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Tuesday Morning Quarterback: Film review of week 3 vs San José St

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Oregon’s strategic preferences and deficiencies are becoming clear

NCAA Football: San Jose State at Oregon Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

This game was 28-6 early in the 3rd quarter, and 35-12 to start the 4th. Those margins easily meet the criteria for garbage time, and I thought much of the PANIC!!! from Ducks fans surrounding this game was overblown given that most of the disagreeable results didn’t happen until well after the game was meaningfully decided. I’ll also add that, having reviewed San José St’s film last week, it made sense that they performed better than they did against Washington St, as they got back several key players to face Oregon: #12 QB Love who can actually throw the ball, and three defensive tackles who were clearly better than the ones they put on tape in week 2. Overall, I feel it’s a little silly to complain about a 5-TD, 450-yd performance, one which limited the Spartans to 6.5 yds per throw and 1.0 yds per carry.

That said, there are some specific trouble spots we can learn about, though they’re a bit different from what most commentators have noted.


Offense

This game confirmed what I’ve suspected for a while now: Oregon’s rushing philosophy has significantly changed from the Kelly/Helfrich era. Back then, there was an element in every play design that if the defense bites on the misdirection and the play is blocked properly, any run is a potential touchdown. The advantages to this philosophy are obvious (though rapidly diminishing, as defenses have caught on to most of these tricks), but the disadvantages include requiring smaller lineman to move around the field a lot faster but who can’t take on elite defensive lines, lacking a short-yardage and clock-killing game, risking huge negative plays if something goes wrong, and exposing the quarterback to injury by giving him inside running assignments into the teeth of the second-level.

The new philosophy is to focus on power running for short-to-medium gains on every touch, only run the QB into open grass where he has the ability to slide without risk, and set up explosive plays with other parts of the playbook. This brutal, conservative approach is going to take some adjustment for Ducks fans who are used to elegant blocking and shocking runs, but once you accept it, the run game and its constant efficient churn for more yards and 3rd down conversions can be a source of comfort.

I have far more successful rushes on my tally sheet - 31 that kept Oregon ahead of the chains vs 11 that put them behind. Many of these are the boring and unmemorable 3-5 yard power runs, and which I’ve already documented in earlier entries in this series, but this is what an efficiency-based run game is all about.

Here are some examples of successful runs in which something novel showed up (reminder - you can right-click or long-press any of these videos and play them at ¼ or ½ speed):

On the first play, we see a read-option out of the pistol, with the QB keeping because the defensive end pursues the RB inside … the linebacker whom #27 TE Breeland is blocking gets away from him but #10 QB Herbert has the entire right-side defense in his field of vision and can easily make the slide with minimal surprise injury risk. The second play (at :06) is an illustration that this power run game is not complete meathead football - there is a fake sweep, a pulling guard, and a crossing H-back to knock out the playside defenders coming up. The third play (at :15) shows that an efficient power run game is less about the back than the blockers, as even diminutive #5 RB Griffin gets halfway to the chains. Finally, the fourth play (at :22) is another treat for film reviewers - an unbalanced line, with #54 RT Throckmorton lined up on the far left side, and backup #66 OT Aiello in on the right … this formation was used twice in goalline situations, but here it was used between the 20s for an easy half a yard (Ducks fans may recall 3rd & short was often a dicey proposition with earlier offenses).

Now, it’s true there were some obstacles in the run game :

On the first play, #8 gets past #55 C Hanson’s zone block. On the second (at :06 in the clip), #54 has the count cracked and jumps the snap before #75 RG Warmack EDIT: Hanson can get hands on him, and #68 LG Lemieux fails to make a chip block to help out. On the last (at :15), #97 gets inside #58 LT Sewell’s block before #87 TE Bay can come under the formation to hit him. All three of these guys either didn’t play or had very few snaps in week 2, and it was clear the coaches didn’t have film on them. Later on, they changed up the blocking assignments to double-up on the better tackles and altered the snap count to bait them into jumping offsides as deterrence, and most of these problems disappeared. These three plays are just about the only negative inside rushes in the game.

