Oregon only had 55 meaningful snaps in this game, which makes picking up patterns somewhat challenging. One or two plays going differently would have changed the complexion of the game quite a bit.
As expected, Oregon had a tough time running against Michigan St’s #1 rush defense - just six successful run plays vs 13 failed ones prior to garbage time. But here’s the interesting part - Oregon did better running through their top-quality starting defensive tackles on a per-play basis than any team that played them all year. Some examples (reminder - you can right-click or long-press any of these videos to watch them at ½ or ¼ speed):
The first play is pretty simple inside zone, and look at the blocks that #75 RG Warmack and #55 C Hanson are putting on their starting DT and MIKE to clear this for #26 RB Dye. On the second play (at :06), this outside zone read with stretch blocks neutralizes all three of MSU’s best lineman, and while backup #66 RT Aiello misses his second level block, #34 RB Verdell has built up enough steam to run through that tackle for extra yards. On the last play (at :13), we’ve got classic off-tackle power running, with good hard pulls from Hanson and #68 LG Lemieux, #87 TE Bay pinning the DE, and #58 LT Sewell mauling the starting DT.
There were some interesting notes from the failed rushes as well:
On the first play, Aiello again can’t make his second-level block on a similar play to the one in the previous video, but this time it’s compounded by two mistakes that didn’t show up much in the regular season: Hanson is failing to make the block exchange with Lemieux against a backup DT, and #27 TE Breeland just gives up on his block of an undersized linebacker. The second play (at :06) shows something I was worried about - the interior guards do a good job handling the backup DTs on this inside power run, but MSU has left in their incredible DE and he beats Sewell, which is single-handedly enough to minimize the gain (note, however, that it still gets 3 yards - one encouraging sign is that five of those 13 failed runs still got positive gains, just not quite enough given the down and distance, which is typical for this rushing scheme). The last play (at :12) was one of the more concerning ones, as it’s inside zone right at the backup DTs whom I thought were vulnerable - and the line just isn’t getting much of a push, followed by Breeland failing to get inside of the linebacker and clear the lane.
Just like every other team that played MSU, Oregon switched to primarily throwing the ball - 11 successful plays vs 16 failures when downfield passing, and it gets close to even if you include the largely successful screen game. Here’s some key plays:
The first play is a well designed fake screen that indicates Oregon studied MSU’s defense pretty well - it used tempo to catch them before they’re fully ready, Dye bubbling completely fools the linebackers as per their tendencies on film, and after the double clutch that freezes the high safety, #30 WR Redd is left wide open downfield for a big gain. On the second play (at :08), the play-action rollout predictably sends MSU’s linebackers into their zone recovery, and #10 QB Herbert makes the correct high-low read and then executes a pretty tough throw on the move with accuracy (incidentally, I would have expected him to misfire on this throw if it were the second half of the regular season, indicating to me he’s gotten over whatever was bothering him before). The last play (at :22) is exactly what I predicted Oregon would use to march down the field - the play-action slant that uses MSU’s overaggression against them when they abandon their underneath coverage and the safety plays off.
There were four main reasons why an Oregon passing play would fail. One is that their CB combination (whom I hadn’t seen play much and never at the same time due to consecutive injuries) turned out to be pretty good and earned a few pass break-ups on 50/50 balls - no shame there. The other three I’ll pick representative examples of:
The first play is one of five mental errors by Herbert that I counted - this play does represent good film study because MSU during the regular season rarely bothered to defend this short stop route, but Herbert should be seeing that they are this time and he’s making a low throw into double coverage that’s nearly picked off. He should be reading the safety who’s come off of Redd, taking advantage of the prolonged pass protection he’s got, and waiting for Redd to beat the high safety when he makes his dig. The second play (at :17) is one of the six appalling drops in this game - Herbert has stepped out of pressure nicely and is throwing a perfect pass, Bay has the much smaller LB effectively boxed out when he circles around, and the replay makes clear this is in no way a PBU - it just bounces off the TE’s hands. On the last play (at :38), as odd as it is to say about the offensive player of the game, this is one of four plays where I thought #13 WR Mitchell was playing kind of lazy, not completing his route and walling off the CB, nearly letting it get intercepted.
