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Observations and Questions: Breaking down Oregon’s 2017 football film, phase 3

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Weeks 8-10: UCLA, Utah, and Washington

NCAA Football: Oregon at Washington Jennifer Buchanan-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 phase 1 entry, and here’s phase 2).

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 3: Weeks 8-10

This is the second half of the Burmeister era, in which all the pieces who will finish out the year are in place (except QB of course), and the coaches are finally implementing a gameplan that works with the freshman’s abilities. It features three confusing games as the team adapts: a loss that should have been a win, a win in the middle of a 5-game losing streak, and a surprisingly strong start against a hated rival that collapses into poor execution.

Week 8: UCLA, 6-7 (4-5 Pac-12), #77 in S&P+

UCLA 31, Oregon 14, in Los Angeles

This game was frustrating to re-watch, because it’s the second of three losses that I believe could have gone the other way with better coaching. It was tied at 14 going into halftime, and despite UCLA having a number of talent advantages, I thought if anything Oregon was slightly outplaying them. Both teams had one really crisp-looking TD drive, as well as one TD drive apiece that (for lack of a better term) were just dumb - a questionable spot on 4th down, some idiotic drive-extending penalties, several comically bad whiffs by tacklers, etc. The difference is that while UCLA needed a short field off a fumble for one of their TDs, Oregon went the long way for both.

The defense, as had become the pattern by now, played admirably with the exception of the freshmen in the secondary giving up some explosive plays. What cost Oregon a winnable game was the offense beginning the second half by squandering four consecutive promising drives. Here are those four killer plays:

(You can right-click or long-press on any of these videos and select the option to watch in ½ or ¼ speed.)

The first play of this clip is obviously blown up by a late stem by the DE, but despite watching it a dozen times I still have no idea what the playcall was actually supposed to be. I conferred with a former coach and the best we could come up with is a miscommunication from the sideline where some players think it’s a Slip screen, the line thinks it’s a Wrap run, and … well, I have no idea what #11 QB Burmeister is thinking. The massive sack creates a 3rd & long that Oregon attempted to run a draw out of and failed predictably.

The second and third plays in the clip are simply throws Burmeister can’t make … or more accurately, are playcalls that required a QB maturity that at this point it’s clear he doesn’t possess. On drive 7, they need 10 yards so a flood concept isn’t a terrible idea, but these routes are way too simple to beat UCLA’s man coverage talent and Burmeister has neither the arm nor the patience to get the ball into any of these windows. On drive 8, the coaches give Burmeister a full set of reads to progress through, but instead of taking the fairly safe checkdown (#29 RB Benoit on the quick slant), for reasons that surpass understanding he tries the deep shot for #13 WR Mitchell’s back shoulder and misses badly, resulting in an interception.

On drive 9 Oregon was down 10 points early in the final quarter and in their own territory, and decided to go for it on 4th down with the same inside zone read that had failed on both 2nd and 3rd downs because UCLA stacked the box (which they do again here in a seven-man blitz). The risk being, of course, that if they don’t pick it up they’ve handed UCLA a short field and a high probability of scoring a touchdown that puts the game out of reach … which is precisely what happened.

You could say that the common denominator in all four of these failed drives is that Burmeister is the last Duck to touch the ball, and write it off as a true freshman signal-caller being unequal to the task. I think that’s true to an extent but ultimately unfair, and would point to the other thing they all have in common: unrealistic playcalling. I see coaches still failing to effectively adapt to the personnel they’ve got a full month after #10 QB Herbert’s injury.

Week 9: Utah, 7-6 (3-6 Pac-12), #33 in S&P+

Oregon 41, Utah 20, in Eugene

This week was quite a change-up, and not just in the outcome. For one thing, the infrequent defensive breakdown this time wasn’t primarily on the inexperienced CBs, but rather some otherwise very reliable LBs losing contain on outside runs. That said, this was yet another outstanding game for DC Leavitt’s group: in Utah’s eight meaningful possessions, one was a forced fumble returned for a defensive score, six ended in punts or FG attempts (including one defense of a short field), and only one resulted in a TD. And even that TD drive required an awful lot of bizarre stuff going Utah’s way, capped off by an offensive lineman catching a 4th down tipped pass while lying on his back in the endzone. Ultimately, Oregon took a 21-pt lead early in the 4th quarter, and while there were a couple of scores after that point, the clock so dictated both offenses after that point -- Utah with desperation heaves, Oregon with clock-eating runs -- that I think it’s safe to call the rest of the game garbage time.