So if not the power running game, where do the explosive plays come from? First, screen plays, which curiously didn’t show up much in this game, possibly due to an injury to Oregon’s best outside blocker #9 WR Schooler. Second, in most pistol offenses and certainly the one RB Coach Mastro co-invented at Nevada, inside and outside veer plays, which are gorgeous pitch options perfect for a spread-pistol … but also curiously, Oregon hasn’t run one of these in the first three games (maybe keeping it off tape for Stanford?). Third, by using play-action passes that are philosophically similar to the Kelly/Helfrich playbook, in which misdirection and keeping the defense’s eyes in the backfield create wide open targets. Some examples:

On the first play, Oregon has switched up to an offset back but remains in a pistol depth, and this looks like an old read-option with the defensive end unblocked, sucking up the linebackers initially and causing the boundary safety to come up to defend against Herbert running right ... but the pulling guard gets around for pass protection, and Oregon suddenly has four receiving targets against just three defenders on the field side, with Breeland being the lucky duck to go free and take the pass to the endzone. The second play (at :23) has all four receivers bunched in tight, and the defense can’t make any guesses as to who’s running where - this overloads the safeties, who are expecting help from the confused linebackers but don’t get any (also, #3 WR Johnson probably should have drawn a flag for taunting, enforced at the 2-yard line).

On the third play (at :39), Oregon motions the back up from a pistol look to offset, which causes the ends to go wide and the safety to move up expecting a run and the CB to back off a bit - this gives #81 WR Davis the space to catch his first pass as a Duck, and Herbert the protection to throw an on-time ball that keeps the CB from being able to wrestle it away while Davis secures it. On the final play (at 1:01), this looks like a broken play (the commentators sure thought so), but I actually think it’s a trick - given the way the blockers slide backside and #34 RB Verdell looks back for the ball, this is either designed or the Ducks have become brilliant instantaneous improvisers … this play also shows off Verdell’s toughness running through tackles in open space and nice hands as a receiving option.

While the passing game was mostly quite effective and explosive (3 TDs, over 300 yards, 9.1 ypc), there were a number of flaws. I’ll identify three persistent ones. First, Herbert has not completely fixed some of the problems I noted in the final entry of my review of the Ducks’ 2017 film:

On the first play, Herbert is holding onto the ball too long - it’s clear that #17 WR Hines hasn’t gotten past his man at the break and he should be moving on to another target or departing the pocket, but instead he takes an off-balance throw that the defender easily breaks up. The second and third plays (at :21 and :45), Herbert is throwing a low-angle pass straight through underneath coverage because of an overabundance of faith in his quick release and arm strength to get it past the linebackers before they can get their hands up … he’s often right on this question, but when he’s wrong it’s by far his biggest source of interceptions.

The second persistent problem I’m seeing is a frequent miscommunication as to what route the receivers are running:

I won’t annotate these individually - it should be pretty obvious that the receiver has pulled up when Herbert thinks he’s going to keep going or vice versa, and not the over- or under-throws some commentators have described them as. These are the only examples from this game, but four of them are four too many.

The last persistent problem — and this one is the most concerning because it’s the least fixable — is that when the defense sees through the deception and Herbert just needs a receiver to win a one-on-one battle with a DB to get himself open, it’s not happening:

The first play drew groans about yet another dropped pass, but this is silly - yes, #85 TE Dillon didn’t corral a weird improvised pass above his shoulder, but what would he have done with it if he had … run 20 yards for a 1st down? Given that the alternatives involve a fumble or a safety, dropping it was probably the best thing he could have done. The real issue is that Herbert is dancing in the endzone for nearly six full seconds, while four different receiving targets are getting mauled in man coverage and none of them breaking free. On the second play (at :09), Herbert has plenty of pocket protection but nobody to throw it to - the broadcast doesn’t show it (of course), but we can infer that nobody’s created enough separation. On the last play (at :19), Herbert does finally make something out of this to his credit, but it takes six seconds for Johnson to create enough separation - and that’s on a play where he only needed a six-yard curl.

