Blaz­ers’ de­fense looms as ‘a big, big chal­lenge’

Houston Chronicle - - COLLEGE FOOTBALL - By Glynn A. Hill twit­­n_Hill

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.”

Joe Bu­vid / Con­trib­u­tor

Rice coach Mike Bloom­gren hopes a few new wrin­kles on of­fense can help counter UAB’s potent de­fense.

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