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Tuesday Morning Quarterback: Film review of week 12 vs Arizona St

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In which Herbert and Graham switch bodies

NCAA Football: Arizona State at Oregon Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Offense

This was the best rushing performance the Ducks have put together since week 7 - I counted 22 successful runs vs only 12 failed. A lot of that is simply because, as I noted on Friday, ASU doesn’t have a particularly good rush defense … though that said, Oregon did better on a per-play basis than their last two opponents (Utah & UCLA) combined, and those are run-heavy squads. I think the reason for that improvement is having some stability at offensive line, or at least what passes for it in the back half of this season: four of the positions were played by the same guys the whole game, and the right guard spot was mostly filled by #75 RG Warmack, with #71 RG Capra spelling him every third drive (it was every other drive in the first half last week). Some examples:

On the first play, #13 WR Mitchell’s end-around fake causes a late and inadequate defensive adjustment while pulling the safety out from the top, and the end stays on #10 QB Herbert despite the fact that he hasn’t kept a “read” in weeks, so all that’s needed is for #54 LT Throckmorton to wash his man inside to give #26 RB Dye a clear path on this counter. On the second play (at :08), the blocking by Throckmorton and Capra is actually pretty bad, but since this is an outside run and Dye is fast enough to accelerate out of that mess, what matters is the blocks being thrown by #27 TE Breeland and #9 WR Schooler, and those are pretty good. On the third play (at :15), this is some pretty serious push from the line and #87 TE Bay, and #34 RB Verdell has built up so much steam that he drags five other players across the line to gain.

I hope this game puts to rest the constant kvetching I hear from some quarters about the pistol formation being ineffective. Here are the numbers from my tally sheet:

  • Offset - 15 success vs 8 failed (65%), 5.6 YPC, 1 TD
  • Pistol - 7 success vs 4 failed (64%), 5.1 YPC, 1 TD

Every time a run play failed it was because an offensive lineman made a bad block … there’s nothing that I’m seeing on film about the RB alignment that affects it. I think this is a case of some Duck fans having selective memories.

The only real pattern I’ve noticed is that they run the stretch play disproportionately more often out of the pistol than offset (which does make sense, given the structure of it), but the stretch is probably the most technically demanding of all their run plays - all five guys have to maintain their blocks for a longer period of time, and there are usually a couple of blocking handoffs. In other words, it’s not the RB formation, but calling a play the weakened o-line is less effective at. On the other hand, they run inside and off-tackle more often out of the pistol, which are more frequently successful (but I suspect many viewers don’t remember as such because they’re not too sexy), which is why it balances out. They ran outside exclusively from the offset this game (mostly zone blocking), and not only were successful almost every time, but produced big memorable runs which are fun to watch.

What kept this game closer than it should have been was a pretty lousy performance in the downfield passing game. I recorded only 10 successful dropbacks vs 18 failed. In fact, all six second half drives prior to garbage time ended in a bad 3rd-down passing play, most of them with a bad play by Herbert on the preceding 2nd down as well. Although this game featured a few pretty amazing throws, on a per-play basis it was exactly the same numbers as the blowout loss at Arizona.

None of the issues were novel and I’ve written about all five of them over the course of this season, it’s just that they all happened at least three times in this game: receiver drops, Herbert misfiring, a poor read of the defense, miscommunication on route running, and lack of protection from the backup o-linemen. Some examples:

On the first play, all the elements of a successful play are present - good protection, solid throwing form, and #9 WR Schooler has beaten his man off the break … he just can’t handle the ball. The second play (at :07) is a quick throw on 3rd down, and the DB is soft enough on #30 WR Redd that he makes an uncontested catch, but the DB on Bay isn’t run out of the play like he’s supposed to be and he comes back to make the tackle short of the sticks … Herbert has plenty of pocket protection to wait and if he’d pumped the ball and hit Bay instead, there’s no one between him and the endzone. The last play (at :12) ought to be an easy dumpoff to Verdell who’s split the defenders, but even with zero pressure Herbert inexplicably throws the ball at his feet.

However, what made up for this was the continued expansive use of screen passes since the UCLA game. Here they were successful eight out of nine times, and along with some interesting adjustments in the run game the reader may have noticed, represent creative and appropriate playcalling that I think OC Arroyo isn’t being credited enough for:

On the first play, ASU has failed to figure out something’s brewing when Oregon keeps a WR in the backfield and sends the RB to the sideline, bringing six men up the middle while Redd slips out, Breeland and #3 WR Johnson clear the DBs, and Redd has plenty of grass to exploit. The second play (at :21) is the RB variant of the “super flanker” screen I wrote about two weeks ago - in addition to the nice blocks by Redd and Mitchell, Breeland is positioned in a way that he’s effectively blocking two defenders at once because neither can get an adequate angle around him. The last play (at :49) is two potential screens in one! The fake to Verdell pulls the MIKE out of the play, giving the tunnel an easy setup … of course, both Breeland and Warmack are pretty useless at blocking on this play, but the design of it (plus Mitchell’s incredible skill dodging tackles) lets him cut back outside instead and run for a big gain.


