With the benefit of hindsight, this game was a much more comfortable win than it felt watching live. Basically the entire fourth quarter was garbage time, based on the score differential and playstyle of both teams after Oregon’s crucial 4th down stop of Cal at the goalline to start the final frame. Oregon won the turnover differential by +4 (and it probably should have been higher than that), had their best rushing performance of the year, and posted an adjusted yards per passing attempt score 30 times greater than the opponent (12.05 vs 0.4).
Last week, in reviewing the Stanford game I wrote about Oregon’s run-blockers not often getting to the second level to spring big runs, and in previewing Cal I felt their rush defense had looked pretty stout on film. So I wasn’t expecting a whole lot of explosive runs in this game … don’t I feel foolish:
On the first play we see a power-slide with pulling guards, a staple of the new Oregon offense, and look at #85 TE Dillon clear a defensive end then a linebacker eight yards downfield. On the second play (at :09), the pre-snap motion reduces the box count to six, both the guards easily get downfield to the linebackers, and #9 WR Schooler shoves his man 10 yards. On the third play (at :18), Dillon and #55 C Hanson do such a great job walling off that it doesn’t matter #75 RG Warmack starts off going the wrong way, this hole is enormous. On the last play (at :40), #68 LG Lemieux gets downfield and pancakes Cal’s big backer, and #34 Verdell is fast enough to step out of three different safeties’ tackles.
And even when Oregon’s run game didn’t click for big yards, they were still picking up something on nearly every play. I’ve documented this before, and I’m trying to cut down on making videos for arguments I’ve previously made, but this bears re-emphasizing because this is the major and underappreciated benefit of Oregon’s offensive shift:
The first play is Oregon’s only negative rush of the game ... #10 QB Herbert makes the right read because the DE is crashing on the back, but I think #58 LT Sewell is supposed to go forward and block the linebacker and he just doesn’t for some reason - only a total assignment bust can produce this kind of outcome. The remaining three plays are all examples of what I’ve talked about earlier - everybody’s blocking the right man, just not as effectively as they could and so the play doesn’t quite gain enough yards to be a success given the down and distance … but they still pick up a couple of yards each time.
In the passing game, we were treated to more of the top quality throws we’ve come to expect from Herbert, but there were a couple of noteworthy plays showing his maturation as a passer:
The first play is a four-verticals and the line is doing an excellent job against Cal’s four-man rush … I’m not sure why Herbert doesn’t go for #13 WR Mitchell because the broadcast angle cuts off the DB’s coverage, but regardless Herbert recognizes that the LB covering #26 RB Dye in the flat route is too slow off the break so he has an easy catch with plenty of open field to run into. The second play (at :11) has a linebacker on Dillon - slow the reverse angle shot down to ¼ speed and watch for when Herbert decides to hit him ... Dillon hasn’t even cleared yet, much less turned his head for the ball, and it’s placed perfectly so the defender has no shot at it. On the third play (at :32), all four of Cal’s DBs have their men covered tightly, but Herbert still fits the ball in perfectly to Mitchell. Same thing on the last play (at :53) - very tight coverage by the DBs across the board, but there is no defense for a perfect back-shoulder throw.
A few other notes from the offensive film that didn’t merit videos: prior to garbage time, I only saw eight failed rushes and no single persistent problem, just a smattering of bad blocks from various players and a couple exceptional efforts from Cal. I noticed on a couple of outside runs and swing passes that it seemed like one of the receivers didn’t get the memo he was supposed to be blocking, and between that and the frequent miscommunications in week 3 I’m concerned that there’s some kind of problem with the signals going in to that unit. There were no sacks and the pass protection broke down only once (and that was on a 6-man blitz where the RB blocked the wrong guy). I counted three incompletions on nicely thrown balls that were just dropped or the WR didn’t elevate enough. Herbert scrambled three times for good gains, all in situations where the backers cleared out to cover tight ends and/or backs releasing and there was no one left in the flat.
Finally, I was impressed with the Ducks’ two-minute drill at the end of the first half and will present it in its entirety:
On the first play, Cal telegraphs its safety blitz and Herbert identifies #30 WR Redd being left with very soft coverage as a result. The second play (at :23) is snapped 20 seconds after the conclusion of the first, a pistol read that keeps the safeties pinned back. The third play (at :28) shows Oregon’s rare super tight formation, but Cal’s playing it loose and isn’t ready for the snap that comes only 17 seconds after the last play. The final play (at :33) is a fairly simple play-action but I think the CB is tired from the tempo and Mitchell just blows by him in single coverage; this snap was also only 17 seconds after the last tackle. The entire drive took only 1:11 off the clock and lasted just under 90 seconds of real time.
