Nota bene: The obnoxious overuse of skycam angles throughout this broadcast made finding suitable video examples a challenge; I was tempted to use garbage-time plays to make up for it (I defined that as starting with Oregon’s last touchdown with about 6 minutes left in the game, all stats and videos in this article are prior to that), but decided against it.
The most important part of the turnaround from the last two weeks is that the rushing offense got back on track. It’s impossible to overstate how vital this is to making this playbook effective, since it’s dependent on efficiency and manipulating the defense. I recorded 21 successful runs vs 16 failed this week, far better and more frequent than the 10 vs 19 for the past two weeks combined. I noted a few adjustments in play selection that are helping out, particularly greater use of skill players blocking:
The first play is a simple stretch, where the left side of the line is doing a great job getting lateral and then turning back in to seal off the defense, but look at the blocks from the other players: #87 TE Bay is driving the OLB five yards to create the hole, #27 TE Breeland takes down the backside pursuit, and #9 WR Schooler gets in a great crackback against the safety … this play is a perfect example of what this offense wants to do - the basic design guarantees a few yards, great blocking into the second level turns it into a chunk play, and if #34 RB Verdell had made the last guy miss it’d be a touchdown since everybody else is sucked in. The second play (at :07) is a short-yardage design, with #54 OL Throckmorton (moved over from his usual RT spot to LT) washing in the line and #3 WR Johnson motioning in late to get inside of the defensive structure and then taking on a 4-star WDE pretending to be a linebacker to make the hole … and because Verdell starts nine yards back in the pistol he’s built up so much momentum that he plain runs over the free safety. On the last play (at :15), count how many blocks you’re seeing -- it’s everybody but the two guys who touch the ball -- and it just takes one defender taking a poor angle for #20 RB Brooks-James to get through the secondary and score.
This game saw a lot of shuffling at the offensive line. The first drive used the same configuration from last week, with Throckmorton at LT, #75 RG Warmack back in the game, and backup #66 RT Aiello taking Throckmorton’s spot on the right. Warmack left the game after the first possession, and for the next nine drives they alternated every other drive with backup #71 RG Capra replacing him on odd-numbered drives, and on even-numbered drives moving Throckmorton to RG and putting true-freshman #74 LT Jones in his place. Then halfway through the tenth drive, #55 C Hanson was ejected for a very unusual reason, and Throckmorton took his place at C with Jones and Capra staying put for the rest of the game. All things considered, I thought the line dealt with this adversity pretty well:
On the first play, Aiello gets outside and seals a 315-lbs DE to create the edge, and the TEs and Johnson clear out the rest of the defense. On the second play (at :06), Jones is taking on a fellow freshman -- the former ninth-ranked DT in the country -- and completely manhandles him, and Verdell makes a nice cut in the backfield to dodge the blitzer and pick up the 1st down. On the last play (at :15), Jones puts up a single-handed wall, Aiello traps his man inside, and Hanson and #68 LG Lemieux get downfield then turn and contain the defense from backside pursuit.
There are a couple other issues in the run game worth noting, here are some representative examples:
The first play failed for only one reason (everybody else’s blocks were great): Thockmorton on this play is at RG, and as was pretty clear at the end of last year, he’s naturally built to be a tackle not a guard and I’ve consistently noted his inability to contain the big guys inside. The second play (at :06) is a pretty nicely designed counter play (note that Bay takes a counter step to start and the handoff is to the backside), but the freshman Jones loses his block and it trips up Throckmorton’s pull, and then he crashes into Bay who can’t get the OLB coming around. The last play (at :10) is fairly similar to the second play in the first video and it’s well blocked too, but this time the safety makes a great tackle on #26 RB Dye to produce one of Oregon’s few 4th & short failures on the year.
I included that last play because it illustrates a couple of things. First, note that it’s set up like a read, but even though the defense is completely committed to the interior and the WR gets a great block, #10 QB Herbert doesn’t keep the ball and run for what would have been a huge gain (this is true on the previous example as well, and I counted three more instances where he should have kept but never did). I believe all of the “reads” in this game were fakes, and the staff is being very cautious about not running Herbert at all.
