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Observations and Questions: Breaking down Oregon’s 2017 football film, phase 4

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Weeks 12-13 + the Las Vegas Bowl: Arizona, Oregon St, and Boise St

Arizona v Oregon Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

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.

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.

Previous entries:


Phase 4: Weeks 12-13 + the Las Vegas Bowl

The final phase of Oregon’s 2017 season followed a bye and, after seven weeks of rest, the recovery of #10 QB Herbert from his collarbone injury. Hopes were high that he had fully healed up and would get the sixth win necessary to get the Ducks back to a bowl game.

Week 12: Arizona, 7-6 (5-4 Pac-12), #48 S&P+

Oregon 48, Arizona 28, in Eugene

The narrative that came out of this game was straightforward: Herbert was all that was needed to return Oregon to valor and victory. And that story is fairly accurate as these things go - here are all of the non-garbage time completions he made in this game that, in my view, #12 QB Burmeister couldn’t have:

There’s a lot to like here: the accuracy to fit a ball in tight coverage, the power to hit a 50-yd TD pass effortlessly, the self-possession to find great throws under pressure, and (on the prettiest double-reverse flea flicker I’ve ever seen) the patience to let his receiver open up on the coverage. But we should also note that, as impressive as they were, it was only five passes, and even then it wasn’t until halfway through the second quarter that the coaches had moved on from the Burmeister-friendly playbook I detailed last month (briefly: adaptive runs to where the defense isn’t and only occasional quick short passes outside the pocket to wide-open receivers) and let Herbert throw the tougher stuff.

In my opinion, the game was decided far more by the defensive performances: Oregon’s was excellent (more on that in a moment) and Arizona’s was abysmal. The Wildcats came in at 115th in defensive S&P+ last year and they struggled to stop even pretty basic plays. This became apparent on the last play of Oregon’s second drive and throughout their third:

(Reminder: you can right-click or long press on any of these videos and select 14 or 12 speed replay.)

On the first play of the clip, Herbert caught the entire second level of the defense on the wrong side of the field - pause it at :07, all five linemen are standing around for lack of anyone to block; pause it at :10, there isn’t another player within 20 yards of him, including any Oregon players blocking out ahead since they’ve cleared the defense out on post routes and field-side crossers. On the second play (:17 in the clip), #27 TE Breeland drove a defensive end five yards off the line, then handed him off and blocked a linebacker another five yards. On the third play (at :28), the nose tackle actually got a good jump on the snap and pushed #55 C Hanson back, positioning him to tackle #21 RB Freeman behind the line and end the drive - but Freeman just stepped out of it and then broke another weak tackle to gain six yards and a first down.

On the fourth play (at :36), #30 WR Redd has to run 53 yards laterally and still gained 16 on the play, as both linebackers got fooled by the pulling linemen, the WRs and RB were making easy blocks, and the corner attempted a poor tackle ... then Redd got shoved out of bounds, earning both a personal foul flag from the back judge and the disgust of Wilbur and Wilma Wildcat. These patterns were all present on the final play of the clip (at 1:07), where Breeland found the same backer from the earlier play and moved him out of the hole so easily that he protested, and #86 WR Schooler had so unnerved the CB that he committed a personal foul in frustration.

After that foul, the game got pretty chippy for the middle two quarters, and I think a few more fouls were called than were absolutely warranted as the refs worked to get the game under control (the working officials I consulted on these plays told me they wouldn’t have thrown their flags on a few of them). That makes evaluating this game from a pure stats perspective somewhat difficult, as several drives during this stretch were “artificially” extended or cut short due to penalties. Happily, your faithful film reviewer can see through this dross to bring you quite possibly the most impressive performance in Pac-12 play all year: DC Leavitt’s defense stopping Arizona’s Khalil Tate cold.

Tate entered this game with an astonishing average of 201 rushing yards per game in his six Pac-12 contests, at 12 yards per carry. Against Oregon, he ran for 32 yards total, and 2.3 per carry.

