Here’s the most telling stat of this game: Oregon ran 73 plays in regulation, while Stanford ran just 49. Oregon’s drives were, for the most part, long and methodical ... five of them went for nine plays or more (one was 14). Stanford scored in exactly two ways - huge passing plays, and Oregon screw-ups.
I recorded 24 successful rushing plays in the game, and there was an interesting wrinkle in the run game: there were three power-blocked read-options out of the pistol, five handoffs after motioning from pistol to an offset back, and seven offset zone reads (i.e., the basis of the Kelly/Helfrich playbook), and almost all of these departures from the pistol-dive runs —which were the vast majority of Oregon’s runs in the first three games — were successful. All of these were plays that Oregon had used rarely in those games and I’ve already documented them, so I won’t make additional video in this game, but it was interesting that the rushing playbook diversified so much.
Of course, most of the runs were still of the bread-and-butter variety, and more of them broke for big yards than earlier (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’re seeing pretty much the ideal performance against this box count - two double-teams on the playside defensive linemen, #20 RB Brooks-James has more than enough speed to get past the unblocked OLB set wide, and then #58 LT Sewell and #68 LG Lemieux get off their combos into the second level to clear out the backers (this play also showed off Oregon’s strategic use of tempo - the ball was snapped only 18 seconds in real time after a huge passing play, with no substitutions). On the second play (at :13 in the clip), even though Oregon has only two receivers split out, one of them is #13 WR Mitchell who’d been torching them all day (more on him later), and they keep their free safety high and towards him, leaving a nice 7-man box against the Ducks’ 7 blockers … each of whom gets a hat on a hat, including perfect pulls by Lemieux and #75 RG Warmack, and when the safety is gun-shy about contact, Verdell runs right by him. On the third play (at :39), look at this great slide blocking with the guards getting downfield to block and #55 C Hanson using his most valuable blocking asset: his butt. On the last play (at :45), we’ve got a similar play as the second, but with motion clearing out one of the OLBs and #9 WR Schooler blocking the CB out of the play.
I observed 16 rushing plays that I considered failed because they didn’t stay ahead of the sticks - a few were self-inflicted wounds but by my count ten of them were just because of a bad block (Stanford certainly has a good enough front-seven to punish you for imperfect blocking technique). However, those bad blocks are scattered across the linemen and TEs; no single guy is disproportionately to blame (and credit to Sewell, I never saw him screw up a run block). Some examples:
On the first play, a combination of #27 TE Breeland missing on his block of the OLB and a surprise unblocked CB blitz doom this run before it starts. On the second play (at :06), I think this is supposed to be a run-pass option, where #10 QB Herbert has the ability to pull the ball out and throw to Mitchell on the boundary side, or Schooler or #87 TE Bay who are wheeling out on the field side, so I think handing it off for the back to run into 9-man box is a mistake as there and just too many dudes to block … but still, in a testament to the efficiency of this line in power blocking, he still makes a gain of 2 yards. On the third play (at :13), Stanford is blitzing seven and so the o-line can’t double anyone, but I still think Verdell would have made it out of the hole if Lemieux had done a better job with the hard-charging #20. On the last play (at :27), #54 RT Throckmorton isn’t quite fast enough to make it all the way around the formation to lead block for #26 RB Dye, and the true-freshman back isn’t being patient enough to wait for him.
I’ve been arguing for a couple of weeks now that Oregon’s shift in rushing philosophy towards power and efficiency and away from explosive plays means that fans should be more understanding of the lower yards-per-carry numbers, since it’s a high-floor/low-ceiling strategy. But still, I’m seeing too many plays where the blocking is generally correct and the back gets respectable numbers to keep ahead of the chains, but the linemen aren’t sealing off defenders or getting to the second level to spring the rusher for more yardage. Some examples:
On the first play, everybody’s engaged with whom they’re supposed to be, but both Hanson and Throckmorton aren’t able to turn and wall off their men, so the defense can collapse onto the lane and limit the gain. On the second play (at :07), Herbert is reading the linebacker, who stays put to await a QB run so he hands off, but again, Sewell and Lemieux have their men blocked but not turned so the lane collapses. On the last play (at :15), we’re seeing the slide again and this time a good seal by Hanson, but Warmack and Lemieux are both a little slow to get to the second level, which collapses down and limits this to a four-yard gain.
