Last Friday Baylor visited Rice as a prohibited favorite, with better athletes and a very good defensive coordinator in Phil Bennett. Rice runs a version of the spread offense and Baylor, to counter Rice's third down script, turned to a "zero" or "cover zero" blitz. A high risk, high reward concept that essentially puts every edge player head up and man up on their receiver and sends everyone else after the quarterback.
We say high risk because you're betting that your cover guys, even safeties, can go man up, on an island until the pressure hits home. For Baylor, the cover zero wasn't so high risk because Baylor simply out athleted Rice. If athleted is a word.
Bennett's doing something interesting in 2016. We heard that Baylor was moving to more of a 3-4 look and away from the 4-3 or at least augmenting the 4-3 with the 3-4. The Bears have actually gone to a more flexible, maximum athletes on the field derivation. Bennett has transformed Baylor's defense into a long, lean, fast unit. He moved Davion Hall from offense to defense. Hall is the type of player that flashes both incredible defensive acumen and incredible "hey I'm a receiver playing safety moments." But he's long and athletic.
The Bears also employ two hybrid outside linebackers/safeties/nickels in Patrick Levels and Trevor Blanchard. Both are listed as nickel backs but they're swiss army knifes, allowing Bennett to maintain a base defense at almost all times with essentially six competent coverage players but without sacrificing run fits. Too much.
Blanchard's position should actually be freak, because he's a genetic anomaly that can cover slots, tight ends, play the run, and leap tall buildings. Both Levels and Blanchard look thicker than their listed weights, 195 and 205 respectively but whatever, we ain't complaining.
It also helps to have Orion Stewart running around the back end keeping things in line.
Back to the zero blitz against Rice. Here's the first zero blitz, or at least the first one we noted...
First off, Baylor ain't hiding it. They are showing blitz from early on in the play clock. Some particulars: it's third and five, for Baylor it's plus field position. Baylor shows blitz, the Owls start to adjust. They decide to attack upfield via a go or fade route. This is how they attacked the zero all night. This by the way is as close as Rice ever got to converting on a third down against a zero look.
From the end zone, we see the protection, Rice is allowing the edge rusher to the field side to come free. They have to. They don't have enough in the protection, it's 7-6 Baylor with a man advantage. A lot of spread/air raid concepts would say the Rice QB Tyler Stehling is responsible for that free rusher. I'm sure he appreciates that. A lot of air raid/spread teams also compensate by widening splits to make the route to the quarterback longer. Rice doesn't.
Also Notice Baylor runs a little twist on the boundary side with Levels coming underneath the defensive end. Stehling has to get rid of this thing quick and his mechanics go out the window because they have to.
This was Rice's answer to the zero blitz in what became a trump card that Rice could not get away from - third and long, Baylor zeros out, Rice throws a hope route that doesn't get home. It became a given.
Here's another zero blitz look, slightly different formation from Rice, a tight end tight, third and twelve and expected results.
Here we go again, this time Rice is throwing the go. Again. They don't get to but they want to. Why? We have no idea. This time the Owls leave the tight end in, bring the back across the formation and again, leave the field side farthest rusher outside to run free. He's Stehling's to handle. It all happens so fast, the Owl's splits are tight and there are eight Bears coming with seven Owls to hold the fort. We don't count Stehling. It's a sack and an out for Bennett's defense.
One more, we could show you more, but we'll just show you one more. Fourth quarter, despite what ESPN's scoreboard says, it's third and twelve. Rice again with a tight end/H back staying back.
Here Stehling gets the pass away, but it's off target. Protection in this instance is really pretty good, but that is a tough throw to make under ideal conditions and Stehling was asked to make it six to seven times on third down, money downs.
The other issue is what we talked about earlier, Baylor wasn't bothered by Rice's athleticism. The Owl's go route requires an receiver, providing the throw is accurate, to make a play and win against a superior athlete. That's a tough ask.
So how do you attack the zero blitz? Well, if you're Baylor and you've got some combination of Seth Russell and KD Cannon, the go might be your option. For Rice, it's a different approach. The weakness of the zero is the underneath route, the slant and quick cross. It's a short throw and there's space underneath where everyone, and we mean everyone vacates.
Another option is to sneak someone out of protection and drop the ball off. We love this concept that SMU ran against the Baylor zero a week before.
Beautiful set up and delivery and a big play.
There exists a mindset for attacking the blitz and it is viewing the blitz as an opportunity. It's risk/reward and if your opponent, in this case Phil Bennett wants to risk it, make him pay. Don't reward him with a hope throw followed by a punt. Mike Leach has always taught his teams that blitzes are opportunities to make people pay and general explosive plays. But be smart in the way you attack it. A nice place to start is by throwing it where they were, i.e. underneath, a shorter more high percentage throw and you're an open field blown tackle from an even bigger play.
A brief bit about Rice's personnel. It's interesting, the Owls run tempo, and don't substitute much or at last didn't against Baylor. They just moved players like Jowan Davis into different roles, from slot to H-back to running back. The Owls look like they missed a guy like a Luke Turner who gave them a real variable target out of the backfield who could also hold up in protection.