The defensive strategy was fairly simple and first demonstrated by Cal’s Justin Wilcox (Oregon ‘99), though he didn’t have the talent in the front seven to actually execute it well: you put a dedicated but rotating QB spy on Tate, play sound fundamental defense on the options, and make his only good choice a low percentage pass. Here’s a demonstration of each of these principles in the second quarter:

On the first play, Tate was reading #32 OLB Winston who stayed square and forced the handoff, but #99 DT Faoliu, who’s lined up as a 3-tech and possibly previewing his 2018 role, showed his merit by shedding the RT’s zone block and breaking into the backfield where #97 DE Jelks was waiting for him. On the second play (at :14), Winston relentlessly pursued Tate even on the backside of the initial play, and it paid off by putting him in position to break the TE’s ankles on a spin and catch the slot on the reverse; meanwhile #7 S Amadi had stepped out of the RT’s attempt at a cut block to establish contain for the rest of the team’s gang tackle (and take note of Faoliu hustling all the way down the line to help Amadi).

The third play of the clip (at :33) is a fairly basic, although surprisingly rare, jailbreak blitz - Arizona doesn’t have enough blockers left to handle #16 S Pickett, who forced Tate to make an early throw off his back foot and #1 CB Springs almost took it away. The final play of the clip (at :45) was probably the best defensive play of the night: Oregon busted open the pocket only rushing four (and without a nose guard, which was typical for passing downs), and #18 ILB Swain trusted his teammates and stayed level instead of vacating his hole to go for the knockout - this forced a poor-footwork throw which Amadi broke on for the interception.

Arizona threatened to tie the game back up on their first drive of the 3rd quarter after making some halftime adjustments. Oregon’s defense countered on the fly to end the threat:

On the first play of the clip, Winston again stayed square on the inside zone read, forcing the ballcarrier back inside where he bounced off the brick wall called #34 NG Scott. The second play (at :11) is just a flipped-field mirror of the first - Winston stayed home and the same back encountered the same wall, but he somehow remained on his feet so #92 DE Mondieux and #11 OLB Hollins caught him from behind after fighting free of their blocks.

The third play of the clip (at :23) was exactly the kind of situation in which Tate had humiliated a half-dozen Pac-12 defenses - after escaping Hollins who was assigned shut down the RPO, Tate had a clear lane to scramble for huge yardage (pause it at :27, this shot is terrifying to Pac-12 DCs) ... but #35 ILB Dye dismissed the TE blocking him and shut down Tate behind the line (then helped him up because he’s a great sportsman). The last play (at :44) was a last-second safety blitz by Amadi which, combined with Jelks breaking into the backfield, resulted in a hurried overthrow and a punt.

Oregon never looked back from this point on, patiently outscoring Arizona 20-7 in the form established during the first three games.


Week 13: Oregon St, 1-11 (0-9 Pac-12), #127 S&P+

Oregon 69, Oregon St 10, in Eugene

The Beavs were an FCS-caliber team in 2017 and there’s just not much meaningful film to analyze against such weak competition. Here are two representative plays from both teams’ first drives:

On offense, the left side of Oregon’s line was shoving their men 10 yards down the field and the outside backer attempted to tackle Freeman by playing tag. And the receivers were getting away with ridiculous blocks: #6 WR Nelson put his helmet into the safety’s crotch, then when that wasn’t enough, he stood up and blocked him again; meanwhile, #86 WR Schooler threw an illegal block below the waist away from the ball but the refs didn’t bother flagging it (I confirmed with two officials that this was a blown call). On defense ... look, I know I’ve said several times in this series that I really like Winston, but I’m pretty sure a linebacker should not be tackling two guys at once and nearly forcing a safety on the first play against an actual Power-5 team. This game was just silly.

There was one useful bit of film, however: back in May when I was spotlighting Herbert, I commented that during 2017 I thought he was overconfident in his arm strength by trying to throw straight through underneath coverage. There were three good examples of this in the Civil War:

A more competent defense would have turned one or more of these throws into an interception.