In the passing game, there was an interesting new development: extensive use of pre-snap motion to both move the defense around and alter the snap count so as to keep them from getting a jump on the ball. We also saw a few more schematic engineering of open receivers:
On the first play, Herbert’s initial clap does not, as has been usual, signal the snap, but rather for Schooler to motion further out and spread the secondary, which gives Mitchell a nice big seam to work down and then play tag with the would-be tacklers. On the second play (at :37), Mitchell motions into a bunch set, whose dispersion clears #3 WR Johnson to get inside leverage on his one-on-one coverage … and Herbert whips the ball so hard it beats the DB’s attempt to swat it by a microsecond. On the third play (at 1:00), Herbert is executing this RPO well, first pumping to Schooler who’s continuing his motion into a wheel, then starting to run to draw the backer up, and finally hitting #30 WR Redd in the space that vacated. On the last play (at 1:09), Herbert finally takes advantage of the motion-wheel route when the OLB bites on the rollout (something that was curiously absent the prior week against San José St), and Schooler again throws a great block on the outside.
Now for some appreciation for Mitchell running two routes to perfection: the seam and the comeback, usually off of pre-snap motion:
I won’t annotate these as they’re pretty self-explanatory; I just had to include them because there were so many (I had eight more to choose from) and Stanford had no answer for them - they played Mitchell so soft because they respected his speed off the line that he was almost always open or had leverage on the DB (or on the first play, the slow ILB they foolishly put on him).
By my count there were only nine failed passing plays in regulation, so it’s a bit unfair to make a video with almost half of them, but they ran the gamut of things I’ve noted before as issues and are worth pointing out to see what progress is being made on them:
On the first play, it’s clear that none of the receivers have worked themselves open, and Herbert compounds the problem with his habit of holding onto the ball too long. On the second play (at :24), the dummy count has revealed the blitz and assignments go out to pick it up, but two different true freshmen -- Sewell and Dye -- throw poor blocks which result in a sack (though I think Herbert would have had a good shot at #85 TE Dillon if he had just a half-second more protection). On the third play (at :37), this dumpoff to Dye is technically an acceptable gain, but Herbert completely misses seeing a wide open Dillon on the sideline who could have gotten a huge gain. On the last play (at :47), both guards are surrendering too much ground, forcing Herbert into a backfoot throw that doesn’t lead the receiver enough - I think if Johnson didn’t have to slow up a bit he could have outran the pass break-up.
Oregon’s rush defense was excellent. Stanford was quickly backed into a corner and only rushed the ball 22 times in regulation, half of them complete failures and most of the rest for barely enough to keep ahead of the chains (and to be frank I think even that was too many times; I think new Stanford OC Pritchard has his run/pass balance screwed up and is running to set up the pass instead of the other way around for ideologically blinkered rather than strategically optimal reasons).
None of Oregon’s successful run defenses were particularly novel or interesting from a schematic perspective, so instead I’ll highlight some second-stringers putting in first-string effort:
On the first play, #97 DE Jelks is triple (!) teamed, sealing the edge and allowing #41 ILB Slade-Matuatia to clean up effectively. On the second play (at :17), both #34 NG Scott and #51 DT Baker are double-teamed, but fight to collapse the lane and prevent the first-down pickup. On the third play (at :23), #90 DE Carlberg wins by getting his pad level low and penetrates to trip up the rusher and kill the drive. On the last play (at :36), Stanford wants to play in a phone booth and puts in two extra backup guards as fullbacks, but even nine Cardinal linemen and TEs can’t overwhelm Baker, Carlberg, and Scott in the middle.