But the other thing was shocking to see in film review, even knowing the result: the coaches had finally implemented a winnable gameplan for Burmeister and the offense, and the result was that Oregon scored on five out of its seven meaningful drives. The coaches had finally abandoned their stubborn insistence on inside running against a stacked box and forcing the QB to try difficult 3rd-down passing plays he couldn’t make. Instead, the new plan called for opening the defense with lots of outside running for #21 RB Freeman and #20 RB Brooks-James plus outside zone reads with the QB’s speed as an asset, then taking advantage with rollout short throws that Burmeister could handle. It was far from perfect: Oregon had two redzone stallouts on good defense by Utah, Burmeister panicked on a third-down pressure package which resulted in an early punt, and another drive had a bunch of penalties and poor execution that culminated in a fumble. But it was remarkable to see Burmeister finally making throws, in spite (or because) of their infrequency. Here are all seven of his completions:

The pattern here should be obvious: the receiver is downfield of the ball, it’s the quick (or only) read, the play design has stressed Utah’s backfield to allow an open receiver, and Burmeister is rolling out to put a safety or linebacker in a coverage bind. I particularly like the third play of the clip (drive 1, play 11, at :22), where the rollout plus a high-low read occupied five Utah defenders for only two receivers and the QB still had a fairly easy pass to make - to either #13 WR Mitchell displaying his speed or #84 TE McCormick displaying his gallantry.

(The stat sheet will show Burmeister officially went 9 for 12, but several of these were the six-inch shovel on sweeps that gets marked down as a pass … your intrepid film reviewer is more discerning. That said, the use of sweeps to stretch the defense and making a screw-up of the handoff an incomplete pass instead of a fumble is another example of wise adaptation to the QB’s limitations.)

Week 10: Washington, 10-3 (7-2 Pac-12), #5 in S&P+

Washington 38, Oregon 3, in Seattle

I had a real mixed bag of emotions re-watching this game. There’s the obvious, of course, but I also saw a number of pretty encouraging things, as well as a few new interesting pieces of the puzzle that reversed my thinking from when I watched the game live.

The most positive thing I saw was building on the previous week’s realistic gameplan of working outside and setting up Burmeister for easy throws against softened coverage. This worked out pretty well on the first two drives, moving the ball almost the entire field against one of the nation’s top defenses. Here’s five nice efficiency plays from the first drive:

You’ll notice first that these are all Classic Oregon outside zone read or sweep plays, with one of the pro-set spread runs I highlighted last month. It’s also nice to see how comfortably the offense was playing - the QB was making the right reads, they’re taking short gains to convert 1st downs, and they’re running the ball to where the defense is lightest. The second drive built on this:

This really opened my eyes re-watching it: Oregon was actually counter-punching to UW’s defensive adaptation! The Huskies lightened the box to account for all the outside plays, so Oregon went inside on a couple of these downs (plays 2 & 3 starting at :19), then when they stacked the box again, the Ducks went back to the perimeter. To top it off, on the final play of the clip there was at long last a throw to to the wide open trips-set screen against only two defenders. Readers will recall last month I was pulling my hair out at Oregon running the ball uselessly in this exact situation against Stanford; for them to have finally learned their lesson was heartening.

But then this all came crashing down in a pile of stupid decisions and atrocious execution. On its third possession, Oregon’s bad coaching habits returned: two obstinate inside runs against a stacked box resulted in a quick 3-out and a punt (reportedly a decision by Coach Taggart himself) directly to UW’s record-setting punt returner who predictably took it back for a TD.

