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Duck Tape: Film Review of Week 13 at Arizona State

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Welcome to the Upside Down

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 23 Oregon at Arizona State Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Offense

Here’s my framework for understanding this offensive performance:

  • A. #10 QB Herbert’s throwing mechanics got progressively worse for most of this game.
  • B. There’s a window of time that took place after this had become clear and before the score and gameclock forced the team to abandon the run.
  • C. During that window, the staff should not have called designed passes when they didn’t have to, but did anyway three times.
  • D. Before and after that window, the playcalling was between good to brilliant.

There were of course bad plays by Herbert before that window, but without the benefit of hindsight, they appear to me to have been appropriate playcalls in those moments. I think that after the fifth one (which comes at about 10 minutes left in the 3rd quarter), the staff should have stopped asking him to throw. There are also several times where the game situation requires Herbert to throw, and he did very well. Readers must decide for themselves what conclusions to draw from those observations.

I don’t understand why Herbert’s mechanics steadily collapsed during the game. It wasn’t anything we hadn’t seen before in his four-year career, but the remarkable thing was that they kept getting worse as the game went on, and his corrections to his technique didn’t snap into place until very late in the game. I tallied eight plays in which bad mechanics resulted in a failed play; here’s a representative sample:

(Reminder - you can right-click or long-press any of these videos to play them at ¼ or ½ speed)

  1. :00 - Hips are flat, not rotating his left leg enough to step into the throw. He’s trusting his arm alone to make this throw and he doesn’t have that kind of accuracy without proper throwing form.
  2. :06 - Classic example of throwing off his back foot, pushing the ball without the leg drive that comes from stepping into the throw, and predictably it sails on him.
  3. :31 - He had to field a bad snap and there’s a bit of pressure coming, but nothing he can’t step out of to find a better throw. The ILB sitting down on this route means it’s a no-go, the fact that he’s trying it is just nuts.

There is a point of view that because the run game was easily getting big chunks (21 successes vs 5 failures, 6.29 yards per carry prior to garbage time, five runs of 10+ yards … so successful that it’s not worth making a video of), the coaching staff shouldn’t have bothered to pass at all. I think that’s a facile argument for a few reasons.

First, you can’t get those rushing successes without at least a few passes to keep the defense honest, and these were for the most part the plays that were being called, against appropriate defensive configurations, and not excessively often. Second, the collapse of Herbert’s mechanics happened gradually, and alongside some very good passes that were the correct strategic move to keep the defense off-balance. Some examples:

  1. :00 - This is a really tough throw to make accurately for a right-handed quarterback, but Herbert does it easily for a big gain on the first play of the game. It exploits the hole in the zone defense that’s exposed by the pre-snap motion.
  2. :12 - This is an RPO play that immediately followed an efficiency run, and the defense has their linebackers in the box and the safeties dropping. Herbert correctly reads that structure and delivers a quick, catchable ball to the far side of the field where Oregon has a numbers advantage before the linemen can get too far downfield.
  3. :26 - Look at his footwork here on this well placed pass - his hips are in line, his toe is pointed, and he’s generating an arc to drop it just where #3 WR Jo. Johnson can get it over the DB. This is his best throw of the game, and unbelievably, it immediately precedes the ball he throws in the dirt on the first clip of this article.

The third complicating factor is how many other unexpected problems arose in this game that the coaches had to manage -- including the loss of leading receiver #30 WR Redd, the bad snaps and blocking problems throughout the second half resulting from #55 C Hanson’s injury, and a total reversal of ASU’s run vs pass defensive effectiveness -- all of which obscured the mechanical problems that are clear to viewers in hindsight and ultimately resulted in those game-changing interceptions. To illustrate:

  1. :00 - One of three well placed passes where the receiver isn’t able to hold onto the ball.
  2. :19 - When #54 OL Throckmorton took over at center, most of the snaps were this weird blooper variety, and it completely throws off the back’s timing and the RPO game. Here the ball gets out late and the DB is able to make a break on the ball, and the linemen are far enough downfield the officials could have flagged them as ineligible receivers.
  3. :36 - That this ends in a sack is unrepresentative, this was the only one in the game and Herbert faced virtually no pocket pressure, but it’s included because the camera angles give us a great view on the unexpectedly effective man coverage ASU is fielding.