Where Stanford did succeed at rushing, it was always because #20 RB Love would put in an incredible extra effort to get more yardage despite being stopped up early (I’ve spent most of September telling anyone who’d listen that Stanford can’t run at all, and so have been largely irritated with the media failing to adjust their promo packages centered around Love … but the guy is the Heisman runner-up for a reason):
I trust these don’t require explanation … Love is a remarkable back and even Stanford’s surprisingly poor run-blocking this year couldn’t completely hold him back in this game, though ultimately he was limited to just 89 yards.
Oregon’s pass defense was another matter - this was the only quadrant of the game that Oregon failed more than it succeeded. The best results usually came by combining the pass rush with aggressively physical coverage:
On the first play, #32 OLB Winston works through a block to disrupt the QB’s throwing motion a bit, and #35 ILB Dye has the strength and reach to break up the slightly too-high jump ball. On the second play (at :23), penetration by #11 OLB Hollins and a safety blitz from #7 S Amadi flush the QB, whom #39 ILB Apelu cleans up … also note Winston completely manhandling the troublesome tight end. On the third play (at :31), #4 CB Graham flattens the blocker on the flanker screen and blows this play up single-handedly. On the last play (at :50), we see again the functional combination of a hurry from Carlberg with physical coverage from Amadi to keep the TE from coming back for the underthrown ball.
Unfortunately, Stanford has a couple of receivers with physical gifts that make them complete nightmares to cover unassisted … without adequate pocket pressure, Oregon’s DBs were never going to make these plays:
These are uncomplicated and self-explanatory- when the QB has a clean pocket and the massive receiver has single coverage, there’s just not much a defense can do.
However, what I found far more disturbing was the number of poor decisions by the defense against passing plays that mere mortals could have handled:
On the first play, Oregon rushes only three while dropping Hollins (I think to help cover #19) - as I said repeatedly last week on two different podcasts, this would prove to be a losing strategy, as inevitably one of Stanford’s behemoths would face single coverage even with eight in the defensive backfield and without pocket pressure that will never work. On the second and third plays (at :25 and :47), Graham has one-on-one coverage of a non-superhuman receiver, but in a familiar story, he gets completely burned on multiple deep routes. On the last play (at 1:11), I think if #15 CB Lenoir were in position he could have played the ball since it comes in low enough, but instead he gets juked out of his shoes.
Last week, I think I had Stanford’s offensive performance predicted about as accurately as possible - I said they couldn’t run, not because Love is having a down year but because their o-line is surprisingly porous; I also said that they would rely on explosion passing to undefendable receivers, which would be exacerbated by this being Oregon’s biggest area of weakness. I felt that Pritchard’s oversimplification of the playbook down to maybe three or four base plays was a weakness, and while there was some more play-action passing and fewer power-toss runs than I had seen before, I nailed their lack of an effective swing and screen game (they only ran one, which I highlighted Graham wrecking single-handedly).
When Oregon had the ball, I think I did alright. I had been predicting for a couple of weeks that the Ducks were keeping some crucial aspect of the playbook off film (I suspected it was the set of veer plays, a staple of pistol offenses, but we still have seen exactly zero), the most we got on that front was the diversified snap count with pre-snap motions. I felt that Stanford’s front-seven was good enough to exploit mistakes, but was unproven against talented, well-coached, and multi-dimensional offenses.
I also thought the secondary played short routes too soft when they were expecting runs and were ineffective in making open-space tackles, and would put a slow LB in man coverage against flood concepts, both of which Oregon exploited heavily. However, I was still very surprised Mitchell was as open as often as he was, as he hadn’t shown the speed necessary to earn a cushion that big before, and was worried that Stanford’s talented secondary was going to do much better than they did.
Of course, I didn’t see any of the crazy, heartbreaking stuff coming — Oregon hadn’t put any wild snap or fumbling problems on film before, and unless I see them recur I’ll chalk it up to just really rotten luck — but by their nature those things are unpredictable.
Finally, on Oregon’s most vital 4th down attempt they once again went to the “broken handoff” twirly trick play I identified last week. The commentators had a laugh about it, thinking it was an accident - clearly not as well informed as Addicted to Quack readers.