Nota bene: Oregon put the conference championship game into garbage time with about six minutes remaining in the 4th quarter when they forced Utah to punt from their 9-yard line, after which Oregon played clock-killer and Utah’s drives were all desperation passes. Excluding garbage time therefore means ignoring a two-play short-field touchdown drive for the Ducks after an interception, which explains what may appear to be a discrepancy in the numbers of this article.
As noted in Thursday’s film study preview, the key to winning this game was sticking with the rushing attack against Utah’s defense, which struggled to stop efficiency runs. Prior to garbage time, Oregon was successful on 17 designed rushing plays vs just 7 unsuccessful ones, given the down & distance. Rushes were both efficient and explosive, with no negative-yardage runs and an average of 8.46 yards per carry (5.74 if we exclude a short-yardage TD and a 70-yd TD).
Along with a lot of the familiar in Oregon’s run game -- downhill running behind an offensive line at full strength dominating the defensive front -- we also saw a few new wrinkles and the continued growth of #7 RB Verdell’s vision as a back. 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)
- :00 - The 2nd play of the game put Utah’s d-line off-guard for three reasons: first by changing up the snap cadence and drawing them offside; second by demonstrating #10 QB Herbert’s willingness to run the ball himself; third by introducing reads of other than just an unblocked end - this I believe is a midline read of the inside backer.
- :21 - Pretty good blocking here until #75 RG Warmack gets accidentally tripped up and the playside gap closes. However, forced to respect the QB keep, the defensive end is far enough outside that Verdell can make a smart cut backside and slip through for chunk yardage, which he turns into even more by breaking tackles with the help of blocking wideouts.
- :38 - Most of Utah’s effective rush defenses looked like this, where they stack the box and simply clog up the running lanes with a bunch of bodies. Here #58 LT Sewell has to stay on his combo block and that leaves #48 TE Kampmoyer alone trying to get leverage against Utah’s best lineman. The result is just a 3-yd gain.
- :55 - Here’s every Oregon fan’s favorite play, the halfback dive out of the pistol. Reader, note from the SkyCam angle how the timing works - the lane doesn’t develop until just before the back arrives, when #55 C Hanson gets off his chip and moves up to the backer coming down (into what turns out to be the wrong gap), and because he’s coming from the pistol he’s built up a head of steam and his faith that the lane will be there is rewarded when he crashes through and breaks tackles.
As expected against Utah’s tremendous pass defense, Oregon was significantly less efficient through the air - 12 successful throws vs 16 failed ones. By my count, about half of those failures were simply from facing an excellent defense -- one that covered, tackled, and pressured the QB pretty well -- and there wasn’t much to regret about those. The other half, however, looked like an even split between poorly delivered balls by Herbert and some agonizing drops by the receivers. Some examples:
- :00 - This looks like it was intended to be the reverse-motion screen Oregon used to score touchdowns in several previous games. Utah’s backup safety sniffs it out however and tells the corner to stay home, taking away the throw to #30 WR Redd. Herbert tries to improvise out of it, but #54 RT Throckmorton by this time has given up his man and Herbert is flushed. Fortunately, and unlike a lot of past plays, he throws the ball away and to a spot where it won’t be picked or draw a grounding flag.
- :25 - Pretty well designed and executed play here - the pre-snap motion reveals man coverage, Redd’s slow trot and the back leaking through the formation draws the DB’s eyes into the backfield, and #6 WR Ju. Johnson’s post route pulls the top CB away from the sideline. So when Redd hits the gas and blows past the DB he’s wide open … but he gets himself turned the wrong way and loses the ball.
- :52 - Great playcall here - Utah’s loaded the box, the one-on-one blocks to the field are set up nicely, and the safety hesitates to follow Redd in motion all the way because of the earlier reverse-motion play. It’s a walk-in touchdown if Herbert would have just delivered an accurate ball in stride.
I believe that the success Oregon did have in the passing game can be attributed in large part to the return of Hanson to his center position. This meant well-timed snaps that allowed Oregon to re-introduce its highly effective run-pass option plays that had been missing in the previous two weeks, as well as much better called-out blitz protections against Utah’s aggressive pass rush. It also meant that Oregon could go back to its six-man rotation on the line, specifically having Warmack and #66 OL Aiello alternate drives at right guard - that kept them both fresh and more effective than I’ve observed when either has to play a full game.
Occasional accuracy issues aside, we also saw much more confident and loose QB play from Herbert. Some examples:
- :00 - Utah keeps an ILB as a spy over Herbert, which he uses to his advantage by rolling a bit and faking a quick screen to the back - that draws the backer out of the throwing lane, and lets Herbert throw Redd open and away from the coverage over the middle.
- :18 - Motioning the TE inside gets a nice two-over-two man coverage look to the field side for this RPO. A crisply delivered snap and a legal rub by Redd (the CB initiates contact) lets Herbert throw the ball to #80 WR Addison with perfect timing, beating the shorter safety high after the surprise switch and releasing before the run-blocking linemen get downfield.
- :43 - 2nd & 1 is a great opportunity for a deep shot because the whole playbook is open. Here’s a rollout with a high-low read plus the possibility of the QB simply keeping the ball for a short pickup. But Johnson has cooked the corner and there’s no help over the top because the single-high safety is pulled down by all the intermediate options, letting Herbert hit a real pretty 50-yard rainbow.
Oregon’s defense was stiflingly efficient on a per-play basis, winning on 62% of all snaps prior to garbage time. That started with an excellent defense against designed rushes -- 16 successes vs 9 failures -- which forced Utah to only run the ball about 41% of the time. Oregon gave up only 130 rush yards to one of the best backs in the conference prior to garbage time, and the vast majority of Utah’s rushing yardage came on three big plays in which they broke containment. On the remaining 22 runs, Utah earned only 1.90 yards per carry.
