Blazers’ defense looms as ‘a big, big challenge’
With the nation’s second-ranked pass defense, Alabama-Birmingham presents a significant challenge to Rice’s passing attack, which is 12th in the 14team Conference USA.
And the Blazers lead CUSA in sacks and are tied for second in forced fumbles, interceptions and total defense.
Offensive line coach Joe Ashfield sees Saturday’s game at Rice Stadium as his unit’s greatest test this season.
“They’re big and physical up front,” Ashfield said. “Obviously we went against Ed Oliver (Houston All-America defensive tackle) this year, and as a single human he’s probably the best guy we’ve gone against, but (UAB) is probably the strongest defensive front we’ll face top-tobottom. Just physical, aggressive; they’re all seniors so it’s a big, big challenge.”
At Stanford, Ashfield and Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren became acquainted with some of the best linemen in college football
“They’re very similar in their size and approach to those great University of Washington defensive lines we faced at Stanford with just big, gigantic, strong men,” Ashfield said of UAB. “You see on film an offensive lineman engage with them in great position, then they just throw him down like he’s a rag doll.”
Up front, Rice has been a mixed bag.
In C-USA, the Owls are tied for third for fewest sacks allowed and rank fourth in rushing offense. Yet Bloomgren has made a point to insert freshmen like tackle Jake Syptak and guard Cole Garcia into the fray as a result of too many missed assignments from the starters across the line.
“He’s taken some reps from Jack Greene, and in a good way Jack’s taken that personally and upped his game,” Ashfield said of Garcia, a true freshman who has seen action at left guard.
“Just the inconsistency from person to person, really with the whole offense but the line as well,” Ashfield said. “When you see four guys do it right and one guy doesn’t and that just kills the play. You see a play that should go for eight but it goes to two because of one guy but a different guy. We haven’t been able to have all 11 guys do their job right on the same play, and that’s really hard.
“Becoming a good, consistent offense, that’s really the last step, and it seems like a little step because it’s just one guy every play. But it’s also the hardest step.”
To remedy those concerns Saturday, Bloomgren and the offensive coaches have scripted some changes.
They have created some special packages for Evan Marshman, a redshirt freshman who has challenged Jackson Tyner for the backup quarterback spot.
“You try to make sure that you don’t play them straight up,” Ashfield said of Rice’s strategy against UAB. “You have to have some things where you keep them guessing, mentally you have to slow them down so to speak, so they’re guessing where the next block is coming from a little bit. Make them run and maybe tire them out. You have to stress to your guys to always strain.”
Ashfield knows that more consistent play from his linemen is central to improving the Owls’ offensive production.
That fact has contributed to a shift in tone, where a new feeling has replaced the optimism that followed their performance in the first week of the season.
“You look at Houston and how we ran the ball against a really good team … there were some things where you think, ‘Great, if we keep moving forward there’s going to be some good things happening,’ ” Ashfield said. “Now the attitude is, ‘We’re still having the same problems, and we should be further along,’ so there’s a frustration and a resolve to get it fixed.”
Rice coach Mike Bloomgren hopes a few new wrinkles on offense can help counter UAB’s potent defense.