Oregon had only 47 meaningful offensive snaps against Wisconsin, excluding garbage-time plays like kneeldowns. That’s an extremely low number for a competitive game - by comparison, the games against Auburn, Washington, Wazzu, and even Oregon St hit about 70 apiece. In large part that’s due to an unusually high number of turnovers - four earned by the Ducks that gave them short fields (or in one case no possession at all), and one interception thrown that ended a drive on the first play.
That has two important effects when evaluating the game: first, it means that the statistical totals will be misleading - fewer snaps and shorter distances to the goal line mean that naturally the absolutes in certain categories will be lower than if a full game had played out. Second, even the percentages get affected because the denominator is so restricted - in several ways I measure a game, a single play having a different outcome by a yard or two would radically change the success rate. I generally caution anyone against making sweeping conclusions on the basis of a single game; that goes double for a low-possession game like this.
Oregon was successful on 11 designed rushes vs 12 failures, given the down & distance outside of garbage time. #7 RB Verdell had runs of 7, 9, and 13 yards, and #10 QB Herbert had three rushing touchdowns with one going for 30 yards. There was only one negative rushing play, and the average for designed rushes was 4.13 yards per carry. Those numbers are lower than during the regular season, but not dramatically so, and reflect what’s been the rushing strategy for the past two years: efficiency. Here’s some examples of such runs:
(Reminder - you can right-click or long-press any of these videos to play them at ¼ or ½ speed)
- :00 - This starts as an outside zone run with #58 LT Sewell and #68 LG Lemieux opening a big gap, but #55 C Hanson loses control of his defender so Verdell cuts it back off of the great block #54 RT Throckmorton is throwing to seal the end. Lemieux comes back for a second block of the ILB to open it up for him.
- :15 - Because this is the goal line, Wisconsin breaks its tendency and puts in a third lineman for a bear front despite Oregon lining up in 11-personnel. Without a nickelback, there’s only one safety to read on this zone-read play while the o-line and #48 TE Kampmoyer do a great job washing down all seven others in the box. Herbert sees him cheating inside and pulls the ball with the leverage to stiffarm him into the end zone. This is one of five designed runs for Herbert in the game, including putting Wisconsin on notice with a QB keep on the third play of the game.
- :36 - The only schematically interesting thing about this run is that Kampmoyer’s motion under the formation both neutralizes the safety on top of him in man coverage and lets him wham-block the OLB on the line. But check out how Oregon is winning every block on this play, including Hanson and Throckmorton moving up to the 2nd level on the ILBs.
- :52 - Wisconsin stays in zone coverage with a light box -- both an OLB and an ILB lining up outside to the field -- and Oregon naturally takes advantage running to the boundary. Hanson loses track of that ILB and Throckmorton just whiffs on his, but the hat advantage is enough to produce a good run.
There’s no particular pattern to Oregon’s run/pass splits. They chose about 50/50 run/pass on 1st & 10 at about 50/50 effectiveness at each. They ran exclusively on 1st or 2nd & short situations, and succeeded all but once.
Of the 12 failed rushing plays, I tallied four as mistakes by the QB or RB, and eight as the offensive line just getting beat on their blocks by a good defense. The only noticeable difference in the rushing game compared to most of the rest of the season is the line getting beat on two more plays than expected. Here’s a representative sample:
- :00 - Hanson gets beat on his block of the 2i while #75 RG Warmack is too slow to get up to the ILB. That causes Verdell to hesitate hitting the hole, which he can’t afford to do because the unblocked safety is crashing down hard.
- :13 - This is the worst run-block of the day, in my opinion - all five guys are failing their assignments.
- :24 - Hell of a block by Sewell, but Lemieux has lost control of his block and #6 WR Ju. Johnson doesn’t get a clean hit on the OLB, and this is just too big of a mess at too far of a distance (1.5 yards) for Verdell to just plow through. I think he should have recognized it and tried to cut outside as soon as the OLB went low and took away his room to leg drive through the pile.
- :39 - In terms of blocking, the culprit here is Kampmoyer not getting a good block on the OLB, who’s pressing into Sewell’s side and preventing him from getting up to the ILB who in turn makes the play. But that’s what would have made this a perfect opportunity for Herbert to keep the ball and run instead - the OLB is out of the play and all 11 defenders are inside the left hash (bear front vs 12-personnel), with Johnson in position to block the safety.
