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Observations and Questions: Breaking down Oregon’s 2017 football film, phase 2

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Weeks 5-7: Cal, Washington St, and Stanford

NCAA Football: Washington State at Oregon Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

This series will break down the film of all 13 of Oregon’s 2017 football games, grouped into four installments chronologically and posted near the end of each month of the offseason (here’s the previous entry).

I’ll post a few clips to help analyze issues that I saw, and offer general observations from studying the film of each game closely and tallying up successful and unsuccessful assignments of every Oregon player on all non-garbage time snaps. Each month I’ll also spotlight two of the eight position groups which were particularly relevant to that month’s period of games. Finally, I have some questions for Oregon fans about how they saw things.

I’ve been doing similar projects on upcoming Oregon opponents -- both big out-of-conference matchups and bowl games -- for several years now, and while I can’t claim to be entirely objective, I have tried my best to use the same methodology in evaluating the 2017 Ducks.


Phase 2: Weeks 5-7

The predominant theme of this phase is dealing with injuries. The most significant was the loss of #10 QB Herbert at the beginning of the Cal game, but there are lots more, some temporary and some for the season. The silver lining for the film reviewer is the opportunity to evaluate more potential 2018 starters in live-game situations and the coaching staff dealing with shifting circumstances.

Week 5: California, 5-7 (2-7 Pac-12), #87 in S&P+

Oregon 45, Cal 24, in Eugene

The final three quarters of this game were a holding action - the margin remained basically the same once Oregon reached a 17-0 lead at the end of the first quarter. But by that point, the personnel losses had gotten absurd: Herbert, #21 RB Freeman, #6 WR Nelson, #13 WR Mitchell, #27 TE Breeland, #2 S Robinson (targeting), and #39 ILB Apelu.

The Ducks scored on each of their first three drives, demonstrating a basic talent advantage that Cal couldn’t contain. Still, this game made clear that the offensive playbook in 2017 was far less sophisticated and manipulative than in previous years when operating with that advantage. Here’s an example from the first drive, a fake run-pass option:

Keep an eye on Cal’s strongside DB, #6 S Hawkins - at first he looks like he’ll line up over the slot, but then gives away he’s blitzing well before the snap. Herbert recognizes that this changes the count and switches the read to the blitzer, then properly sees his hips are square (he’s too far outside, covering the possibility of a QB keep), so Herbert hands off to Freeman who gets a big gain on some really nice blocking by #84 TE McCormick and #68 LG Lemieux. Cal’s Hawkins winds up chasing Freeman uselessly.

I say this is a fake RPO because that blitzing safety created a 2-on-1 with the field-side receivers: Herbert could have thrown to #80 WR Johnson on the screen for a touchdown, #86 WR Schooler was in position to block out the only DB left. It’s even more clear that the pass option on this play design is a charade three downs later:

As a former coach I consulted on this film pointed out, Oregon succeeded in getting Cal to reveal their strongside DB blitz on the hard count (this time it’s #20 CB Drayden, but Cal is still defending it the exact same way). But rather than smoothly adjusting to the new box count as they had already done, or throwing the even more clearly open flanker screen to where the blitzing DB had vacated, instead they kill their momentum checking with the sideline, then just read Cal’s end man on the line (#36 LB Funches) … and to make it worse, Herbert botches the read-option by handing off, as Funches had turned his hips and was pursuing the RB. The result was a tackle for loss and a field goal, Cal’s only defensive stop of the first quarter.

Fortunately, Oregon’s defense more than made up for these offensive problems. Here’s an example of a tremendous pass rush combined with tight zone coverage:

Obviously the star of this play is #34 NG Scott for defeating the double-team and securing the sack. But look at how well everyone else is executing as well: #97 DE Jelks shoves past the other guard to cut off the QB’s retreat and the inside backers and DBs seamlessly hand off coverage of the crossing routes and the leaking RB. Also, this play shows off the flexibility of the outside backers - #11 OLB Hollins switches from covering the outside run to sealing the edge, while #32 OLB Winston covers the other RB on the wheel route with great speed and fights off the slot receiver’s attempt at a rub.

All of Cal’s scores in this game can be directly attributed to Oregon injuries: one was a short field TD off an interception thrown by the backup QB, and each of the rest came off one explosive play that exploited the inexperienced backups for Robinson and Apelu. The game was effectively over early in the 4th quarter when Oregon strip-sacked Cal’s QB and handed the offense a short-field TD to go up by 21 - there were a couple scores after this point, but I think they can be comfortably described as garbage time.