Defense

This will seem strange to say given the final score, but this was by far Oregon’s best defensive performance of the year. When you consider the bad spots that special teams, the second-half offense, and ASU’s remarkable turnover luck put them in, the defense was excellent. I will say, however, that while I like him a lot and I’m not going to make a “lowlight” reel, this was by far #7 S Amadi’s worst game of the year: he was responsible for half of all failures in both downfield passing and screen defenses, plus a quarter of run defense fails, and of course the muffed punt that kept ASU in the game. That’s unfortunate for his last game in Autzen.

In run defense, I tallied 23 successful plays vs only 13 failures, and they were perfect at defending the off-tackle power run with two pulling guards that was ASU’s only rushing bright spot against Utah. Some examples:

On the first play, Oregon is adapting properly to the double-team on #99 DE Faoliu, because it opens up the lane for #35 ILB Dye to crash in after #34 NT Scott and #11 OLB Hollins string this run out, and the RB slips trying to cut back (where #97 DE Jelks is waiting for him after patiently pursuing backside). On the second play (at :13), #32 OLB Winston gets inside the TE’s block right off the snap and slows the RB enough in the backfield for the rest of the DBs to get there, but check out 3rd-string #55 ILB Niu (who had a mixed game but that’s still an improvement over the last couple of weeks) finally showing some discipline by staying put and taking the cutback lane the RB is thinking about but bails on. The last play (at :30) is such a gorgeous, textbook 3-4 run defense that I couldn’t resist - Scott immediately pushes the center into the backfield, then spills into the RB’s lane, and then watch Dye’s feet - he doesn’t overcommit, he stays on his toes and smoothly follows the cut to get on the other side and make a perfect wrap-up tackle for a loss.

I had to double-check my notes for the pass defense, because this is astonishing: against all ASU dropbacks to pass downfield, Oregon defended 26 successfully vs only six failures. Yes, a few of those six were pretty memorable - a couple of times #1 WR Harry was simply undefendable on a jumpball and #4 CB Graham had a galling breakdown after a turnover. But this was a very disruptive game for the defensive line, and Graham and #15 CB Lenoir have really surprised me how good they’ve gotten after I spent a year and a half writing about how they were the Achilles’ heel of the team. I counted seven sacks or QB flushes, four hurries, two swats in the backfield, and an amazing seven pass break-ups (which considering zero turned into interceptions constitutes abysmal turnover luck). Some examples:

The first play is a coverage sack - Lenoir is mauling Harry in coverage, Amadi and Graham are staying over the top of their men, and when Jelks gets through, Hollins doesn’t get overexcited but rather takes the outside escape lane for the scrambling QB and trusts his teammates (here, a good job by backup #29 OLB Jackson) to get him down. On the second play (at :15), backup #45 DE Cumberlander (who had his best game of the year, four great plays including the game winner) wrecks the center to threaten the QB, and Lenoir gets the rejection. On the last play (at :30), Graham gets revenge for the deep sideline burn Harry put on him last year, and stays on him the whole way (watch his hips, they never break) to knock that ball out of the sky.


Accountability Corner

Last week, I wrote about Harry’s game-changing play and the bad decisions the QB makes under pressure, and I think those were borne out. I also commented on their OC’s weird overcommitment to running despite it being fairly ineffective on a per-play basis, and while they were a lot more balanced in this game it remained true that, with one painful exception, they were pretty routinely stuffed on key downs. I was surprised that the QB only kept the ball once considering how big of a role the inside zone read played in their last two games, though that may have been a strategic choice on the Ducks’ part to always stay on the QB. I wasn’t successful at predicting how effective ASU would be in the screen game - although they didn’t use it much, they were successful almost every time, to the point where I thought these were new packages brought out for this game.

I thought Oregon would have some success in the rushing game because of the ASU defense’s refusal to adjust to motion or stack the box, but I wasn’t expecting it to be this dramatic, nor was I expecting the offensive line to be as successful as they were simply handling one-on-one blocks. ASU didn’t blitz nearly as much as I thought they would, and I’m still not sure why, considering the o-line isn’t at full strength and Herbert has been making some poor decisions lately … though maybe they figured they didn’t need to pressure him for that to happen. Fortunately, even while playing the worst football I’ve seen out of him, Herbert still has twice the arm talent as ASU’s previous two opponents and wore out their secondary in ways those teams couldn’t.

I’ve been pushing back at both Arroyo and Mastro’s detractors for several weeks now, and I think the film in this game provided plenty of evidence for those takes. It’s discomforting that something is always going wrong with Oregon’s offense in the second half of the season, be it the line or the wideouts or a possibly concussed QB, but I’m just not seeing anything that indicts the pistol formation in particular or the playcalling in general.