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Tuesday Morning Quarterback: Film review of week 11 at Utah

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Playcalling problems, but not on the side of the ball you think

NCAA Football: Oregon at Utah Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Nota bene: Once again, lousy camerawork eliminated several potentially valuable videos, so this is going to be a little lighter than usual in terms of film to go over.

Offense

Overall it wasn’t a great night for the rushing offense, only 9 successful runs vs 13 failed, and as I’ve noted in the past this is a run-first offense that only hits its stride when they’re not constantly in 3rd & longs. The split in rushing effectiveness between first and second half is remarkable, however, particularly on 1st down runs:

  • 1st half - 1/9 successes on 1st down runs, 3 TFLs, none of them even a short gain
  • 2nd half - 6/10 successes on 1st down runs, 0 TFLs, and 3/4 failures still got a short gain

When it was working, some of these runs were among the best I’ve seen all year (reminder - you can right-click or long-press any of these videos to play them at ¼ or ½ speed):

The first play is a stretch with a great iso of the LB - #75 RG Warmack quickly gets inside the DE and seals him off while backup #66 RT Aiello pulls underneath and knocks out the backer to spring #34 RB Verdell for a chunk gain. On the second play (at :07), all five guys are making great blocks, including #74 LT Jones coming around and up into the second level with pretty good speed for a 375-lbs man. On the last play (at :14), #27 TE Breeland has the lead block on the iso LB this time, but Jones again is showing some nice moves by chipping #68 LG Lemieux’s man, then when the LB gets around him, quickly turning to push him out the other way.

Unfortunately, much of the time Oregon’s personnel wasn’t a match for Utah’s:

On the first play, a pretty clearly half-strength Warmack is pushed out of the play entirely on the playside, and Jones can’t properly take the exchange from Lemieux on the backside, giving up the man who makes the tackle. The second play (at :07) is a jet sweep to get away from the d-line, but #30 WR Redd still isn’t fast enough to escape the rush end and Verdell and Breeland can’t maintain their blocks. On the last play (at :13), Jones and Aiello are just too green to handle blocking at this level and give up both of their guys.

Given how poorly the o-line played, that the offense had any success at all is a minor miracle. On 68 meaningful plays, I counted 45 errors by an offensive lineman, which is even higher than against Arizona. There’s no other way to put it, the constant o-line injuries and shuffling have been catastrophic for this offense. Diving deeper into the splits:

UO-Utah OL success rates

Player Beat Snaps Percent
Player Beat Snaps Percent
#68 LG Lemieux 5 67 7.46%
#58 C Hanson 3 40 7.50%
#54 OL Throckmorton 9 68 13.24%
#66 RT Aiello 9 68 13.24%
#75 RG Warmack 5 27 18.52%
#74 LT Jones 11 59 18.64%
#71 RG Capra 2 9 22.22%
#77 LT Moore 1 2 50.00%

These percentages are in line with the rest of the year as well. I think this demonstrates a few things: first, Hanson is just fine at center; second, Throckmorton plays with the effectiveness of a backup at any other position than RT; third, true freshmen and third-stringers at LT are even worse than the backups Aiello and Capra.

Poor pass protection doomed several drives, although other issues we’ve seen in the past cropped up as well:

On the first play, Throckmorton at center and backup #71 RG Capra just can’t handle the size and speed of Utah’s pass rush, and two guys get pretty clean shots at #10 QB Herbert - with just a little more time he could have hit #9 WR Schooler with some green grass ahead. On the second play (at :17), Herbert is still misfiring a bit on these quick passes, throwing this a bit behind Breeland on a critical 3rd down (although Breeland gets both hands on it and he should still be dinged with a drop, something else that happened quite a few times in this game). On the last play (at :23), Aiello gives up the pressure which kills this play once again, but we can use the poor camerawork to our advantage and see that Herbert has nobody to throw it to - absolutely none of the receivers has gotten even a little bit open.

The offense stayed in the game through some pretty nice passing plays, including several I thought were well-designed:

The first play is a rollout off play-action with a high-low read to get away from the strength of the defense; Herbert checks out of the sweep motion to Schooler and instead patiently waits for #13 WR Mitchell on the comeback to get open and hits him on the move. On the second play (at :16), Herbert gets a clean pocket, reads the linebackers’ coverage, and hits Mitchell with a soft cushion and plenty of room to run - also check out Redd again throwing a great block after the catch. On the last play (at :35), the defense is locked onto Mitchell who pins the safety with his mere presence while Verdell leaks out underneath on a nicely timed throw.

This game also continued the more extensive use of screen passes to compensate for the shaky o-line. Unfortunately, it was more of a mixed bag than last week due to some execution errors:

On the first play, the throw is a little behind Verdell -- either because it’s off target or because the RB’s supposed to get a little deeper in the backfield and come up to the pass with forward momentum, I don’t know -- but regardless it slows him down enough for the all-conference linebacker to make a play; however, notice the great outside blocks that Schooler and Redd are throwing. The second play (at :08), is a gorgeous middle screen - trips right have taken away most of the secondary and the pass is off just in time to exploit the LB’s aggression, meanwhile Schooler is maintaining his block for a full six seconds, and Lemieux is sprinting down the field almost as fast as Verdell is to make his block. On the last play (at :25), we’re seeing a play that hasn’t been called for a while, the fake sweep into a flanker screen, great blocks and the defense is appropriately frozen … unfortunately, Mitchell is a little lazy getting set and hasn’t been in position for a full second when #3 WR Johnson goes into motion, so this is an illegal shift.


