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Tuesday Morning Quarterback: Film review of week 2 vs Portland St

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Let’s learn all about the Pistol offense

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

For the second straight week, the game entered garbage time before the second quarter was over. But even though we have half as much film to work with, there’s still quite a few interesting things we can go over.

Offense

Oregon didn’t meet a whole lot of resistance - of the few unsuccessful plays the Ducks ran, almost all were due to their own errors, such as a few drops, one errant throw, and a couple of bad snaps. These things aren’t real useful to examine on film because it’s obvious what went wrong. However, the upside is that the offense is (unlike last week when they were still running a whole lot of pre-Mastro offset zone read formations) now almost fully converted to pistol looks, and we can learn the base playbook in a vacuum, so to speak.

First up, the bread & butter run plays (reminder - you can right-click or long-press any of these videos and play them at ¼ or ½ speed):

The first play of this clip is a very simple power-blocked dive - note that there is no read and #10 QB Herbert simply hands off and gets out of the way, and #87 TE Bay is lined up as an H-back and crossing under the formation to pickup the playside end. The second snap (at :05 in the clip) is the exact same play, only mirrored - just a good short-yardage tool, something that shotgun offenses often lack. On the third play (at :18), we’re seeing the same look, but now the H-back is lined up playside, and we see a stretch run outside with zone-blocking … actually, the center and both TEs kind of whiff on their blocks, but this formation (and #33 RB Habibi-Likio) are so durable that it still works pretty well anyway. Great blocking on the outside by #9 WR Schooler, too. On the last play (at :35), we have the 11-personnel version of this look, and Bay is motioning over, but then he crosses under again for a backside block while #58 LT Sewell gets downfield to ruin that poor safety’s day, and #20 RB Brooks-James gets a nice outside run.

There was a treat for film students in this game as well, something I might not have noticed if I hadn’t spent part of the summer watching LSU’s offense under Matt Canada:

See it? On both plays, there are unbalanced lines! On the first one, it’s tackle-over to the right, meaning Sewell is lined up to #54 RT Throckmorton’s right and there are three linemen right of the center. The play doesn’t really develop (#58 DT House does a good job getting inside of #75 RG Warmack, clogging the lane), so #34 RB Verdell smartly bounces it back weakside for a nice gain. On the second play of the clip (at :06), Verdell gets a lot more out of this formation, which this time is tackle-over to the left with Throckmorton visiting Sewell. Warmack pulls, he and Bay make great blocks, and Verdell gets 30 yards. (Also, check out Sewell hustling downfield - looks pretty quick on his feet for a big guy, something I wondered about in last week’s write-up.)

However, the pistol does not preclude a variation on the zone read option that Oregon fans have known for years.

Here, Oregon leaves PSU’s best defensive player, #96 DE Ross, unblocked while Herbert reads him … when Ross stays square, Herbert pulls it and runs for a nice gain as the high safety has vacated his zone to come down in pursuit of Schooler’s fake sweep. Also, the fact that Schooler looks back for the ball indicates that this is a run-pass option and Herbert could have thrown it to him had the safety stayed put.

Throwing it to the jet sweep guy running a wheel into the flat turns out to be a big part of this offense, in fact:

Coach Cristobal actually broke down this first play in his post-game presser - PSU’s late pressure disrupted Herbert’s throw to #30 WR Redd after the fake sweep. Note, however, that the entire defense (except one guy whom #13 WR Mitchell is setting up to block) is following Brooks-James the other way and this would have gone big had they connected. As Cristobal said, they adjusted the way they ran this afterwards to great effect - on the second play of the clip (at :05), #17 WR Hines gets the reception and big run after Schooler again throws a great block. And happily, on the last play (at :16), Redd gets his due.

Screen passes continue to be a big part of Oregon’s offense. In addition to the classic tunnel screen we saw twice last week, we got two more new ones against Portland St:

The first is a nice flanker screen, which has been part of Oregon’s playbook for decades - spreading out the defense to the field side and forcing them to play man coverage with no safety help, Mitchell and Schooler have easy one-on-one blocks to make and Hines walks into the endzone. The second (at :30), is a staple of Mastro’s offense from Nevada - the smoke-3 screen (they ran a variation of this at Wazzu when Mastro was up there, but this is the classic version). #26 RB Dye diverts half of the second level with his initial motion, then he peels out for the pass behind the WR and playside linemen. Interestingly, the PSU safety got a flag for an illegal low block against Throckmorton - I had to confirm with two referee contacts of mine that this is actually a thing; the defender can’t block low if he’s more than 5 yards past the line of scrimmage.