Other than, of course, the comically terrible fake punt (which is probably on Coach Cristobal more than anyone else), I couldn’t find a whole lot to criticize in the gameplan - instead this was simply playing a tough game against an excellent defense compounded by some obnoxious execution errors.
Most of all, I was disappointed that the coaches seem to have been fibbing to us about what’s going on with Warmack. They only played him on three drives (including the final garbage-time drive I didn’t evaluate), instead mostly playing Aiello at RT and moving Throckmorton over to RG. As I have been writing about for two years now, the coaches’ belief that Throckmorton is equally effective at any other spot besides his natural home at RT is badly mistaken, and most of Oregon’s line breakdowns came on the right side where neither guy was playing at starter-quality.
I went looking for common gripes with offensive playcalling and the data just don’t back them up. Too many runs up the middle against a great d-line? Nope, against the starting DTs they mostly ran off-tackle, outside zone reads, and stretch plays, while against the backup DTs they went up the middle, exactly as I advised in my film study article.
You could criticize the lack of sweeps -- I have in the past, I think never actually handing them off defeats the purpose of faking them -- but a) Oregon used outside screens to accomplish the same purpose, successfully at a 3:1 ratio, and b) that’s not how MSU’s defense works, they don’t change the box count in response to outside run possibilities and sweeps are one of the plays they were most effective against during the regular season.
Predictable 1st-down playcalling? Nope, Oregon threw it 11 times and ran it 11 times, and a nice mix of different downfield routes, run plays, and screens. They also made pretty good halftime adjustments for 1st down - Oregon was successful on 4 out of 11 of them before the half, and 8 out of 11 afterwards.
What about the pistol formation that the conspiracy-minded keep insisting is problematic in the face of all evidence? Surely those were almost all of the runs and they all failed miserably, right? Nope, Oregon was successful 3 out of 10 times rushing out of the pistol, and 3 out of 9 times with an offset back.
But the official box score says Oregon only got 1.4 yards per carry! Nope, that includes sacks, garbage time, and that fake punt; in point of fact, Dye and Verdell averaged 3.5 YPC each ... better than all but two of MSU’s opponents, controlling for the same factors.
Here’s what it came down to: Oregon had 12 meaningful drives in this game. One ended in a touchdown; here’s how I broke down the remaining 3rd-down failures:
- 3 on a dropped pass of an otherwise great play
- 3 on Herbert making a mental error
- 1 from the o-line collapsing
- 1 that’s a combination of those first three
- 2 due to poor treatment by the officials
- 1 screwy screen pass that I can’t comprehend
These demonstrate to me the same execution problems I’ve been noting all year - Herbert needs another year to clean up his game, Oregon can’t get better WR talent in soon enough, and the line needs to stay healthy. I think the worst you can say of playcalling is that weird screen pass at the end of the fifth possession that MSU blew up, but even this is more like bad play design than play calling - incorporating more creative screens to deal with stout interior defenses against Oregon’s banged up line is commendable.
 I will not elaborate on this, don’t ask me to do so in comments. I’ll only say that I’ve put in the work to understand officiating and I don’t blame the professionals working the game unless I’m extremely confident.
 I watched this play a dozen times and I still don’t understand how it was supposed to work. I’d have put it in this article so others could take a stab at it, but frankly I’m sick of looking at it.
This game was almost certainly won with great rush defense. I was a bit concerned that at full health for everyone in the run game, MSU would play at a level that their season averages belied. But Oregon held up well, with 21 successful rush defenses vs 13 failures:
On the first play, #32 OLB Winston has so thoroughly defeated the first guard pull that he knocks him into the second pulling guard, and disrupts this play before it starts. The second play (at :08) is one of fourteen rush defenses I use the highly technical term “smush” to denote, where three front-seven players collapse into the rush lane and keep it from going anywhere … this one is fairly typical, but look who’s joining #35 ILB Dye on it: #11 OLB Hollins getting underneath the TE, and #50 NT Aumavae at nose getting his first significant minutes of the year, as well as #8 DB Holland cleaning up. The last play (at :16) is actually a QB draw (check out the WRs blocking and the linemen heading downfield), but the reader would be forgiven for thinking it’s a sack on a passing play because the speed with which Hollins, #97 DE Jelks, and #39 ILB Apelu get past the blockers is incredible. This is the least unusual of Oregon’s interesting blitz-nickel packages for passing downs, a 2-4-5 with no nose.