NCAA Football: Oregon at Arizona State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

Considering how efficient ASU’s rushing offense had been going into this game, Oregon’s rush defense performed fairly well: 16 successes to 15 failures. The throughline to just about every run play is that Oregon’s defensive front was regularly defeating ASU’s o-line, but sometimes the back was slippery enough to generate yards after contact or make a cut for the outside to pick up sufficient yards. Here’s a representative sample of all rush defenses:

  1. :00 - Good penetration here by #5 DE Thibodeaux and #90 DT Carlberg, and #56 OLB Young compresses the line and cleans up, but the back dives through the scrum and picks up just enough yardage to stay ahead of the chains.
  2. :07 - ASU had a lot more success running to the outside than up the middle. Here they’re using their tight ends effectively to move the edge and keep #47 OLB Funa from getting outside leverage, and #16 S Pickett has to take two different hits as he moves to close down the outside.
  3. :15 - Carlberg played a great game and this was his most satisfying play to watch - he crushes the guard so completely that he slams into the TE coming around on a wham block, who in turn knocks the back down. Also a good job by #35 ILB Dye clouding the read so that he forces a late inside handoff but is still in position to help on the tackle.
  4. :28 - Nice quick penetration by #99 DT Faoliu keeps the left guard from completing his pull, and making an easy target for Dye and #55 ILB Niu.

Despite facing a quarterback playing the best game of his career, the pass defense stayed fairly effective on a per-play basis, 16 successes to 17 failures, which is better than most defenses have done. There were very few short efficiency plays available, and they did a good job rattling the QB with pressure, particularly blitzes:

  1. :00 - I think this is the best pass rush I’ve seen Thibodeaux put on tape all year.
  2. :09 - ASU ran this play-action bootleg multiple times - it never resulted in a successful pass, and every time Oregon defended it better, culminating in this sack. Faoliu gets through the line, Young recognizes the play and gets the proper coverage on the low TE, and the reverse angle show #6 CB Lenoir, Pickett, and Dye covering the rest of the flood concept.
  3. :31 - They show a six-man blitz here, but wind up rushing only four (but with some heroics from Dye). #2 CB Wright shows off his speed by staying on top of their #1 receiver.

ASU killed Oregon on eight long passing plays. I tallied three of them as serious issues tackling in space, and the other five as getting beat in coverage by a trio of great receivers and a QB who was on fire:

  1. :00 - #4 CB Graham getting beat on man coverage on the sideline stutter and go route, same as two years ago in Tempe.
  2. :16 - The principle of this zone coverage is to force the throw right here, where it can be tackled quickly on 1st & 15 to leave the offense behind the chains. But #41 ILB Slade-Matautia has the primary responsibility and he blows it on a bad angle, Young and #23 S McKinley don’t maintain leverage, #8 DB Holland makes a lousy tackling attempt, and Wright overruns it.
  3. :43 - This play caused a brief crisis of my beliefs about the supernatural, because there is no earthly way a true freshman quarterback with a DT about to crush him should be able to drop a perfect rainbow pass right into the bucket against coverage this tight while the DB is committing interference and have his receiver hang onto the ball as he hits the ground hard.

Oregon v Arizona State Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Accountability Corner

I got three things right about ASU’s offense in my Friday preview: first, their offensive line is fairly ineffective; second, they have an effective running back who will get yards after contact but isn’t generating huge explosive plays this year; and third, their QB can be rattled by effective pressure into throwing bad balls. But I got more wrong about this offense than any article I’ve written this year: they effectively distributed the ball to all their receivers instead of funneling everything to just one, their QB made practically zero read errors as opposed to the 13% error rate I’d charted him at, they called screen passes at a far lower rate than they previously were and they were much better designed ones, and there was only one obvious down & distance playcalling error. It’s to be expected that teams this late in the season would do some re-evaluation and fix a few issues, but the way they deployed their receivers was completely unlike anything they had put on tape before and has me a little shook as to whether film review has any predictive value at all.

I thought that ASU’s highly ranked rush defense was something of a statistical illusion, and that while they’d probably keep any 20+ yard runs off the board, they’d give up efficiency runs all day long - and that turned out to be exceptionally so. I am baffled at the effectiveness of their pass defense, however ... obviously Herbert’s throwing issues gave them a lot of gifts, as did the snapping and receiver problems, but even accounting for those things these DBs played a great game even against well thrown balls and appropriate playcalls. I didn’t put any film of their occasional nice pass breakup in my preview article last week because they were so rare and so statistically poorly ranked, but in retrospect I regret not even allowing for the possibility that they’d step up to the occasion.