The other issue that 4th & 1 illustrates is short-yardage choices. The Ducks faced a dozen 3rd & 5 or shorter downs, they selected six runs and six passes (the runs were more successful, though the sample size is small and there were a number of weird issues so I don’t know if that part is meaningful). They also faced two 4th & 1s, this was one, the other they elected to punt despite being close to midfield. To my eyes, it looks like the coaching staff is not as confident about pounding the rock as they had been in the first half of the season - prior to #58 LT Sewell’s injury in week 7, downs in those situations were a lot closer to 100% inside runs.
Another playcalling change in this game to help take pressure off the o-line was a more extensive use of screen passes, including a couple that we haven’t seen before:
The first play is not, despite some cosmetic appearances, the smoke-3 screen I wrote about after week 2 (fifth video, second play) … instead, the back goes into motion and confuses the linebacker, then continues into a block on the overloaded outside coverage along with the TE. On the second play (at :10), this is a super flanker screen with four men split out field side, with the TE effectively blocking two defenders at once because neither can take a good angle on him. The last play (at :18) is a fairly standard outside RB screen, but check out the blocks that #13 WR Mitchell and #30 WR Redd are throwing on this play to spring it - that’s a 175 lbs slotback knocking a 250 lbs DE to the ground.
There were eight passes behind the line of scrimmage in this game (all completed, seven of which were successful given the down and distance), which is more than usual for Oregon’s offense this year. It also somewhat inflates Herbert’s passing statistics - if you pull them out and just look at downfield passing, Oregon had just 13 successful plays vs 14 failures.
Unlike last week, there was pretty good pass protection in this game (albeit often because a TE and RB stayed home to help). And really, of those 14 failures, most didn’t merit any concern - they were single-instance things that just happen and we’ve seen before (a drop, a slip on the turf, etc.). On a couple of snaps UCLA’s talented DBs just made an excellent play.
There is one worrisome pattern, however: Herbert misfired five times in this game, and only once was the receiver able to haul it in with a heroic effort (another time they were bailed out by an offside flag, but the free play was useless because he didn’t hit a receiver who was wide open). I’m not going to make a video of this, however. I’ve relaxed my personal rule about not making “lowlight” videos in Herbert’s case since he’s obviously a future NFL QB and it’s not like if I don’t put them out those flaws will never be discovered, but this is still over the line for me. As I documented last week, I don’t think he’s fully healthy and he’s just not throwing at 100% for reasons that I don’t care to speculate about.
That doesn’t mean that he wasn’t making some pretty amazing throws as well. Some examples that need no explanation:
UCLA officially recorded 297 passing yards, however that number is pretty misleading. 63 of them came on one play (the Dye coverage bust that’s been well covered elsewhere), and 111 of the rest were on two garbage-time desperation drives at the end of each half when Oregon was playing prevent and on which UCLA recorded zero points, plus the fake punt which is on special teams. What’s left is 123 yards, mostly on pretty short stuff dinking and dunking, largely because the defense was getting into the backfield a lot and forcing quick throws. I recorded 20 pass play successes vs 12 failures in meaningful play. Most of these were schematically unremarkable, but there were a couple of interesting notes:
The first play shows Oregon backing out of a blitz and confusing the LG/C handling of #99 DE Faoliu (back in the lineup after missing last week’s game with an injury) who flushes the QB, #97 DE Jelks looping around to contain the rollout, and #15 CB Lenoir getting off his coverage to make the tackle … also notice #29 OLB Jackson pursuing from the backside of the play at full speed the whole way to help out with the tackle. The second play (at :09) is an example of the several times #11 OLB Hollins dropped into man coverage of the TE, a departure from his usual role in the pass rush; here he stays nice and tight and even gets the pass breakup. The last play (at :16) shows #37 CB Hailassie, who was getting his first substantial minutes of playing time, staying in tight coverage of UCLA’s best receiver … the pass is too high but he’s in good position to play the ball if it were on target.
