it pay off.
That and a post-punt return Gray plunge were pretty much all the offensive action in the first half, as a procession of punt returns and pick returns kept the O on the sidelines while also effectively Rope-A-Dopeing the defense.
We came out of halftime ready to see what kind of arm Heard had on a deeper sideline shot, and the answer turned out to be, "Good enough" - it helped that John Burt absolutely cooked his man, but Heard showed very nice touch in letting #1 run under the ball and to the house. It was an absolutely vital play for this game, and terrific to out on tape and discourage safeties from dropping into the box and rendering our ground game DOA by forcing everything back inside.
It wasn't a perfect night for Heard, as an airmailed pass over a back's head from five yards could have easily gone the other way, but if he can keep creating with his legs on rollouts and scrambles we can bring his eyes and arm along. It'll be interesting to see what kind of blitz-beaters Norvaylor have in store, because we're going to see plenty of pressure off the edge to kill our read game in its crib unless DCs are properly dissuaded.
The ground game was somewhat energized by Heard, and we ran some Power Read action that had Jeff Traylor's fingerprints all over it. There were still some no-star efforts against Rice's two-star DL, but the blocking at least looked cohesive. We even saw Sedrick Flowers keep his feet on a pull on the goal line, and every time that happens an angel gets his wings.
Some time when we weren't looking, D'Onta Foreman turned into our most effective back. Gray was good and bad, and needs to leave the Jamaal Charles impersonations on the shelf as this O is a ways from being able to dig out of 2nd and 15.
Everybody who was watching this one on a 65-inch Vizio can probably speak more intelligently to our overall line play than I can.
All in all an odd offensive evening given the returns and Rice's 1990's Cowboys impersonation on the ground, but plenty to be encouraged about from #13.
Early on, our deployment of Malik as a spread-destroying Predator nice to see. There aren't a ton of true frosh LBs out there who can force the keep against the option AND drop the QB in the bargain as Malik managed in he first quarter. As good as Derrick Johnson was in coverage, even as a youngster, it was maddening that he didn't get more seek-and-destroy work. No such reservations with Malik, although it's annoying that BJM isn't teaching anyone the "aim for the QB's deepest shoulder" tactic that I learned when blitzing in 7th grade. Malik does plenty of things you can't teach, though, so it all comes out in the wash. the frequent early edge blitzes threatened to turn the game into Rocky Chases the Chicken with Driphus Jackson, but at least Malik is the slimmer, running-on-the-beach-with-Apollo Rocky from Rocky III.
The blitzes were thwarted too often by a frustrating Driphus escape, and the non-blitzes were simply kicked down the field over and over by the Rice OL. The 3-3 front is giving far, far more ground than you'd like - or that we can survive with against better offenses - on simple zone runs and traps. We're a pass-first D in alignment and philosophy so you can live with a little of that, but that fact makes it more disconcerting that we can still count our one-on-one pass rush defeats on one hand two games in.
We're almost totally dependent on blitz-manufactured pressure and reasonably dependent on a guy shooting a gap to stop a run short of five yards. It was nice to see Poona Ford make a nice stunt inside to shut the Owls down on 3rd and 1, but you can't make a living with that kind of action if you can't win some head-up battles. Ridge seemed to wake up for a stretch in the third and started wrecking double teams, but if he's following the Scipio Axiom of waiting for cold weather to get more active we'd better get the Engineering department to gin up a Mr. Freeze suit, stat.
Fortunately Rice decided not to head between the guards every single time, and they paid the price when a speed option went awry - Kris Boyd split two blockers and was ready to give the the Owls tailback a Randy Kinder redux when the ball went on the ground and Malik housed it. Boyd and Holton Hill both had some young Vaccaro-style fly-up-and-announce-yourself moments which announced that we'll be seeing a lot more of their work in short order (although their combined green showed through on Rice's simple switch-play TD that left them both befuddled.)
You can live with a decent degree of softness against the run when you're manufacturing turnovers at the rate we managed, but giving up a near-70% conversion rate will get you absolutely housed against upper-tier O's. TO's are terrific, but that effort puts 40 points on the board for Cal if it gets repeated next week. Strong and Bedford have some more midnight oil to burn this week.
Texas fell victim to some of that smart kid stuff on the opening kickoff, but we got them back with fast, hard-to-tackle-kid stuff when Daje shook a tackle and hit the jets on the Owls' second punt. We followed it up with the rarely seen "Fuck it, the up man's catching this thing and trying to house it on you" approach, and all of a sudden the Jeff Traylor era on special teams was looking a little better than last game's attempt to copyright the Tenth Man.
It was mainly Roses and song in the third phase, and Nick's boomed kickoffs were beauties. Dickson kept up his G'day, mate/G'damn, mate! routine by pulling out a vintage Mark Schultis shank on every third punt, but he hit some high hangers and dropped a couple of Balata backspins inside the 20.
That's what a net contribution to victory by the special teams looks like, for everyone who's forgotten. Let's keep that up.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Our last loss to Rice almost resulted in me walking on to the team as a 155-pound sophomore and dying a gruesome death, and the terrifyingly non-zero prospects of a similar debacle heading into this one were...terrifying, I guess. Fortunately things never approached that point, and there was plenty to like from two of our phases tonight. Next week we'll get to see if Heard can win a step up in weight class and if the defensive front can finally start throwing its weight around.