Nota bene: This game had quite a few personal fouls in it, either deadball fouls or ones that could be treated like them and separated from the live play. When charting such plays, I evaluate the success or failure of live play only, to get the numbers presented in this article. Also, with 249 combined penalty yards assessed, both teams were effectively operating on short fields, plus garbage time began fairly early in the 2nd half (on Oregon’s TD to go up 42-17), so we have relatively few meaningful plays to examine in this game - so take any conclusions with a grain of salt. As usual, I am not interested in discussing the merits of any given officiating decision in comments.
It was a busy and efficient day for Oregon’s passers - 15 successful throws vs 12 unsuccessful ones, given the down and distance. Most of the passing offense was characterized by intermediate routes (plus a couple of screens that broke big), resulting in 10.1 yards per completion prior to garbage time.
The run-pass balance was 1:2 in this game … a return to the pass-happy first four weeks of the season, and for the same reason: the defense was loading the box and crashing hard on the run, to which Oregon responded with the RPO component and pulling the ball to throw it. I thought #10 QB Herbert had a pretty good day making his reads. Some examples:
(Reminder - you can right-click or long-press any of these videos to play them at ¼ or ½ speed)
- :00 - Here’s a version of the Rubin’s Vase play that occasioned such comment last week. This time the additional block from #87 TE Bay gives Herbert plenty of time on the play-action bootleg to make his high-low read (low being #48 TE Kampmoyer on the wheel after faking a rush-play wham block, high being #6 WR Ju. Johnson on the drag from across the field). The linebacker stays low freeing the passing lane, and Herbert makes a remarkably crisp throw on the move.
- :10 - A refresher on RPO basics: this is an outside zone run to the boundary to begin with - look at the blocking by the linemen, some of whom are heading downfield. The backside ILB crashes on the mesh, vacating the throwing lane; Herbert reads him and makes a quick throw (before any ineligibles get 3 yards downfield) to Kampmoyer on the slant, who enjoys inside leverage against 1-on-1 coverage because this is the wide side of the field.
- :16 - This read of the OLB results in a screen pass - he’s dropping into coverage of the downfield trips receivers, while the safety is blitzing hard and #3 WR Jo. Johnson runs off the boundary corner. That leaves nobody left to defend this perfectly delivered screen to #26 RB Dye.
- :40 - Usually a nickel defense, here USC puts seven in the box and plays cover-1 in the red zone against Oregon’s 11-personnel. The threat of the run keeps the strong safety in the box and the single-high won’t be able to get over in time, so the only thing left is to get the ball out quick before the IDP flag and place it to beat the man coverage - not too tough with Johnson’s size.
Of Oregon’s failed passing plays, a handful were on the drops and QB-WR miscommunications we’re sadly used to seeing a few of each game. A few more were on spectacular pass breakups from a very talented secondary, as I’d seen in film study last week.
I was a little surprised, though, that USC’s pass rush was more effective than it usually is - given their disruption rate going into this game, I’d have only expected three such plays, but instead there were five. I noticed that #75 RG Warmack didn’t play at all; previously he’d been rotating drives with #66 RG Aiello but the latter got all the snaps I saw, and I did notice a bit higher error rate than we’re used to from the combined RG spot.
Of course, this could all be just statistical noise from the small sample size. Here’s a representative set of failed passing plays:
- :00 - The amount of ground the DB has to make up to get a hand on this ball is just incredible.
- :23 - Using the DE to back out of the blitz into coverage like this and take away Herbert’s first read isn’t something I’d seen USC do before, and is possibly related to this player’s return from injury. Of course, he doesn’t get more than one read because #55 C Hanson lets through the rusher.
- :38 - This is much later in the game and USC’s blitz pattern should have been clear - the DE backing out means there’s enough blockers for the right side of the line to handle the pressure. But both Aiello and Dye commit too early, and there’s no one left for the blitzing safety.
It was a quiet but still pretty efficient day on the ground, 8 successful rushes vs 6 failed ones, with no significant loss of yardage or ever falling too far behind the chains, despite USC being pretty eager to prevent a repeat of last week. On the other hand, there were only three plays that got chunk yardage. The rushing offense mostly existed to keep the defense honest and set up big passing plays without creating any real risks. Here’s a representative sample:
- :00 - #7 RB Verdell already has three and a half yards on 1st down before he’s touched, and that’s only because Hanson can’t climb to his second level block because of the defensive hold. I normally don’t include plays in which a foul is called, but this is a nice illustration of a fairly rare flag, as well as how blockers in this scheme have multiple assignments. This play immediately preceded the very first clip in this article, and was one of two successful 1st down rushes on this drive - a big part of the reason that USC had almost the entire defense in the box on that rollout passing play.
- :18 - Credit the inside backer -- unexpectedly but happily back from injury -- for reading this play instantly and beating #68 LG Lemieux to the block. But Verdell’s vastly improved balance in the last couple of weeks lets him survive the hit and make it back to the line of scrimmage without losing yardage.