Las Vegas Bowl: Boise St, 11-3 (7-1 MWC), #25 in S&P+

Boise St 38, Oregon 28, in Las Vegas

Last winter I did a fairly extensive film review of Boise St plus playcharts of this game which were published on the Ducks subreddit. I re-watched the bowl over the summer for this project, and even after deepening my understanding of the personnel by reviewing the regular season closely, I stand by all the conclusions I came to back then. To save space and time, here’s the link for you to read in full: https://redd.it/7tgcud

The quick summary is this:

  • The coaches were unprepared for this game (which is understandable given the bizarre circumstances);
  • Oregon’s run defense did its job;
  • Freshmen cornerbacks gave up a bunch of appalling deep passes;
  • The Ducks rushing was atrocious, but I blame bad blocking and playcalling instead of Freeman’s absence; and
  • Herbert played a pretty good game, except he was responsible for all four first-half turnovers that put Oregon deep in the hole.

Since those last two points are the most likely to be controversial, I’ll supply some clips to back them up. Here’s how Oregon’s non-turnover drives ended:

On the first play of the clip, BSU has studied its film and knows where the zone-blocking is going, disrupting this play before it starts - the 5-tech knows he can get through the C-gap and Breeland is too far outside to get enough of him to prevent penetration. On the second play (at :20), #84 TE McCormick kills the drive with a holding penalty because he doesn’t recognize the safety blitz until it’s way too late, even though BSU blitzed off the field side against this kind of formation virtually every time during the regular season. On the third play (at :37), #54 RG Throckmorton simply can’t handle his zone assignment against the massive nose guard - his body type is naturally a tackle, not a guard, but the injury situation forced him to move over (more on that later).

On the last play of the clip (at :47), Oregon is running power as Coach Cristobal clearly wants to do more often, and this defensive alignment is crying out for an inside trap, where the center would stay on the nose and the RG would slip behind him to demolish the playside backer - something that BSU was particularly vulnerable to during the regular season (Virginia, of all teams, ran for four TDs against Boise St on traps and counters). But instead, either through a miscommunication or just overconfidence in #55 C Hanson’s ability to reach-block, there’s no guard pull and Oregon can’t pick up a conversion on 3rd & inches.

As to the other point about Herbert’s performance: he threw two interceptions in the bowl, but I think the other two turnovers were his fault as well. Here are all four:

The first play unfortunately never got a second angle on the broadcast, but from context and knowing BSU’s prior film, the backer was clearly breaking on this swing pass well before it was thrown and Herbert never should have put #20 RB Brooks-James in that position. This play design is dependent on the TE’s slant route clearing out the ILB just like the boundary receiver’s go route clears the corner, but even during the live game I was screaming at my television that this just isn’t how Boise St defends the flats and the backer was going to stay with the running back the whole way. But that almost certainly meant that either the slot or the TE was open in a soft zone (again, I wish we had another angle and ESPN hadn’t zoomed all the way in so we could actually see this) and Herbert should have thrown there instead.

On the second play (at :18), I have no good explanation for why Herbert took this sack. It’s not really on the blocking or playcalling -- BSU didn’t often send a safety blitz out of this formation -- and it’s not like this was his blindside either. He just thinks he has more time than he does and holds onto the ball too long waiting for Breeland to peel the free safety off of Brooks-James (which he does successfully), but Herbert hasn’t anticipated it enough and doesn’t even have his windup started when he gets crunched.

The third play (at :45) I hope I’ve set up adequately with earlier clips - Herbert thinks he can just blaze this ball through the underneath coverage, but it’s not enough when faced with better defensive talent … and this guy isn’t even the first-string nickel. For the last turnover (at 1:02) I think he just gets lazy - I believe he’s trying to throw the ball away after the pocket collapses (which is probably smart), but he just kind of flicks the ball as he’s getting tackled (which is probably not) and it floats on him, right into the safety’s hands for a pick-six.