The passing offense was evenly split, 12 successful passing attempts vs 12 failed ones (including splitting screens at 2 vs 2). Reviewing the all-22 film, I saw Oregon’s typical progression structure, with short, intermediate, and deep reads for Herbert on every play except short yardage situational stuff. The actual passes attempted were Oregon’s usual ratios of longer vs shorter throws, with several very nice playcalls:
- :00 - Perfect ball placement by Herbert here, taking advantage of the physical mismatch between Johnson and the corner in man coverage. He makes a decisive throw as soon as his back is turned and creates separation.
- :20 - This is taking advantage of Wisconsin’s tendencies on film. Oregon’s in 12-personnel with the back offset to the strongside. That means the Badgers will only put one safety and three linebackers in zone coverage to the boundary, and they predictably trip over themselves trying to deal with all three pass-catchers releasing.
- :41 - One of several high-effort plays by #4 WR Pittman - the blocking structure for this screen puts him one-on-one with the highest DB; he gives him a shake and picks up extra yardage.
- :54 - Eight in the box expecting run, CB retreating in zone with no high safety. Perfect time for a quick throw behind the line of scrimmage, with Verdell in pass-pro and Kampmoyer blocking downfield. Note the line holding its water despite the jump by the defense on the delayed cadence.
Across the entire Rose bowl offense, there was only one observable pattern of problems: Oregon was 3 for 10 on 3rd downs. Eight of those ten 3rd down tries were passing attempts, of which only two succeeded. If fans are looking for something on which to pin a lower score than they’d like, here it is - not connecting on 3rd down passes.
However, drilling down into those 3rd down passing failures doesn’t reveal any consistent issue or single isolatable problem. Instead it’s just a little bit of every flaw we’ve seen all year, and Wisconsin is a top ten defense capable of exploiting them:
- :00 - This reverse tunnel screen off the fake to the back has been highly effective for Oregon all season long, but the ILB doesn’t bite on it and immediately goes out with the linemen, beating the block to the play, and Johnson just doesn’t have the quick acceleration to escape the DB coming at his heels.
- :16 - It’s tough to pin this play on any one guy. This loop stunt is coming around fast, Warmack gets off his initial block to pick it up but still some pressure gets through. Herbert has just enough time to set his feet and deliver a better ball, but there is a hand in his face. It’s a good read and placement to #3 WR Jo. Johnson who’s gotten separation, but he doesn’t quite have the vertical or the hands to come down with it.
- :31 - Wisconsin shows blitz and brings the ILB into the A-gap. Verdell does an okay job picking it up (and I really like Lemieux viciously taking out the DT). Herbert steps up and the OLB who’d dropped into coverage bites on it and lets Johnson run wide open to the offense’s right. Herbert has enough time and space to re-establish himself and make that throw, but he’s dropped his eyes and attempts to scramble for it, coming up short.
- :57 - Great playcall exploiting the huge soft spot in the zone coverage against trips to the boundary, Herbert shows good athleticism avoiding the pass rush while Verdell picks up the free rusher. Everything’s there but the catch.
Oregon did the one thing they absolutely had to: stop Wisconsin’s rushing attack. The Ducks successfully defended 20 rushes vs 16 failures, a far better defense rate than any opponent had against the Badgers in their previous six games.
Even more remarkable than stopping the two-time Doak Walker winner was that Oregon did so by constantly rotating in new bodies in their defensive front, and on nearly every play was deploying true freshmen:
- :00 - True freshman #5 DE Thibodeaux collapses the LT, true freshman #97 DT Dorlus beats the Rimington trophy winning center, and true freshman #47 OLB Funa cleans up.
- :11 - The five-star Thibodeaux deserves credit for shoving back the RT to close off the outside bounce from his knees, but the heroes of this short-yardage stop are a couple of three-stars: #50 DT Aumavae and #90 DT Carlberg, who beats the LG with pad level and a lot of Flex Fridays.
- :32 - Thibodeaux and Carlberg seal off the lane, while Aumavae and #99 DT Faoliu throw the center and the back to the ground.
- 1:01 - Despite a truly impressive jump off the snap from the RG, Dorlus beats both him and the RT, and joins with #34 NT Scott -- who’s shoved the LG into the first lane then flips into the cutback lane -- to bring down the back.
While they weren’t totally stymied in their conventional runs, Wisconsin was forced to turn to more unconventional looks on half their successful rushes, like their “hippo” package in short yardage. Some other examples:
- :00 - The Badgers end up in a typical I-formation after a lot of pre-snap re-arrangement (something they did much more than in previous games, though Oregon’s defense never reacted much), but use an atypical handoff -- the fullback dive -- and run over backup #55 ILB Niu.
