Three Games In and Rice is Ahead of Schedule

With just less than a quarter of their season under their belt, the Rice Owls rebuild is progressing quite nicely thank you very much. Mike Bloomgren's new look Owls look like a different team from the team that finished 1-11 last season, only beating a winless UTEP. If you're in CUSA, watch out because the Owls are going cause you problems in part because they play a style of football that you'll have a hard time matching. 

In an era of spread offenses and RPOs where teams want to run as many plays as possible to give themselves elusive extra possession, where bubble screens are commonplace, Rice lines up and punishes you. Then they casually walk back to the huddle, call another play, and punish you again. It's called intellectual brutality, and few teams employ it.

Bloomgren's former employer and the blueprint of his approach, Stanford, run it to perfection in the offensive wild west known as the Pac 12. In case you missed it, the Cardinal used the system to bring down mighty USC, and they regularly use it to beat offensive innovators like Oregon, Washington State, and Cal.

If you can keep those offenses off the field, you can exploit their least valuable resources, their defenses - defenses that are built to defend other spread teams. When three tight ends break the huddle, they don't quite know what to do, but they know they're in for a rough ride.

Rice is currently fourth in the FBS in time of possession at over 37 minutes. Their offense is a time eater, so now offenses that want those extra possessions usually don't get them and spend a lot of time standing and watching. 

The Owls schedule has evolved into a much tougher setup than previously thought. Prairie View got within nine points of FCS power Sam Houston this weekend. Houston looks like this year's UCF after beating the Owls and demolishing Arizona. Hawaii is 3-0 after knocking off Colorado State on the road and Navy, a Hawaii boogey man. 

Rice forced Houston to play their regulars through the fourth quarter after giving the Coogs all they could handle through three quarters. Last night the Owls cut Hawaii's lead to seven with under two minutes to play before Hawaii recovered an onside kick and salted the game with a late score. 

Rice's success comes from its ability to chew up yardage on the ground and free-up Shawn Stankavage to play within a system that doesn't require 40 throws a game. The Owls average 201 yards rushing a game and most importantly over five yards a carry on first down. Their first down success puts the Owls ahead of the chains and keeps the playbook open, so Stankavage can find Aaron Cephus, Austin Trammell, Jaeger Bull, or another wideout as defenses cheat towards the line, or bulldozing back Emmanuel Esupka and change of pace option Austin Walter can continue to grind out yards. 

Last season Cephus led all Rice receivers with 25 catches. This season he's on pace to break that mark by midseason, and Trammell should top it in a week or two. 

That Rice is adapting to Bloomgren's philosophy so well, so early is surprising especially considering the losses Rice suffered due to graduation and grad transfer this offseason. Rice young offensive line is growing up quickly and loving the extra help from tight ends and fullbacks.

Stankavages play at quarterback is a catalyst as well. The Vandy grad transfer is completing 60% of his passes, something no Rice quarterback did last season, and his five touchdowns are just one off last season's combined total. 

Are there issues? Of course. Rice's defense is susceptible to the run, giving up six yards per attempt. The Owl secondary lacks the athletes to play the aggressive style preferred by defensive coordinator Brian Smith. And lack of depth will take a toll on the Owls, especially on defense. Still, the early returns are encouraging. 

The Owls now get a breather, a bye week, before starting CUSA play with Southern Miss. The league may want to take note; the Owls will make them earn it this season.

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