Let’s eat dessert first, because it’s going to be an ashen meal after this.
The offense clawed back into this game with about 20 successful passes. I saw a number of patterns, including burning DBs down the field and earning pass interference flags, Herbert scrambling into open grass, creating confusion in the secondary by sending multiple tight ends deep into the pattern, and taking advantage of soft coverage on the speedier #13 WR Mitchell and #30 WR Redd. But what really made it a game were several pretty heroic receptions in tight coverage:
I won’t annotate these because there’s nothing schematic about them, they’re just gutsy calls, throws, and catches with zero margin for error.
But why were such heroics necessary? That Oregon’s offense played a poor first half that, despite a heroic comeback effort in the second, ultimately doomed them to a loss is by this point a pretty uncontroversial statement. But explaining how exactly that happened is a bit more involved than that.
In the first half, Oregon ran only 14 real, studiable plays - that is, excluding the weird penalty back-and-forth plays on the first drive and the crazy forty seconds at the end of the half. Here’s the entire list:
- One ugly snap probably caused by crowd noise
- One bad playcall (an outside run where the defense was just too fast to the edge)
- Two very successful plays (Mitchell burned a cornerback deep and got a pass interference flag, and beautifully blocked stretch run)
- Two fine plays, just not enough given the down & distance (an inside zone run for short gain, and a shallow crosser to #9 WR Schooler)
- Two Herbert-to-Mitchell unforced errors (both featured good o-line protection, one was slight overthrow but Mitchell had his man beat, the other was a nice throw but a miscommunication on the route)
- Two non-Mitchell receiver problems (Schooler on a post route had his man beat but he lacks top end speed and the DB caught up, and #3 WR Johnson on a comeback route but he didn’t, uh, come back enough and the DB had the space to jump back and break it up)
- Two failed runs directly attributable to #58 LT Sewell’s injury (both inside zone runs where the replacement tackles got beat)
- Two pass play failures caused by #34 RB Verdell blocking the wrong guy in pass protection
With the exception of that last point (which Verdell mostly cleaned up in the second half), all of these were either totally predictable events and/or stuff I’ve written about before. That’s not to dismiss them as meaningless, they’re all obviously areas of concern, it’s just to say none of them should have been shocking on their own. We know that they can happen, they’re all things this team has dealt with or knew it had to deal with.
What was shocking was that they all happened. I’ll leave it to others to assign meaning to that -- depth deficiencies, poor preparation, opponents adapting as film develops, coincidence, bad luck, an extreme environment, caprice of the football gods, or a dozen other plausible explanations I’m not going to weigh in on -- and merely say that in doing film study my reaction to the first half was a short list of “yeah, saw that coming,” and then it was over.
The relevance of the offense’s poor first half, then, wasn’t that they were suddenly playing dramatically worse for some terrifyingly unknown reason (and if you were looking to this article to explain what if anything that was then I’m sorry to disappoint, but happy to say it wasn’t anything that had me dumbfounded either). The relevant thing was that playing out of a 27-0 deficit altered the gameplan substantially in the second half, primarily because the run-pass balance went decidedly against Oregon’s preferences: 41 designed passing plays to just 11 runs.
This bad half -- whatever the reason one believes it happened -- exploded Oregon’s best strategy for winning the game, which was to take the air out of the ball with power runs up the middle, eating up so much clock that Wazzu wouldn’t be able to dink and dunk down the field. Playing from behind reversed the strategy and made it into an accelerating feedback loop of disaster - as the game went on, Oregon had to get farther and farther away from its gameplan. That they made a credible comeback at all, in this context, was actually pretty impressive to me.
Oregon only ran 16 designed rushes in the entire game, and while there were several very nicely blocked runs that got significant yardage, they aren’t numerous or schematically interesting enough to document. Five of the 11 failed runs were due to #66 RT Aiello getting beat on his blocking assignment, which is a pretty grim number going forward. I’m not going to make a video of these failures because I don’t make lowlight reels of a kid, but I will say that they were always because Wazzu’s rush ends are exceptionally fast and I’m not sure there’ll be that much defensive speed on the rest of the schedule.
One pattern I did notice is that I thought several of Oregon’s outside zone rushes were poorly chosen. This wasn’t really an issue from Wazzu’s late defensive line shifts or stems (Oregon handled those pretty much fine, with the exception of the crazy first drive when they were letting the environment get to them), but rather because these are just impossible to block adequately given how far over Wazzu is shaded and their speed at d-line:
On the first play, #54 LT Throckmorton and #68 LG Lemieux just can’t beat the speed of the playside DE and LB, and they’re able to string this run out. On the second play (at :07), Wazzu’s stem isn’t freaking anybody out, you can see the linemen recognizing it … rather, the problem is that Throckmorton and #55 C Hanson now have to block guys who are more than a yard over to their left, and Wazzu’s speed makes that impossible. On the third play (at :13), the problem comes on the backside, where Hanson, Aiello, and #75 RG Warmack just can’t get over in time to block the speedsters on the d-line. The last play (at :19) shows that even when most of the blockers get it done, it just takes one guy getting beat by having to reach too far to blow up a play that runs laterally across the backfield for this long.