Like the UCLA game, the contest was lost on four consecutive failed possessions (starting at this point) which put a competitive game out of reach. Unlike the UCLA game, I actually liked much of the playcalling during these drives and on critical plays, but this time I felt Burmeister really was at fault as it was his screw-ups that ended all four drives. This gets a little awkward: I categorically refuse to make a “lowlight reel” of a player repeatedly messing up, because no young person deserves to have that floating around the internet. So you’re just going to have to take my word for it: drives 4 and 7 ended with Burmeister making the wrong option read, 5 because he mishandled the snap, and 6 because he scrambled way too early out of a pocket that wasn’t collapsing. I’ve been pushing back for most of this series against the “we just got screwed by that bum, the team was great otherwise!” thesis because I think it’s lazy, unfair, and doesn’t fit the facts most of the time ... but in this game, that narrative got much of its ammunition legitimately.

The defense played a pretty solid first half. Through almost 6 full drives, they only gave up 184 yards and 10 points to the UW offense, and that was with the Oregon offense handing the Huskies two short fields.

But then on 3rd & 2 of drive 6 and about to get off the field, #1 CB Springs uncharacteristically broke down in coverage and allowed a 47-yd TD pass, and the execution errors compounded rapidly. The next drive featured by far the worst overall defensive effort I saw all year, giving up a 10-play, 80-yd TD drive to put the game into garbage time on a bunch of poor line play, bad gap integrity, and safeties missing tackles. On other drives throughout the season there were of course some pretty galling broken plays, but they were mostly just one guy missing an assignment - this drive was the whole unit getting abused. It’s hard to blame exhaustion too, since this was only the second drive of the half and Oregon was winning time of possession almost 2-to-1 at that point (22:23 vs 11:52). More than anything else it looked like less than full effort from a unit that knew it was beat, which was pretty distressing to see. On the one hand, only seeing that once all year given how dire it got at times isn’t that bad; on the other, it’s one time too many.


Position Group Spotlights

Running Backs

Returners: Departures:
Returners: Departures:
#20 RB Tony Brooks-James #21 RB Royce Freeman
#22 RB Darrian Felix #29 RB Kani Benoit

The biggest question for Oregon’s 2018 offense is who’s going to replace Freeman as the every-down back. It’s fairly clear from the 2017 playcalling as well as Coach Cristobal’s statements and the type of linemen he’s recruiting that he intends downhill power running to be a bigger part of Oregon’s offense than in the past. And while Brooks-James is the only upperclassman returner who might fit that role, it’s reasonable to be skeptical that he has the frame for it.

That said, I was watching him closely during this project to see how he was dealing with contact, and came away more impressed than I was expecting. I initially picked this month to review the RBs because during this phase he had a number of incredible long runs, zig-zagging all over the field and juking defenders out their shoes, but on reflection I decided to highlight his physicality instead. I think the clearest demonstration of this is Oregon’s first drive of the 3rd quarter against Cal - the offense had been sputtering the entire 2nd quarter as offensive injuries piled up, including to Freeman. The solution was to get the ball to Brooks-James on nearly every down of the drive:

He showed off a lot of versatility and toughness here: not only can he evade tackles but power through them, plus he fielded a wonky checkdown throw from #12 QB Alie without losing momentum. He’s also doing this while getting almost every play of the drive in rapid succession - this is a pretty lightly edited clip.

The only other returning receiver (I discussed #5 WR Griffin last month with the receivers) is #22 RB Felix. He’s tough to evaluate: he only got a dozen or so non-garbage time touches, and while the speed and elusiveness he was recruited for was obvious, he barely cracked .500 on my tally sheet. I saw a lot of true-freshman mistakes, including some shaky ball security that resulted in a fumble against UCLA.

Secondary

Returners: Departures:
Returners: Departures:
#7 CB Ugochukwu Amadi #1 CB Arrion Springs
#4 CB Thomas Graham, Jr #10 CB Ty Griffin
#15 CB Demmodore Lenoir
#16 S Nick Pickett #2 S Tyree Robinson
#21 S Mattrell McGraw #26 S Khalil Oliver
#25 S Brady Breeze #17 S Juwann Williams
# 28 S Billy Gibson

This was without a doubt the most frustrating unit I watched all year. They lose both Springs and #2 S Robinson, both of whom had some up-and-down times during previous years but had an excellent 2017 (I feel like I owe both of them an apology for yelling at them so much from my couch over the years, but re-watching their 2017 film they really had their assignments on lockdown and the camera just wasn’t giving them any attention).