There were a couple of patterns I noticed in the pass defense breakdowns. Some illustrative examples:
The first play shows something I’ve been writing about all year, and happened five times this game - the defense gets into the backfield and even gets a hand onto the ballcarrier, only for him to escape and miraculously find completely open grass. Here the downfield pass coverage is excellent, and #51 DE Baker has the QB wrapped up, but Jackson gets too excited about the sack and loses containment, and even knocks #39 ILB Apelu (who’s properly got the middle of the field) out of the play. The second play (at :33) shows a design that UCLA ran five times and Oregon never defended properly, a play-action fake of an outside run into a wheel route combined with two TEs expanding into a sideline and post. Here, #35 ILB Dye hands off the post coverage to Hailassie but doesn’t promptly get back to cover the flat … this play immediately preceded the big TD where he got it wrong but in the opposite way, crashing too hard on a guy who wasn’t for him to cover. On the last play (at :40), Oregon is blitzing which vacates the middle of the field, but #8 DB Holland is too far outside to cut it off and then can’t bring the big TE down ahead of the sticks.
The run defense was a far bigger problem, and the numbers aren’t misleading at all. The successful plays are pretty typical from what we’ve seen from Oregon the past two years, and getting #32 OLB Winston and Apelu back was welcome. However, Apelu went out with injury again right before halftime, and we saw a lot of the same breakdowns with the backup linebackers that happened the week before. Some representative examples:
On the first play, Faoliu gets a hand on the back but can’t bring him down (familiar story), but more importantly Jackson is getting completely demolished on his edge block, something that happened to one or more linebackers on eight plays - this position is simply fielding too many either undersized or inexperienced players to be effective in run stopping against beefier OLs and TEs. The second play (at :07) shows the difficulty Oregon had bringing down UCLA’s phenomenal starting RB - there are six defenders around him when he’s first contacted slightly behind the line of scrimmage, but they still can’t prevent him from picking up two yards and the 1st down. The last play (at :16) shows third-string #55 ILB Niu on one of his nine critical positioning errors in the second half, in which he’s slow to recognize how the pair of combo blocks on the DLs are going to evolve into downfield blocks … Dye follows the RB outside to force him back in where Niu should be waiting for him, but instead he’s gotten caught up by the guard and there’s no one left in the middle of the field.
The twirly trick play (third video, fourth play) showed up again and was successful for the third straight time … but yet again the commentators thought it was a busted play. You, dear reader, are better informed than paid professionals, thanks to Addicted to Quack.
I think I’ve written about most of the things that played into Oregon’s defensive effectiveness in the past - UCLA’s very high quality running back, the improving secondary, the compounding problems with the linebackers, and the incredible frustration of a really disruptive d-line getting into the backfield and then letting UCLA’s mobile QBs escape.
It was good to see both Mitchell and Herbert playing in this game, and pretty well at that, although some of the troublesome misfiring issues that I wrote about last Tuesday are persisting. I was surprised to see them have a much better game against what I thought was a better secondary than last week -- am I not understanding what makes a good DB? -- but I think I’ll chalk it up to a more effective run and screen game taking a lot of pressure off of them.
The big surprise was the offensive line, particularly Jones coming in and playing pretty well at LT. I stuck my neck out last week when everybody and their mom on Facebook was hammering OC Arroyo for bad playcalling by arguing that this wasn’t the issue at all, and I think I was mostly vindicated with this performance which showed a lot of adaptation to the ongoing o-line execution problems from injuries and shuffling. But one area that I’ll criticize the coaches for is being slow to put Jones in and instead rotating Throckmorton all over the line. It’s clear from how they’ve used him over the past two years, including during camp to deal with an injury to the center, that they believe he’s quite versatile, but my tally sheets from this time show he’s just not effective at any other position but right tackle and they should have broken Jones into the lineup as early as week 8.
What I feel I’m under-serving the reader about is special teams. Like last week, much of this game revolved around bizarre special teams events, though happily this time they were mostly in Oregon’s favor. I don’t preview special teams and I feel like that’s leaving out a major chunk of the outcome, but I don’t know what I can do about it - the most impactful stuff is essentially random, and the hidden yards of field position on punts is almost impossible to evaluate properly with broadcast angles.