- :21 - Here’s the longest run of the day, which took five missed tackles to produce.
- 1:00 - One of five sweeps that Wisconsin ran on a single drive late in the game; Funa is frozen at the snap for reasons I don’t understand, and #25 S Breeze is slow to come down into the gap to get the 4th down stop (Wisconsin tries a sweep on the next drive; Breeze pops the ball out).
Oregon did even better against the pass, with 22 successful defenses vs 15 failed ones. Only two passes went for more than 20 yards (neither was to a wide receiver), and the mere fact that they attempted more passes than designed runs was an accomplishment - this was the first time they did so all season.
Even on Oregon’s pass defense breakdowns, they were still limiting the offense to relatively short stuff:
- :00 - The receiver creates some separation at the top of his route with physicality, but #6 CB Lenoir recovers and prevents him from breaking free for the 1st down.
- :27 - I think this is the lowest effort play from Oregon’s defense of the game. #41 ILB Slade-Matautia is slow to take the zone assignment handoff on the mesh, #35 ILB Dye doesn’t wrap up, and #4 CB Graham overruns it.
- 1:02 - Pretty good single coverage due to the blitz, and #8 DB Holland is well positioned to break this pass up, but the receiver wins the play with remarkable grip strength.
Mostly Oregon kept a lid on Wisconsin’s passing offense by playing situationally appropriate coverages -- softer zone in 3rd & long, cover-1 without much respect for the receiving corps otherwise -- and not over-committing to the pass rush. Some examples:
- :00 - The three deep releases are a tendency breaker, since Wisconsin usually only sends one deep. It’s meant to clear out the midfield, and three DBs run stride-for-stride with them and carry the high safety. But Oregon is still controlling the center with three LBs and a safety to keep the short routes from breaking out.
- :23 - Holland knows this pass is going to his man because he’s studied film and the QB never takes his eyes off him. He slips past the rub attempt and shows a great burst coming down on the receiver.
- :42 - Here’s a formation I described three months ago as “weird stuff” - only one lineman with his fist in the dirt bringing an unorthodox blitz structure. It pays off as #32 OLB Winston confuses the LG, Carlberg splits the RG and RT, and Thibodeaux whips the center to smack the QB and force an errant ball.
- 1:19 - Nice coffeehouse move by Thibodeaux, who comes into the blitz and puts some pressure on the QB before this deep pass, but give most of the credit to Lenoir to stays on top of their best receiver and keeps him from getting to the ball.
In last week’s film study, I got right the most important -- though most obvious -- key to the game, which was stopping Jonathan Taylor, around whom the rest of Wisconsin’s offense is built. Other observations that came to pass included that they employ a lot of unconventional rushing that also carries a big fumble risk, that their offensive line is massive but makes a lot of technique mistakes and can be beaten, and that they pass too predictably on longer yardage and lock onto Quintez Cephus because he’s by far their most capable receiver. Wisconsin rushed out of multiple tight end formations, and passed out of zero-TE ones, at almost exactly the rates I had tallied. I was surprised, however, that their passing offense was more diversified than I was expecting - I thought their tight end was underutilized on seam routes and he caught more than one in the Rose Bowl, they threw to other wideouts on some routes they weren’t using before, and they converted a 4th down on a tailback wheel route I don’t believe I’d seen on film.
I did less well predicting Wisconsin’s defense, particularly their defensive line. I thought they were good but not great in Big Ten play, and it’s possible (especially from looking around at other bowl results) that I’ve systematically underestimated line play in that conference - I’ll need to keep that in mind as I review Ohio St’s film this offseason. I did correctly note their nose/nickel switch based on the offense’s tight end count (it seems Oregon did too, as unlike the rest of the year they almost always operated out of 11-personnel to get friendlier rush looks, then passed out of 12-sets against their vulnerable secondary). The dominance of their linebacker play was exactly as previous film showed, and they even got one sack in an almost identical manner to a video in my preview article. The biggest surprise of the day came in how they defended Oregon’s inside vs outside rushing - both were at about 50/50 success rates, whereas I had noted Wisconsin had a big split in previous games, being excellent in the middle and poor at the edges. Oregon didn’t attack the outside as much as I would have guessed, though that may have had more to do with available personnel. I also thought Oregon would try more RPO passes, but after the early interception on one, they really shied away from them for the rest of the game.