Oregon’s rush defense failures came from two factors: first, Apelu getting run over a lot. I hate to say it because he’s a graduating senior, a former walk-on with a big heart, a great head for the game, and there were a number of great plays in this game that I wasn’t able to fit into these clips. I’ve discussed the need for Oregon to get bigger (and healthier) at linebacker before so I don’t think it helps anyone to show off these bad plays. The other factor was poor run support from the DBs, some examples:
On the first play, I cannot figure out what #16 S Pickett is doing -- he seems to be tackling a phantom four yards behind the running back -- and then #15 CB Lenoir is pretty lackadaisical in coming down to make the hit. On the second play (at :07), #34 NT Scott and #51 DE Baker have this run lane completely closed off, but Lenoir whiffs on the back as he stumbles outside (and gets an earful from Hollins about it). On the last play (at :15), Oregon has its pass defense line in (which is proper, MSU’s tendency is heavily biased towards passing in this down, distance, and part of the field), and #45 DE Cumberlander is worked outside by the guard. When Dye takes the inside lane, that’s the signal for Pickett to come down hard into the gap -- we should be seeing Pickett on the screen just before the back crosses the line of scrimmage -- but instead he’s late to the play and makes a weak tackle.
Michigan St spent most of this game in dropback passing, and Oregon was above water on these plays as well. This mostly came from maintaining great pressure on the QB the whole game:
The first play is an improvised shovel pass, forced by Winston whipping the RT, and Dye dodges the TE’s rub to push the crosser upfield for Cumberlander to clean up. Oregon here is using their real weird 1-5-5 package, with Jelks as a stand-up OLB who’s cutting off the scramble and checkdown lanes. On the second play (at :14), Oregon is sending the house as they increasingly did in the second half; this leaves one-on-one coverage on the back end but the DBs all do a great job. On the last play (at :33), Jelks breaks through to hurry the QB, and this might be the best deep passing defense I’ve seen #4 CB Graham play all year - perfectly tight and perfectly legal.
The pass defense breakdowns came in three flavors:
The first is one of the many infuriating QB scrambles both in this game and all season long where Oregon gets into the backfield and even has a hand on the QB (Jelks has his left shoulder), but there’s no containment and he breaks free for a successful run. The second play (at :09) is one of five that I thought Graham or Lenoir was playing way too soft on a flat or comeback route - this one was particularly egregious because coming down faster and hitting harder might have saved the first down. On the last play (at :21), Oregon’s playing zone, but inexplicably Lenoir and #7 S Amadi fail to handoff on this double crosser and they manage to both pick each other.
This game mostly went as I guessed; had Mitchell caught that touchdown pass in the second quarter, I think it would have perfectly fulfilled my prediction that it would be a tight game that broke open in the fourth quarter (not to mention we’d be spared some of the sillier shouting about playcalling). I was happy to see the offense identify the same vulnerabilities that I had in MSU’s predictable and manipulable defense, though it was troubling that when they did one thing I specifically recommended -- running up the middle against their backup DTs, who looked softer to me -- they were less successful than when they were attacking the starters more obliquely. I feel foolish for having bought into the Oregon coaches’ indication that they’d be playing Warmack and therefore the full starting offensive line for the first time since week 7, and using that to argue that this would be a “no excuses” game … because I sure did write a whole lot of excuses. I think the problems that cropped up in this game with Oregon’s offense are ones I’ve been writing about all year, so it’s not like I was blindsided by them, however.
In my film study piece last Sunday I laid into MSU’s poor run-pass optimization and inaccurate passing, so I was surprised to see some tendency-breaking from MSU in this game and a fairly decent QB performance. Considering the Spartans were at full offensive health (albeit minus their best receiver) and thankfully had quit rotating their offensive line for no good reason, I thought their gameplan was as close to nominal as it had been all year, and I counted very few plays where I thought MSU was beating themselves (unforced bad passes, drops, RBs taking the wrong gap, hopeless play design, etc.). Oregon’s defense holding them 20 points below their early season, pre-injury average was actually a lot better than I was expecting from a sometimes shaky unit with a possibly distracted coordinator.