Defense

In addition to some truly appalling camerawork rendering a lot of this unusable, most of what went wrong defensively just isn’t interesting from a film study perspective, and I’m getting a little sick of making videos of kids screwing up. So this will mostly be narrative, and you’ll have to trust me.

In rush defense, Oregon actually did pretty well on a per-play basis - 23 successes vs 20 failures. The successes are entirely unremarkable, and prominently feature the d-line getting penetration against a somewhat slow-footed o-line - my tally sheet doesn’t note the OLBs nearly as much as #51 DE Baker, #97 DE Jelks, and especially #99 DE Au. Faoliu.

Eight of those failed 20 rush defenses are for pretty mundane, expected reasons -- a safety making the tackle but getting dragged a couple yards, #35 ILB Dye in position but the RB makes a nice move inside the scrum to force an arm-tackle and get some YAC, etc. -- and if they were all this would have been a lights-out performance. But on the remaining dozen failed snaps Utah was effectively picking on three backups: #93 DE Kava (who was getting completely destroyed by the LT on each of his snaps), #55 ILB Niu who is pretty consistently in the wrong gap, and the 4th-stringer who replaced him, #24 ILB Simms who was having a really tough time getting his feet set to make his tackles.

Pass defense was similarly above water on a per-play basis - 16 successes vs 14 failures in downfield passing. The secondary continues to be a pleasant surprise in the second half of the season, with about half those defenses coming strictly from just quality coverage. Of course the other half is from a very disruptive d-line, as well as great play from #11 OLB Hollins and #32 OLB Jelks, and facing a QB who’s less able to pull a Houdini act than previous ones once they get in the backfield.

A large number of those failed pass defenses are things I don’t want to make videos of - a couple of intriguing calls from the zebras, and #16 S Pickett having a really rough day (on three different plays he slipped and fell down in coverage, resulting in a huge gain; the commentators were particularly annoying to me in never mentioning this and acting like the receiver had made an incredible move as opposed to just getting lucky with Utah’s notorious turf monster).

However, I have a bone to pick with the defensive coaches for many of these coverage schemes. Some of this stuff is embarrassing:

The first play is a screen to the boundary, where Oregon has lined up two defenders against three receivers - how are the DBs supposed to make this play? The second play (at :07) is the very next snap, where they’ve aligned in the exact same way, Oregon is late to get ready, and they’re still sending two defenders against three … but this time it’s worse because the free man runs a completely open slant for a huge gain. On the third play (at :25), Oregon has wised up and put three men on the trips, and to no one’s surprise this screen gets eaten up by Hollins and #52 DE An. Faoliu. But on the last play (at :33), they’ve got Hollins out again but he and #15 CB Lenoir don’t know how to handle a non-screen pass out of it, and neither cover the slant that we know is coming because of the previous pair of plays in this clip.

Also, I have no idea how the defenses to these wheel-slant combo routes were drawn up, but they’re comically inadequate:

On each of these plays, the DB over the top switches well after the pass is even thrown, and the result is bizarrely soft coverage of an incredibly easy slant for a young QB to make.


Accountability Corner

The fact that Oregon doesn’t have the depth to deal with its injuries, while apparently every opponent can substitute in a new quarterback and do just fine, is starting to be a real drag on your faithful film reviewer. I hope these article have some value to the reader even though they’re talking about games that never wind up happening.

I think I correctly identified the ways in which Utah’s run defense could be exploited, though on reviewing last Friday’s article I think I didn’t emphasize enough just how fast #6 DE Anae is since his speed was critical to stopping a number of plays Oregon has otherwise run successfully in the past. I’ve been writing the same things about the ineffectiveness of Aiello, Capra, and non-RT Throckmorton since the summer. I continue to believe — and think I can back up with film — that offensive playcalling is pretty appropriate (and in fact much more creative than is given credit for) and the offense is just hamstrung by o-line injuries and talent problems at wideout ... but even I think they’re getting too reliant on Mitchell’s incredible skill to get them out of jams and wish the playbook would open up even wider.

On defense, I don’t think I was imagining things when I noted that most of Utah’s big successes with #2 RB Moss were from his powering through tackles and that the o-line was a bit too massive for its own good, but I probably should have stretched my imagination a bit more to see how their speedier backup #6 RB Shyne would be able to exploit Oregon’s injured disaster area at ILB. I don’t think I could have seen putting Kava in at DE so early, since he’d only played cleanup last week, or that he’d be so unprepared especially for Utah’s 17-play fourth drive. And I’m truly baffled at Oregon’s screen and wheel coverage problems, since these were definitely predictable with a backup QB (literally his only big play last week was a tunnel screen, and that was his first big play this week) ... the defensive coaches have got to be seeing something I’m not that’s making these failures the least-bad option, since the vice-versa explanation is pretty disheartening if true.