- :39 - Just a whole lot of nice blocks here - Lemieux, #58 LT Sewell, Kampmoyer, and #18 TE Webb clear out the interior of the line and the OLBs, Hanson climbs to take care of the ILB, and #54 RT Throckmorton seals the backside. Note how Aiello is cut-blocking the tackle instead of reach-blocking; that’s an adjustment after the first couple of failed drives. Dye makes a great cut with balance, and almost threads the safety and the umpire for even more.
USC was even further out of run-pass balance at 1:3, and so again we might have some sample size issues assessing Oregon’s rush defense. I tallied 6 successfully defended runs vs 9 failed ones. Given USC’s tendency for slow-developing outside runs in this game, Oregon’s defense got the opportunity to produce a couple of big losses in the backfield, which made up somewhat for the underwater per-play efficiency. The biggest culprit in failed rush defenses wasn’t being out of position but simply letting the back wriggle free for extra yardage. Here’s a representative sample:
- :00 - The bobble helps, but #41 ILB Slade-Matautia reads this the whole way, and #8 S Holland properly seals off the corner and directs the ballcarrier into his arms at what would have been acceptable yardage, but he gets too high on the hit and lets the back twist and fall forward for an extra three.
- :09 - Great job by #5 DE Thibodeaux to fight the LT this long to cut off the edge, as well as #93 Kava maintaining leverage on the center to be in position. But then despite the corner and the backer joining him, the back miraculously flies through a whole bunch of Ducks for five yards.
- :17 - #34 DT Scott absorbs the double team which means there’s nobody left to stop #90 DT Carlberg once he beats the RT into the backfield.
In my opinion the game was won with pass efficiency defense - 26 successfully defended dropbacks vs 17 failures, prior to garbage time - that’s a 60.5% defensive success rate, more than 12 percentage points higher than their opponents in the five games I studied. The strategy was to keep the play in front of them to prevent game-changing deep shots, sacrifice underneath throws to force them to march down the field, and use selective pressure to generate incompletions.
Most of the failed pass defenses were simply those sacrificed underneath throws, augmented by a few instances of poor tackling, but those are unremarkable. The other two main culprits were USC’s simply undefendable wide receivers, as well as some breakdowns in the scramble drill. Some examples:
- :00 - Pretty tough pass to defend here, and #6 CB Lenoir even flirts with a pass interference flag, but ultimately this is just a fast, big-bodied receiver physically winning.
- :17 - I just don’t know how you can stop a receiver who’s capable of surviving this much friction and a QB who’s willing to fit the ball into the window between Lenoir and #16 S Pickett before the WR’s head is turned.
- :36 - Pretty nice coverage of all the short stuff while Thibodeaux puts the RT on his belly and flushes the QB, but Slade-Matautia abandons his coverage to go for the sack and this QB is too cool to miss the opportunity, then #23 S McKinley misses the tackle to make it worse.
Considering how much work they had to do -- the QB set a school record with 57 pass attempts -- the cornerbacks did an incredible job. In addition to three interceptions and forcing 18 incompletions, they prevented this crew of lethal receivers from getting a single reception over 20 yards, keeping them from ever changing the game in a single play as they had against multiple earlier opponents.
The pass rush also did significantly better than USC’s previous opponents had, forcing 11 throwaways, scrambles, and sacks (one of which resulted in a fumble), as well as making the QB release the ball under two seconds for short routes on virtually every remaining play.
- :00 - Great coverage by Lenoir of a much bigger receiver, using the sideline as his ally and forcing him out of bounds.
- :15 - Lenoir’s technique here is perfect on an out-breaking route: plant the right foot and drive at just the right angle, then play to the ball not through the receiver’s body. He’s allowed to have his left hand resting on the receiver prior to the ball arriving as long as he doesn’t use it to grasp or restrict, but then as soon as the ball touches he’s free to use it to spin the receiver away.
- :30 - I have a hard time believing #2 CB Wright is a true freshman. The speed and fluidity with which he’s following this Heisman-caliber receiver’s every move is astonishing.
- :47 - Thibodeaux gets a great jump off the snap, the stunt by #32 OLB Winston lets #56 OLB Young get around the edge, and #93 DT Kava bullrushes the center. A panicked QB doesn’t see #25 S Breeze until it’s too late.
I feel pretty good about my description of USC’s offense last Friday, everything from the big picture stuff about their philosophy being fairly different from Wazzu’s despite both being labeled an air raid, to the fact that they don’t run the ball nearly enough considering their efficiency at it, to the nature of their trio of terrifying receivers and recent utilization of a big slot man. In particular I think film study exposed how blitzes and other exotic forms of pressure would rattle the young QB and penetrate a shaky line.
On their defense, I think the depiction of their secondary was pretty accurate, although that assessment is complicated by the loss of two of their safeties in this game to a targeting ejection and a possible concussion. I think I got their senior ILB described accurately, but the other position surprised me by having the starter return for some snaps (even Alicia on the podcast didn’t think that would happen), and the backup I thought played a much more solid game than I’d seen on film before. I’ll take partial credit on the defensive line - I thought the starting defensive tackles were as beatable as I expected them to be, but the second string and the guys who returned from injury on the ends had a better game than I thought they would and even pulled a couple of stunts I’d never seen before.