Here’s a representative sample:
- :00 - This was an early tone-setter, the first of several short-yardage stops. #56 OLB Young maintains outside leverage and forces the back inside, where #99 DT Au. Faoliu and #35 ILB Dye have gotten off their blocks and stop him short.
- :15 - #90 DE Carlberg whips the RT to keep the back from getting outside, and the rest of the defense quickly rallies to the ball to preserve the tackle for loss - there are 10 (!) nightmare green jerseys behind the line of scrimmage at the time the tackle is made.
- :39 - #97 DE Dorlus is a true freshman. He wrecks the guard and brings down the back with his fingers.
- :52 - Mistakes by #8 DB Holland and #41 ILB Slade-Matautia -- both attempt to get inside their blockers instead of maintaining outside leverage and forcing the play back to where they have help -- allow the back to get up the sideline for one of three big gains.
Utah’s passing offense featured most of the over-the-middle late shots, multiple TE sets, and QB improvisation as expected. Oregon did a fairly good job of taking away the deep passes with single coverage -- not really respecting the WRs’ speed or the QB’s arm strength -- freeing up more personnel for rush defense and short-to-intermediate coverage. Utah makes most teams pay for this approach and Oregon was more effective than I expected on a per-play basis - winning on 21 dropbacks vs 14 failures.
Those failures did represent some chunk yardage surrendered - seven completed passes were in the 10-25 yard range, and they gave up an 18-yard scramble. I also noted several plays where Utah receivers used extra physicality to push the play into the win column for their team. Some examples:
- :00 - #25 S Breeze is just a step slow to come down on the TE on this quick hitch. Fortunately, #50 DT Aumavae bullrushes the guard into the QB and it affects the throw, making the TE come back to the ball and reducing the gain a bit.
- :16 - Dye is well positioned on 3rd & 10 to come down to this underneath dumpoff -- forced by #34 DT Scott splitting the guards -- but the club on his broken thumb keeps him from quickly making the tackle, which is something I’ve noticed on several plays in this and earlier games. The receiver’s extra effort and a downfield block by the back get him just enough yardage for a 1st down.
- :42 - Not bad coverage by Holland here -- this is a perfectly thrown back-shoulder fade and there’s really no defense for it -- but more importantly it’s cover-1 vs 10-personnel because Oregon wants to blitz on 3rd & 10, and the route carries the receiver away from the single-high safety. That’s exactly the kind of long-yardage gamble that Utah’s offense has been taking their chances on in 2019.
What ultimately made Oregon’s pass defense effective -- and what let them do what no team has done to Utah with the possible exception of USC -- is actually make their pass rush and single coverage pay off. I thought in film study that Utah’s offensive line showed signs of vulnerability in pass protection, and Oregon exploited that to great effect.
That resulted in Utah posting just 5.31 yards per dropback, with about 29% of them resulting in a sack or scramble. Some examples:
- :00 - I don’t believe this gets marked down in the official stat sheet as a QB hurry, but this is one of more than a hundred plays on the season where it’s clear on film that quick pressure affected the throw and resulted in a failed play despite not counting as a sack. Here #5 OLB Thibodeaux strikes the tackle hard, then gets inside of him before he can re-anchor, forcing a quick throw before the WR is expecting it while affecting the throwing angle with a reach into the lane.
- :15 - Very tight coverage on this 4th down attempt, one of four Utah attempted without success. #4 CB Graham refuses to get beat inside and gets the last-second rake of the arms for the pass break-up.
- :37 - This play is extremely similar to a touchdown pass Utah scored against Colorado that I put in my preview article - even with seven blockers against a four-man rush, the pocket begins to collapse under Carlberg and Scott, then Holland comes down onto the scrambling QB who manages to leap free of the tackle and get his eyes downfield. But this time it’s different - Oregon has locked up the boundary sideline target and has four defenders on the only fieldside receiver, so he’s got nobody to throw it to … and he can’t outrun Young chasing him down for one of Oregon’s six sacks.
I think I did alright predicting Utah’s offense. The major points I got right included that they’re inefficient on 1st & 2nd downs and so take a lot of 3rd & long intermediate and deep shots instead of playing conservatively, that their QB has good pocket escapability but tends to lock on to targets under pressure, and that their offensive line would let a lot of that through. I wasn’t particularly impressed with their rushing efficiency and we saw an extreme divergence between grinding runs vs explosive ones. I also noted their strong tendency for passing out of a 10-personnel shotgun set, and on Friday they passed on 100% of such snaps. What I got wrong was a prediction that they run heavily on 2nd & long - they faced 14 of those on Friday but ran only six times (though I was correct that they’re not very good at such runs, as they only succeeded twice). I also thought they had almost entirely eliminated read-option plays, but 12% of their designed runs on Friday were QB keepers on the option.
Post-game, Coach Whittingham said, “We didn’t win the line of scrimmage for the first time all season, which is, like I say, disappointing. Surprising, really.” It wasn’t to readers of Addicted to Quack and to those who study film. I thought the evidence was quite clear that Utah’s #1 rush defense was a mirage, created by opponents with weak offensive lines giving up on the run, and Oregon vindicated that belief. I also thought the big vulnerability was overly aggressive linebackers who’d stick their noses in too early and choose the wrong lane or get blocked out at the last minute, and there were several examples of that resulting in long runs. I thought that Utah’s pass defense was much stronger, but that only one of their corners was a big threat, and that was borne out as well. However, I thought it would take some extremely tricky stuff to beat the pass defense, and it turned out that -- outside of the Ducks beating themselves with drops and unforced inaccurate passes -- Oregon’s standard playbook was up to the task. I regret the error.