Week 6: Washington St (9-4, 6-3 Pac-12), #39 in S&P+

Wazzu 33, Oregon 10, in Eugene

This was #11 QB Burmeister’s first start. I think his shortcomings as a true freshman are pretty well documented and understood at this point, so I won’t belabor them much. Suffice it to say that by my count, nine of Oregon’s 13 offensive failures on key downs resulted from either a poor throw or the defense not having to defend the deep ball. To be fair to him, Burmeister was also still missing Nelson and Mitchell as receivers, and while Freeman returned from his shoulder injury, I think he came back too early - his blocking was terrible and he wasn’t lowering his shoulder going into contact. Here’s an early example on an iso play:

The H-back, #87 TE Bay, probably could have made a better block on the outside backer, but he gets enough of #51 LB Luvu so that he has to try a stand-up arm tackle; Freeman could have powered through it by getting low and picked up the first down, but he stays high and surrenders leverage, and gets taken off his feet. Also note that this is another play where the defense is blitzing the DB instead of covering the possibility of a flanker screen, and it’s a real easy first down if Burmeister could make that throw.

The box score on this game is kind of confusing: it seems like Oregon’s offense had a decent first quarter, but in reality Wazzu’s punter had a terrible game and kept giving Oregon short fields. The more appropriate stat lines for the Ducks offense: seven punts, three turnovers, and three failed 4th down conversions. The outcome of the coaches’ first try at devising an offensive gameplan without Herbert was a complete failure.

However, the box score also doesn’t reflect how excellently the defense was playing - two of Wazzu’s three TDs came off turnovers, and their remaining drives were seven punts, four field goals, and a fumble. Here’s another example of a coverage sack showing off the whole defense (and a gorgeous Autzen sunset):

Again, Scott is the obvious playmaker here, but really this sack is made possible by great zone coverage by the DBs and LBs. Also, it’s notable that, unusually for this defense (which typically lines up in a bear front and pass rushes off the edge), when playing an air raid team they put the outside backers Hollins and Winston out in pass coverage of the flats, where they do an excellent job.

Sadly, as well as they played the defense was just on the field too much in this game and inevitably let Wazzu slowly build their lead. The most demoralizing moment was the Cougars’ first drive of the second half, when #4 CB Graham got burned twice in three plays for 30+ yard passes when given single coverage on four-verts … one of them on 3rd & 19.

Week 7: Stanford (9-5, 7-2 Pac-12), #32 in S&P+

Stanford 49, Oregon 7, in Palo Alto

The Cardinal’s Heisman runner-up #20 RB Love had 147 yards and two TDs in this game, and it would be easy to write this loss off as just getting trampled by an unstoppable talent. But that’s really not the case: 110 of those yards and both TDs came on just three carries on Stanford’s first two drives, and while those three runs are difficult to watch, the Oregon defense had him very effectively bottled up for the rest of the game (it reminded me of the Ducks’ 2015 shutdown of Christian McCaffrey).

Instead, Stanford dominated this game in what was perhaps the most low-key bizarre thing for both these teams: Oregon had its worst passing defense of the regular season, and both #10 QB Chryst and #3 QB Costello had by far their best passing completion performances of the year. Six Stanford receivers had 10+ yard catches. Oregon’s short DBs simply could not effectively defend any passes to much taller receivers as Stanford just threw over the top and collected pass interference flags and fade-route TDs all game long. Very few of these completions were deep balls, either, just quick mid-range throws which gave the pass rush no time to get home.

The offense had made some progress over the week in figuring out an effective playbook without Herbert, turning out overall better yardage and a couple impressive drives. But while Freeman returned to full health, #20 RB Brooks-James left the game early with an apparent concussion. The offense turned the ball over four times, including back-to-back interceptions followed by a blocked punt taken for a touchdown (the same poor punt-shield formation that gave up something similar against Arizona St). Here is what I think was the most emblematic pair of plays for the offense in this game:

This is a 3rd & 1 then 4th & 2 in Stanford territory, with the opportunity to cut it to a reasonable margin before halftime. Oregon calls a timeout and puts together these plays as a package (when editing the clip, I kept in the time between plays to show how quickly they snap again with the same personnel; they’re followed by the reverse-angle shots of 3rd then 4th down). I think this constitutes progress by the coaching staff in knowing the game situation and wisely using the timeout to decide to go for it on 4th in advance, and using tempo to try to get an advantage over the defense.

On the 3rd down play, it’d be easy to hammer #84 TE McCormick for a weak block on the edge, but that’s not the gap this play is supposed to go through - Freeman is meant to follow the pulling guard between the LT and TE, and probably would have made it if he hadn’t bounced outside instead (also, the strong safety was waiting to make the tackle short of the LTG even if McCormick had cleaned out the SAM). On 4th down, again this might look like poor blocking, but check out the count: Stanford has nine men in the box against just six blockers, simply too much meat to clear out. They get this hat advantage by only putting two DBs against the boundary trips - this would have been an easy touchdown if this were a real RPO and Burmeister threw it to a completely uncovered Mitchell. Oregon has signaled over and over during the year that this is a run all the way and this play is the culmination of defenses simply ignoring the non-possibility of a pass in order to crush the run.