There’s only two upperclassmen returners and both will be at safety: journeyman senior safety #21 S McGraw, and converted cornerback #7 S Amadi. The latter has had an interesting career: he’ll go from hero to goat and back to hero in the same game (and sometimes on the same drive). He was nominally a CB in 2017, but it’s during this phase of the season that the plan to transition him to a strong safety became apparent, because he’d come in on nickel packages as the STAR and was assigned quite a few blitzes. I think strong safety is a better role for him at any rate and it’ll be good for him to show some senior leadership.

It’s tough to predict who’ll get the free safety role replacing Robinson. All the guys who could take his spot are freshmen or sophomores, and while I got a fairly good look at all the returners -- #16 S Pickett, #25 S Breeze, and # 28 S Gibson -- they each had some pretty glaring freshmen mistakes. Gibson came in the earliest as Robinson’s replacement but never appeared again in meaningful plays, Pickett got the most playing time but is a net-negative on my tally sheet, and while Breeze is a net-positive his playing time was limited and I think he’s built more like a strong safety.

This defensive scheme puts a lot of pressure on the cornerbacks to play man-free on key downs, and #4 CB Graham, who started opposite Springs as a true freshman, got picked on a lot. As I said before I refuse to make a clip of this, but my tally sheet shows 16 times during the year where he got burned badly on sideline routes and gave up massive yardage. I think his speed and reaction times are excellent, but he’s not tall, and his instincts in pursuit and when to flip his hips need a lot of work. And even assuming he grows into the position, it’s still a wide open question who’ll get the other spot. The other true freshman who saw a lot of playing time backing up Springs was #15 CB Lenoir, who had mostly the same up- and downsides as Graham but much less experience. I will say that they’re both pretty strong tacklers and recorded quite a few ... it’s just never a great sign when your corners have to do that a lot.

I think the question of whether these very young players step up will determine, more than any other position, how Oregon’s 2018 season goes. The corner opposite Springs was by far Oregon’s biggest defensive vulnerability (in S&P+ Oregon was about 20 ranks worse in IsoPPP, the metric for defending against explosive plays, than the rest of its categories, and I can confirm this wasn’t because of big runs breaking). If Graham and Lenoir can build off their experience and play reliable man coverage, or if any of the new faces can surpass them, this could be a top-20 defense. If they can’t, be prepared to hold your breath on a lot of 3rd & longs.


Questions

1. Any trends I’ve missed or players I’m being unfair to?

2. I know that the fan consensus is that Brooks-James won’t be able to bulk up and become the workhorse back, and instead that’ll go to one of the big freshmen with TBJ staying as the change-of-pace guy. But after reviewing his film closely I’d actually be pretty interested to see TBJ make it happen. Anybody else with me on that?

3. I think that question has eclipsed how versatile Oregon’s backs will be with Griffin and Felix on the roster as well. RB coach Mastro has a pretty interesting history at Nevada and Wazzu of using backs in unconventional ways and I think there’s strong potential for him to introduce a lot more than the half-dozen basic run plays that Oregon ran in 2017. But I haven’t been following the micropolitics on the offensive staff closely - Cristobal and Mirabal seem to want to go the other way, and Arroyo and Williams are total mysteries to me. Anyone have some insights there?

4. Oregon’s brought in so many new CBs -- Haki Woods and Charles Sudduth as transfers are the most notable, but there’s three or four freshmen whom I haven’t seen either -- that I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Lenoir gets beat out. But what do folks think are the odds Graham loses his spot as well?

5. Despite having some significant reservations about literally every safety I saw play, I feel fairly confident that a couple reliable starters in this group will emerge, between Amadi and McGraw’s long records, the freshman playing time for the other three, and incoming four-stars Jevon Holland and Steve Stephens. Is anybody worried about this group?