But for as deep a hole as he dug, Herbert put in the work to climb back. When Oregon’s offense finally scored, Herbert was responsible for nearly every play on the drive:

On the first play, he recognized the CB holding Mitchell (bottom of the screen) so he took off, not only picking up 15 yards but another 10 penalty yards added to the end of the run. After a short run by Redd to set up play-action, on the next play of the clip (at :16) Herbert looked off the safety then delivered to Mitchell, who added some nice moves for extra yardage. Then after handing off to Benoit, the next play (at :28) was a quick throw with an unblocked end in his face, again to Mitchell. On the fourth play of the clip (at :38), the defense was tired of getting burned by Mitchell on the sideline so they assigned an underneath STUD backer to his route, leaving the TE wide open for an easy pass (just as I said they would when commenting on that first turnover), but he just plain dropped a perfectly thrown ball.

The next play (at :54) was the most impressive of the game to me. Going for it on 4th down, Herbert escaped two tacklers and kept his eyes downfield on the roll. The nickel committed to covering Nelson in the slot, leaving just one guy to beat on the scramble: #38 ILB Vander Esch, who’d been tormenting him all day long. Herbert had sat out six games this year after breaking his collarbone on the one run of the season he shouldered into harm’s way, but with the drive at stake he didn’t flinch: he powered through contact behind the line and dragged a future NFL linebacker four yards for a first down.

His grit paid off on the final play (at 1:06), when he calmly inched out of the DE’s grasp and spiraled the ball to Schooler’s back shoulder for Oregon’s first offensive touchdown.


Position Spotlights

Offensive Line

Returners: Departures:
Returners: Departures:
#55 OG Jake Hanson #76 OG Jake Pisarcik
#68 OG Shane Lemieux #57 OG Doug Brenner
#71 OG Jacob Capra
#54 OT Calvin Throckmorton #73 OT Tyrell Crosby
#66 OT Brady Aiello

When fully healthy, Oregon played the same five starters through all meaningful plays (a few other guys came in during garbage time, but I’ve found it’s not useful to evaluate players in those circumstances and with so few snaps, so they’re not listed in the above chart). The preferred composition, which I’ll call Plan A, was:

  • #73 LT Crosby
  • #76 LG Lemieux
  • #55 C Hanson
  • #68 RG Pisarcik
  • #54 RT Throckmorton

Now, bear with me as I do some detective work and give my solution to the puzzle of who’ll be Oregon’s starting 2018 offensive line.

Crosby was only out for the second half of the Stanford game, replaced by Aiello briefly who did about as well as can be expected in the circumstances.

The more telling drama was with Pisarcik’s injury at about the same time, which was a lot longer lasting and required some real shuffling of the line. Plan B was just to replace Pisarcik at RG with Capra and keep everybody else in the same places, but that plan only lasted for two halves. Unfortunately, Capra was a real dropoff at run- and play-action blocking (better at pass-pro but he allowed one really nasty sack). This resulted in Plan C for the second half against UCLA: benching Capra, moving Throckmorton over to RG, and having Aiello come in at RT.

Pisarcik returned from injury for the next two weeks so we were back to Plan A against Utah and Washington. However, in my opinion Pisarcik wasn’t at 100%, because his run-blocking numbers really suffered. So after the bye week and for the last three games, it was Plan C the whole way.

So I think we have some pretty good insight into what the coaches must be thinking of these guys when constructing the 2018 line:

  • Capra was ineffective and they sought out a transfer (Dallas Warmack from Alabama) for his position, so I’d be really surprised if Capra starts.
  • Throckmorton is built much more like a tackle than a guard, and his effectiveness at guard dropped noticeably both compared to Pisarcik’s and to his own numbers as a tackle - I actually put about half of Oregon’s failed runs and a third of Herbert’s hurries in the bowl on Throckmorton failing to make a block.
  • Despite this, they still trusted Aiello more as a replacement tackle than any of the other reserves who could have stepped in either at tackle to replace him directly, or at guard to push Throckmorton back to his original spot at tackle.

The upshot is that the 2018 offensive line looks really obvious on paper: Aiello-Lemieux-Hanson-Warmack-Throckmorton, from left to right (maybe the tackles flip sides). Not only do they have a ton of experience already (Lemieux, Hanson, and Throckmorton started in 2016 as well), but all five will have another year of eligibility coming up in 2019, meaning Oregon could have effectively the same o-line for four straight years.