I thought Oregon’s pass defense in this game was excellent. Prior to garbage time, the few completions Cal had came on some heroic efforts by their wide receivers, a couple trick plays, and one broken defense of a screen pass. Cal’s most effective “passing” plays came from getting Oregon DBs to commit two stupid penalties. This was Oregon’s first game on a Fox broadcast, which tends to use wider camera angles and I could finally see the downfield coverage:
On the first play, #11 OLB Hollins has coverage of the TE and gets a fingertip on the ball to break it up, but more importantly check out #7 S Amadi and #4 CB Graham maintaining leverage on their men on the top of the screen, and #15 CB Lenoir staying tight on the outside hip of his man because he’s got linebacker help. On the second play (at :19), Hollins’ pressure results in an overthrow which helps out #16 S Pickett in coverage, but the other four guys are doing even better, including the new nickel #8 S Holland. On the third play (at :32), Oregon sends five pass rushers in cover-1, and all five DBs have their men locked down, including the interesting placement of Graham on the slot and #35 LB Dye on the flanker. On the last play (at :40), we’ve got good coverage by the corners, the ILBs are playing the TE going for the sticks, and Holland almost has the route jumped for an interception but settles for a pass break-up.
The rush defense had some more difficulty. A big part of the problem was Cal really leaning into their 4- or 5-wide wildcat formations (these were over 50% of snaps they took prior to garbage time, way up from the 30% they used in weeks 2 and 3), which stresses the defense by forcing them to take more personnel out of the box and into coverage.
That said, it was hardly a disaster: by my count Oregon had 11 successful rush defenses during meaningful play — the most important of which was the 4-down goalline stand that effectively ended the game — which was the same number as non-wildcat designed rushes in which Cal was successful. Much of the rushing yardage that Cal got came on broken passing plays in which the pass rush got home but one or the other of the running QBs managed to scramble forward - hard to really pin that on the rush defense, and most QBs Oregon will play for the remainder of the season aren’t as cavalier or mobile. Most of these plays are really satisfying to watch — featuring #34 NG Scott of course, as well as #51 DE Baker and #90 DE Carlberg filling in fairly well for the injured #99 DE Faoliu — but schematically they look exactly like you’d expect and as I said, I’m trying to cut down on making such videos.
(I will also note here, even though I don’t like talking about luck, Cal had pretty remarkable fumble luck in this game - they put the ball on the ground four times and got back three of them while Oregon was 0 for 1, so Cal won 80% of those coin tosses.)
Still, even though I think Cal’s rushing numbers are somewhat deceptive, there was one consistent problem I was seeing - some physicality lacking in the second level:
The first play is a pretty well designed QB draw on an obvious passing down … #39 ILB Apelu is the only guy left in the box and he’s just not big enough to take on the center to buy time for the rest of the defense to arrive, and even then Holland as the high safety is a bit slow coming down and whiffs on the tackle. On the second play (at :20), Cal has two big TEs in and is combo blocking Oregon’s interior line, leaving #41 ILB Slade-Matuatia to control the gap, but he lets the TE get inside of him and work him out. The third play (at :27) is Cal’s most successful wildcat run - Pickett’s safety blitz gets picked up easily by the pulling guard and Holland can’t make the tackle. On the last play (at :53), both Amadi and Apelu get cleared out too easily by their blockers and neither can even get an arm free to slow down the back.
The most problematic choice facing the defensive coaches is what to do with the other ILB spot next to Dye. Apelu is fast, experienced, and has great instincts for the ball (he had several great stops in this game, including a D-gap blitz that got to the QB), but he lacks the size and strength to really shut down plays and got run over a lot in this game. The coaches have been spelling him with ISM, who’s clearly more physical, but his lack of experience showed during this game when getting into the proper gap and maintaining leverage. I’m not going to make a “lowlight” reel of either of these guys but it’s clear to me that this position has been the weakest link in Oregon’s run defense this year.
This is the third game in five weeks in which the opponent has switched up their quarterback from the guy they’d used previously, a frustrating trend for a film reviewer. While most of the plays that Cal ultimately ran in this game were ones I’d documented and discussed last Friday, I described it as a system with Garbers as the main QB and wildcat packages featuring McIlwain as a change of pace - this game made it seem like Garbers was losing the job to McIlwain as it went on, including the latter getting several plays where he had a running back lined up next to him and running the Garbers/Bowers playbook. I said that this wasn’t a “quarterback controversy” and that was probably a mistake, since fluctuating back and forth between two inadequate options seems like it fairly qualifies and certainly didn’t help Cal’s offense.
Even though I only had one decent game to go on, I went out on a limb and described Cal’s rush defense as pretty good … and Oregon blew right past them. That should probably be counted against me, though I was happy with accurately describing the linebacker play and how it could be exploited for big gains in the middle of the field, as well as the total absence of a pass rush unless they blitzed six or more. I punted on the question of Cal’s secondary, noting that they seem to be very talented but they hadn’t been tested with a quality downfield passing game. At this point, I think the answer is … yes to both: this group is actually pretty good and I believe the Cal fans who’ve said each of these guys is a future NFL player, but then, so is Justin Herbert.