While we’re still trying to suss out OC Arroyo’s playcalling tendencies, we got some evidence of an old trick in the redzone:

That’s right, the dreaded fade route. Hines is probably too short to pluck this away from the defender on the first play, but immediately afterwards Arroyo calls a similar play (albeit without the switch to rub the other DB) … this time, #3 WR Johnson pulls it in. Actually, it gets past his hands, but Herbert’s throw is so powerful that the ball practically embeds itself in his chestplate.

This final clip of the offense is just Herbert showing off:

The first play has PSU in cover-1, with the single high safety on the strong side - Brooks-James freezes the linebacker, Redd beats his man, and there’s no one left to stop the play … and Herbert drops it in the bucket. On the second play (at :21), PSU has learned its lesson and is playing zone, and the twist up front gets past the interior line … Herbert thinks fast, steps up, and shovels it to TBJ for the first down. On the last play, Herbert’s nasty pump fake to the sideline fools both Ross and PSU’s best linebacker (#46 LB Jackett), clearing out a great big gap for #85 TE Dillon to catch for an easy first down … but Dillon isn’t done, dragging three defenders the last four yards into the endzone.

Finally, an update on the offensive line situation. I have been tracking with interest how Cristobal is managing the transition from the smaller (275-325 lbs), more mobile linemen he inherited to his preferred enormous blockers (345+ lbs), of whom he has six, all true freshmen, on the roster. Against BGSU week 1, we found out one of the huge guys, Sewell (345 lbs), was the starting left tackle, but the other four starters were experienced mobile guys, and everybody who rotated in during the second half were in that category as well, meaning none of the other five huge freshmen played. Against PSU, that pattern continued to hold true, with the exception of #74 LT Jones (375 lbs!), who came in a bit in garbage time and looked great.


Defense

Portland St ran almost a completely different offense than they did against Nevada, including playing a different QB for the entire game. Tricky! However, Oregon did a great job shutting down stuff that PSU hadn’t put on film last week, first and foremost the outside screen and option pitch:

On the first play, #39 ILB Apelu has this sniffed out and hustles over for the tackle - the receiver bobbles the pass, but even if he had caught it in rhythm #15 CB Lenoir had fought off his block and four other Ducks were swarming to help out behind the line of scrimmage. On the second play (at :07), #29 ILB Jackson (playing at outside backer in replacement of the injured #32 OLB Winston), correctly stays square and forces the pitch, which the safeties #7 S Amadi and #16 S Pickett have hurried over to shut down (I also like how Amadi knows he has help inside, so he stays wide). On the third play (at :28), #11 OLB Hollins tricks the QB into keeping it with a lunge, then runs him down when he reverses field. On the last play (at :34), Oregon has the second-string defense in at several spots even though it’s not yet garbage time, but they nonetheless play great assignment football - #24 OLB Simms forces the pitch, #8 S Holland helps string it out, and #25 S Breeze cleans up.

The backups have some room for improvement defending the zone read, however:

On the first play, Jackson sticks his nose inside and loses outside contain, and he slips when trying to reverse and the rusher gets by him for a big gain. Fortunately, Lenoir fights off a block from the much bigger TE and is in position to limit the damage. On the other play (at :19), #99 DE Faoliu is playing the 4-tech shaded on the tackle’s inside shoulder and shuts down the inside run nicely, but Simms gets a little lucky - he’s drifted a bit too far outside and the QB should have handed off or cut in … but he doesn’t and the defense cleans up.

You may have noticed Portland St’s #89 TE Taumoepeau playing a key role on many of the preceding plays, and credit to Coach Barnum and his staff for utilizing their best weapon in several ways:

On the first play of this clip, the pass rush (including #51 DE Baker in a solid performance) has flushed the QB and forced him to make a difficult throw, and Lenoir has Taumoepeau covered pretty well - but he uses his big body to box Lenoir out and make the drive-extending catch. The other play (at :20) is PSU’s only score of the half - you don’t see it till the last wide-angle shot, but #89 makes a nice reversal, trips up Breeze, and gets behind the defense (which is otherwise playing very tight coverage).

Oregon effectively ended the game on PSU’s last drive of the half:

The usual suspects get into the backfield: Hollins, #97 DE Jelks, and Amadi on the Green Dog, plus welcome addition #45 DE Cumberlander. On the final play (at :14), PSU is going all-in on 4th down … but Jelks calls and takes the prize.


Accountability Corner

Last week I had the following comments about Portland St:

  • The offensive line is shaky, so there’s no inside run game and the QB gets lots of pressure
  • #6 QB Alexander is an impressively mobile QB
  • #89 TE Taumoepeau scores all their TDs
  • The secondary doesn’t have the athletes to play man coverage
  • They have a good front-seven with #96 DE Ross, #58 DT House, and #46 LB Jackett

Other than the sneaky QB substitution (ya boomed me, Barney!), I think I did pretty well - how about you?