However, it’s also pretty clear that Coach Cristobal wants to change Oregon’s line philosophy from longtime former coach Steve Greatwood’s athletic zone-blocking to enormous power-blockers, and has recruited as such. Some of Oregon’s freshmen in 2018 are the biggest and most highly rated recruits the program has ever had. Will Cristobal really wait until 2020 to field a totally new set of five guys and a completely different offense? Or will he be true to his word that, starting in 2018, there will be a rotation of eight or nine linemen, which would include some of these huge freshmen and possibly a pretty hybrid offensive structure that mixes in both philosophies? I think this transition is the most fundamental and fascinating one that will happen to the Ducks program in decades, and it means watching the big guys up front pretty carefully.


Defensive Line

Returners: Departures:
Returners: Departures:
#34 DT Jordon Scott
#99 DT Austin Faoliu
#51 DT Gary Baker
#97 DE Jalen Jelks #92 DE Henry Mondeaux
#90 DE Drayton Carlberg #5 DE Scott Pagano
#56 DE Bryson Young #91 DE Elijah George
#94 DL Malik Young

It’s hard to praise these guys enough, and the transformation of this unit from the lows of 2016 to the highs of 2017 was almost miraculous. Hopefully readers will have seen enough film of Scott’s power and Jelks’ speed that I don’t need to belabor the point - these guys are the real deal. The concern I’ve seen from most fans is about depth at the position, but I’m less worried about that than most. I think it comes from fans recalling former DC Nick Aliotti’s “hockey-line” style of constant rotation, but DC Leavitt and DL coach Sala’vea have a different approach.

Oregon is officially a 3-4, but in practice it’s more complex than that. It’s typically operating with the standup OLBs on the line making a bear (5-man) front during standard downs, but as I mentioned earlier, on passing downs they go to a nickel package in which they pull (instead of a linebacker like most teams) the nose guard from the middle of the line. It’s been interesting to watch some opposing offensive lines struggle with the change in defensive contour from an odd to an even front, but I think the other benefit is simply resting the biggest guy: the invaluable true freshman Scott.

In terms of total snap count, Jelks and Mondieux played nearly every down, but the nose was only in about 60% of the time, and even then Scott and Faoliu were rotating at the position at about a 3:2 ratio. The upshot is that while Oregon had about a nine-man rotation in the defensive line on paper, practically speaking they were mostly only playing those four I’ve mentioned, with Baker, Carlberg, George, Pagano, and Young just coming in for occasional relief.

They’re losing George and Pagano to graduation, who were the most frequent backups to Jelks and Mondieux (respectively), and of course the excellent Mondieux himself. But I think they’re well situated to simply put Faoliu in Mondieux’s spot, move Baker up the depth chart to be the second option at nose, and deploy Carlberg, Young, and a host of freshmen and sophomore talent in those backup roles. I’ll put it this way: if that’s not the configuration that we see early in the season, then somebody had a tremendous offseason and the d-line will only be better for it.


Questions

  1. Any trends I’ve missed, or players I’m being unfair to?
  2. I’ve now sat with the bowl game for a long time, and while I lay a lot of blame on unprepared coaching, I don’t really feel it reflects much about the staff going forward - and that’s a void I really want filled, because what kind of playcaller OC Arroyo will be is still a huge mystery to me. Are there any fair inferences to be made about the staff from that performance?
  3. I’ve seen a lot more concern about the defensive line depth than I’ve wound up feeling myself, I think because there were no substantial injuries that derailed the group last year. Am I being too cavalier?
  4. How are Duck fans betting the offensive line rotation works out? I think they stick with the predictable five starters all year (barring injuries), and the real drama starts in 2018 - does anyone think Coach Cristobal will actually start rotating the offense during meaningful snaps?
  5. I wasn’t wild about putting critical film of Herbert out into the world, because I can’t control clips once they’re published and I have a longstanding rule about never making “lowlight” reels to denigrate a kid. I think he’s going to have a lot of NFL attention on him during the next year or more of his life and this will be comparably mild, however. What do Duck fans think of Herbert in the spotlight and if this criticism was justified?