When the offense is calling this many passing plays, #10 QB Herbert is bound to have some mistakes. I’ll highlight a representative sample of what I saw:
On the first play, Wazzu’s six-man pressure overloads Throckmorton and forces a dumpoff throw to Mitchell on the shallow crosser - he’s got his man beat pretty well, but the throw is a little behind him, and having to slow down before he turns the corner allows the DB to run him down. The second play (at :08) is a nice play-action fake that uses the pistol formation to buy a little more time for routes to develop, but this ball to Mitchell on the flag route is just really overthrown. On the third play (at :18), Oregon has successfully baited Wazzu into a coverage bust to deal with the bubble screen, but either Herbert overthrows it or Schooler messes up his route by slowing up early. On the last play (at :26), Herbert is back to overconfidence in his arm strength to zip this in to #27 TE Breeland and it gets broken up from behind … he’s got better receiving options at pretty much every other spot.
Wazzu only had one change-up to their strategy, which was that they ran the ball or used designed RPO screens on about a third of all their plays, which is up from a quarter in their other games. These usually came on 1st down and failed by my traditional measure of down & distance, but succeeded in making the short throws more viable, and also kept more men in the box and out of coverage. Also, these types of plays had the effect of picking on undersized #39 ILB Apelu, who’s a valuable addition in underneath passing coverage due to his speed and intelligence, but on several of these more physically oriented plays plays he got run over.
Last week I advised DC Leavitt not to blitz Wazzu’s offense, because it’s exactly what they want - their otherwise porous o-line is a lot better at avoiding confusion with blitzes, paradoxically, and the entire offense is built for quick, undefendable throws when there’s no underneath or safety help. Sadly, he appears not to have gotten the memo until halftime:
On the first play, there’s no way #8 DB Holland can cover this route on his own, but the angle is so shallow that if the OLB stayed out in the throwing lane instead of rushing he could have gotten in the way. On the second play (at :08), the late and useless safety blitz from #16 S Pickett means #7 S Amadi is now the one left alone with an undefendable out route. On the third play (at :25), same deal - you can cover everybody else one-on-one but these out routes combined with the QB’s phenomenal timing just can’t be handled in single coverage. The last play (at :41) takes the cake, a quick slant route against a jailhouse blitz, and Holland’s got no chance.
There were a couple other adaptations by the defense in the second half that allowed them to get back in the game, including several swats at the line and raking of the receivers’ hands to break up passes. But what really sealed the game were several coverage breakdowns from #4 CB Graham and #15 CB Lenoir, and at this point I’m tempted to pack it in with these guys. However, the DBs did put together quite a few nice plays in across-the-board coverage as well:
On the first play, the 5-man pass rush doesn’t get home (of course it doesn’t), but Lenoir runs stride for stride and almost comes away with the pick … also check out the nice defense of the trips on the top of the screen. The second play (at :14) is pretty much the only example of a blitz producing a successful outcome, but that’s really only because Graham, Holland, and Pickett have their men completely locked down and Lenoir is the beneficiary of a bad throw. On the third play (at :29), great coverage by everybody plus an effective pass rush with only four let Graham make this quick tackle of the dumpoff in the red zone. The last play (at :56) is again great single coverage from all the DBs, and Amadi gets legal pressure on the receiver to redirect his route.
What appalled me were how many failures I saw to defend the checkdown pass to the RB, which was the most crucial play to extending Wazzu’s drives and eating up a huge amount of clock. Some examples:
On the first play, #32 OLB Winston is set up to make a TFL on this pass after handing off his coverage to the ILB, but a gallingly weak tackle lets him free. On the second play (at :12), Amadi has contained the RB from getting to the edge and Apelu is coming over to limit this to a minimal gain, but they let themselves get dragged for five more yards. On the third play (at :22), Apelu should know that he’s handed off his zone assignment to Dye and he needs to be following the RB wheeling out, but he’s flat-footed in his reaction and can’t beat him to the sticks. On the last play (at :32), #35 ILB Dye has bailed out way too far considering this is the red zone and he has multiple defenders behind him, he needs to be playing up on the RB … still, even after giving up the 2nd & 1, he could stop the touchdown by making a tackle in space, but whiffs badly.
Last week, I said of Wazzu’s defense that I thought their DBs could be gotten both in the short and deep game, but that their terrifying speed in the front-seven made up for that quite a bit, and I think those things proved to be correct. I’m not sure what to make of my observations about their run defense, however - I thought they were too quick to beat outside, but due to size problems (and Oregon’s eagerness to run inside the previous week) that they’d give up a lot of inside rushing yardage. Oregon went with the opposite of that approach in the first half, then abandoned rushing almost altogether in the second half. The obvious and self-satisfying (well, not that satisfying) conclusion is that I’m a genius and should be calling plays, but that’s probably not it. Perhaps the shuffling of the OTs explains that choice, a systemic problem with those guys pulling. But Oregon has inside power plays that aren’t based on tackle pulls, and besides, as I documented the tackles were often the problem on outside runs as it was. I don’t really understand why the coaches made the choices they did and am open to suggestions.
When Oregon was on defense, again I feel a mix of satisfaction, disappointment, and confusion. I think the advice not to blitz was borne out, for all the good that did in the first half, but at the same time Oregon wasn’t getting an awful lot of pressure rushing four or fewer. That was largely because Wazzu reacted even better than they had in previous games at getting rid of the ball quickly and didn’t need to scramble as much, and I was pleasantly surprised that Oregon was able to play disciplined and communication-based coverage to break up those quick throws in those situations. I continue to be frustrated by inconsistency in the deep coverage by Oregon’s 4-star DBs, but don’t know what else I can say about it at this point. I’m flat-out shocked at how bad the LBs were in tackling and coverage of Wazzu’s RBs given that they’re all experienced guys who did well last year, but maybe I shouldn’t be considering I’ve been documenting for a while that this unit has been slowly regressing all year long.