After taking a look at the Oregon offense against Arizona yesterday, it’s time to talk about the Oregon defense. To start, it wasn’t a pretty performance, Oregon’s defense was out schemed for half of the game and outmuscled in the second half. Arizona running back Ka’Deem Carey delivered countless body shots to the Oregon defense while quarterback B.J. Denker had the best game of his career, meticulously carving up the defense by throwing perfect throws all throughout the game.
The Arizona offense got rolling with Carey’s short, bruising runs, but was able to pick up intermediate gains with its bread-and-butter triple option play. You can tell that Denker was extremely comfortable and confident while running this play because it almost looks like a pick-and-roll play from basketball; on the hardwood, a good point guard can use a screen to isolate a defender and force him to guard two players at once. By the time the defender has to choose between allowing the point guard to run into the lane for an easy layup, or to guard the big forward rolling off the screen, he’s already caught in the middle of them both and isn’t able to defend either option.
Instead of using a screen or pick like in basketball, Arizona used an option read to leave Denker and his receiver alone on the exterior with a single defender responsible for picking which option to defend like in this play below:
Above, we can see how Oregon defensive end Tony Washington found himself in a double bind. He was responsible for guarding the flat on this play, an assignment easiest carried out when the quarterback isn’t threatening to run the ball. Washington sort of overthinks his defensive assignment and hesitates. The brief pause in Washington’s stride opened the window for Denker to flip the ball to his wide receiver.
That hesitation was probably not a good sign. Washington was not prepared to stick to his assignment. If Washington had continued to defend the wide receiver, Oregon linebacker Derrick Malone would have been in position to hold Denker to a shorter gain if he decided to run the ball. Instead, Arizona picked up an intermediate gain on first down, making the next first down conversion even easier.
Another thing to remember is that Denker was not zipping the ball all over the field just yet. Arizona didn’t even threaten to throw the ball deep downfield and seemed more than content to pick up three or four yards at a time with the running game and triple option play, leading to more favorable third down situations and longer drives. However, Oregon eventually forced Arizona into some longer third down distances, but brought out some softer coverages from zone blitzes in return like in the play below:
On 3rd down and eight, Terrence Mitchell empties out to a very soft Cover-2 while the interior of the Oregon defense tried to get some pressure. In the past, Denker would have resorted to some sort of arm punt went put under any sort of pressure. Instead, he stood in the pocket and delivered a strike to his receiver over the middle.
Oregon adjusted later that drive in the red zone, bringing out a Cover-0 look to stop the run and force Denker to make throws against tight coverage. Denker responded quite well:
Even when forced to throw the ball into one-on-one coverage against the tremendous Oregon secondary, Denker slung a perfect throw to the pylon for Arizona’s second touchdown. Again, Denker had never shown abilities anything like this in the past, and he just became more and more confident as the game went on.
Above, Denker threatened to run the ball, forcing the Oregon defense to collapse in on him. He then popped back a few steps to deliver another easy throw to his wide-open receiver.
He made the same play later in the drive, juking Tony Washington out of his shoes for another touchdown:
While Denker was stinging the defense with quick hitting triple option plays and rollout passes, Carey was pounding away on the ground, softening the interior of the Oregon defense for the second half. Of course, by that point, the defense had already given up 28 points.
Regardless, the Duck defense did adjust in the second half:
The most important adjustment that was made came from the secondary. Oregon decided to use its safety to defend the quarterback, much like how Cal neutralized the Duck offense back in 2010. As a result, Denker was forced into throwing the ball to a defended receiver on third down, ending the drive.
The Ducks also were more aggressive before the play as well:
By rolling up man coverage and bringing pressure to Denker’s rollout side, Oregon was able to get another stop. But again, it was almost too late at that point.
I really think this game was lost in the first half. The Oregon offense was not getting anything done while Oregon’s defense made enough mental mistakes to give Denker tons of confidence, leading to long third down conversions, which eventually gave Carey enough traction to wear down the Oregon defense late in the game.
The game was a product of poor preparation and poor execution, and has left a lot of questions regarding the future of Oregon football. Does this performance get chalked up to an uninspired team playing on the road on senior day? Or does this game show a larger problem with the Oregon football program?