I’ve seen some criticism of Herbert’s performance in this game, as well as the playcalling. After reviewing the film, I’ve got no problem with either. My criticism remains where it has been since last winter: the lack of talented depth at wide receiver.


Defense

I know some Ducks fans are worried about a team that got shut out the week before putting up 22 points against Oregon. I’m not sweating it - as I said, they had to deal with a throwing QB on whom they had no meaningful film, and all but six of SJSU’s points came after garbage time (and one of those field goals, plus another in garbage time, came on short fields, and so should really be regarded as wins for the defense).

It starts, as it does with any good defense, with stopping the run:

On the first play, #41 ILB Slade-Matuatia instantly reacts to the outside pitch and strings out the back (watch this one on ¼ speed - ISM has broken right before the pitch even really starts), plus #7 S Amadi and #8 CB Holland have fought off their blocks to get in position to tackle. On the second play (at :08), there is an incredible amount of penetration with just a 3-man rush from the d-line, and check out the absolute stoning ISM throws, with #35 ILB Dye cleaning up. On the third play (at :22), #7 S Amadi follows his man’s motion right into a tackle for loss, one of several sneaky safety blitzes he had in this game. On the last play (at :29), #97 DE Jelks combines an incredible speed rush with a lunge forward for the RB which causes the QB to pull the ball, but then reverses instantly and takes him down … meanwhile ISM and #11 OLB Hollins are waiting if the RB had gotten the ball.

There were some breakdowns in the secondary, however:

On the first play, which is the first of the defense’s game, #4 CB Graham is not expecting the new QB to have the quick delivery necessary to get this across the field and so is playing the curl pretty soft - but he doesn’t use that extra time to line up a solid hit on the receiver and allows him to break free for an extra five yards and the 1st down. On the second play (at :08), this is a really nicely designed screen to the Spartans’ biggest TE threat, #89, with the motion clearing out #39 ILB Apelu and #16 S Pickett bailing out too much, which leaves Dye to do what he can against three linemen … but check out Hollins hustling back from coverage to make the tackle short of the sticks. On the third play (at :17), Graham simply gets burned in man coverage, as the receiver maintains leverage for the entire way while the QB deals with the bad snap. On the last play (at :35), the pass rush getting home creates an errant throw, but #89 had created enough separation with a flat-footed Pickett to have made this touchdown if it were delivered properly.

I’ll leave you with some good performances by the secondary that should illustrate a pattern:

While we see a good job with the key break-up skills from Holland, Lenoir, and Pickett, as well as really nice handing off of responsibilities in zone coverage, it should be clear that what’s necessary for Oregon’s secondary to thrive is a good pass rush (including a welcome return of rush specialist #32 OLB Winston from injury). I only saw one pass breakup in this game in which a DB got the job done with no help from the front seven.


Accountability Corner

Last week, I feel I successfully noted the lack of a rushing attack from SJSU, as well as an o-line that couldn’t pass protect very well. I got deceived for the second straight week by the visitor fielding a QB I hadn’t seen play before, and though I did note that #89 is their biggest threat, I didn’t have much to say about the WR who burned Oregon a lot, #84.

While I did describe SJSU’s rush defense as their best attribute, I wasn’t able to predict the game-changing nature of their three new defensive linemen. I described the defense as ball-hawking, but I still feel embarrassed by deriding their secondary since they kept Oregon’s receivers locked down for much of the game … I don’t know whether this speaks to me underestimating Wazzu’s receivers or having too high hopes for Oregon’s, but either way I was not expecting this performance from SJSU’s DBs.