Position Group Spotlights

Wide Receivers

Returners: Departures:
Returners: Departures:
#13 WR Dillon Mitchell #6 WR Charles Nelson
#80 WR Johnny Johnson III #89 WR Darrian McNeal
#86 WR Brenden Schooler
#5 WR Taj Griffin
#30 WR Jaylon Redd
#23 WR Malik Lovette

I really like the trio of returning outside receivers in Mitchell, Johnson, and Schooler. After a bit of a rough start due to inexperience, I think these three rounded into very reliable pass-catchers -- each are over 80% on my tally sheet -- and I’m really impressed with their speed off the line as well. Each of them has at least one highlight-reel catch in 2017 where they show off their hands by pulling down a heavily contested or wild throw. They should also be commended for their aggressive blocking (Mitchell was tentative to begin the year but was throwing great blocks by the end; Schooler was throwing some pretty nasty low blocks that probably should have been flagged but also cleaned it up by November). Depth will possibly be an issue, since everyone behind them other than Lovette are freshmen ... but it’s hard to read how the staff would respond to an injury here: Johnson and Schooler didn’t get a bump in receptions during Mitchell’s absence, but it coincided with the nadir of the coaches’ confidence in Burmeister’s arm so that might not mean anything.

On the inside, Nelson is going to be tough to replace. During his absence, his role was briefly filled by moving Mitchell inside -- a mistake, I thought -- and with Griffin as the slot and sweep man. Griffin was formerly a running back and reportedly will be moving back to that position in 2018; I’m not sure it matters what the label is because pretty much all I’ve ever seen him do was take sweep actions. Nice soft hands (a perfect 8 for 8 in non-garbage time downfield catches), but he’s terribly easy to tackle, multiple times a yard shy of the marker. We got to see Redd most often during this phase due to receiver injuries; I really like the pitch-option play that features him and wish we saw it more often, and I was also surprised by how eager and effective a blocker he is given his small stature, but he needs some time to work on his hands.

Tight Ends

Returners: Departures:
Returners: Departures:
#27 TE Jacob Breeland
#84 TE Cam McCormick
#87 TE Ryan Bay

This offense makes heavy use of tight ends in a variety of roles, in fact it plays out of a 12 personnel set more often than 10 and empty combined. All three TEs return, and the order of preference is very clear with Breeland on top and Bay really only seeing action as a backup H-back when Breeland was out. This is a solid, experienced unit that knows the playbook well and can be counted on for quality execution most of the time, though each had one really galling drop of a perfect pass during the year.

What I would really like to see is some offseason bulking up at this position. While they’re near perfect against the softer half of the schedule, against the toughest six defensive front-sevens, I saw all three of these guys lose their battles over 20% of the time on my tally sheet (I’ve been reviewing teams with the same methodology for six years, and this is the worst performing TE group on that metric that I’ve evaluated). I should say, though, that these guys are impressively difficult to tackle: their yards-after-catch are among the highest I’ve seen.


Personal Note

Last month I reviewed the linebackers, before we learned the sad news of Fotu Leiato’s dismissal and subsequent death in a car crash. I only mentioned him in passing, and I wish I had talked about him more, his enthusiasm and passion and boundless energy for the game. He will be missed.


Questions

  1. Any trends I’ve missed or players I’m being unfair to?
  2. This phase represents Oregon’s lowest passing numbers, but I admit it was tough to tease apart which passing-game backups were most responsible for that because the top QB, slot WR, outside WR, and TE were all out at the same time. My take is that the backup pass-catchers were basically replacement level -- a small downgrade at worst -- and that was eclipsed by the big downgrade at QB combined with the coaches’ decisions. Does anyone have a different take?
  3. I was puzzled by the conversion of defensive lineman Hunter Kampmoyer to a tight end for 2018, considering that the group is so solid and experienced, and the d-line appears to need all the depth it can get. Does anyone have some insight into that switch?
  4. I’ve been waiting for Griffin to break out for years now, and have to say I was disappointed in his underutilization this season. Does it seem fair to say that’ll continue with Tabari Hines’ transfer, even though officially Griffin will be a running back?
  5. Schooler only had about half the targets as Nelson, Mitchell, or Johnson, which seems pretty weird to me because from what I saw his hands and speed were just as good as the other outside receivers. What do you suppose that’s about?