Oct 3, 2020: A theme that I kept coming back to in 2019 was that only Oregon can stop Oregon … that is, throughout last year I repeatedly wrote that the Ducks’ talent and coaching was better than every team on their schedule, and only self-inflicted wounds (and dumb luck) would keep them from dominating the scoreboard in every game. In hindsight, there are two games where I think that didn’t hold up and they got a toe-to-toe battle to the finish, but the game against Cal wasn’t one of them.
This was the lowest scoring game of the season for Oregon, fueled by turnovers on each of their first three drives and a number of mental mistakes by the quarterback. It raised a lot of eyebrows when I said it was Oregon’s best performance of the year in the efficiency numbers, particularly their dominant rushing attack, but I think the rest of the season showed who had the right of that argument: the Ducks averaged 40.5 points per game in the final eight games after this one, with the #1 rushing offense in the league.
Defensively, this was one of six games Oregon limited the opponent to single digits, and while it broke the streak of keeping the opponent out of the endzone entirely, even that drive required a unlikely pass completion. I expected the Bears with their backup QB but some very good backs to rush a lot, and their complete inability to do so effectively against the Ducks’ defense is what kept them from running out the clock on a high-variance strategy and ultimately lost them the game.
Although the scoreboard doesn’t reflect it, in every measure of fundamental strength this was a wire-to-wire domination: Oregon’s combined per-play success rate was 61.2%, they controlled field position, and they won almost every statistical category by a wide margin. Once Oregon stopped shooting themselves in the foot with turnovers, the natural outcome one would expect from the game conditions asserted itself.
Oregon’s rushing efficiency was its best all season, 20 successful plays vs 10 failed ones. In designed rushes they averaged 5.0 YPC and had seven runs of 10 yards or longer. This was in large part due to a dominant inside power rushing game - as I noted on Friday previewing Cal, their defense is particularly vulnerable to power-blocked runs up the middle, and sure enough, Oregon had 14 successful vs just 3 unsuccessful inside power runs. Some examples:
(Reminder - you can right-click or long-press any of these videos to play them in ¼ or ½ speed)
- :00 - Just beautiful man blocking here, all five linemen plus #27 TE Breeland are winning their blocks, and given how far back Cal plays their safeties #7 RB Verdell has a clean lane to pick up 12 yards.
- :07 - Cal has 10 men in the box, it’s 3rd & 1, and 60,000 people in Autzen know the halfback dive out of the pistol is coming. Oregon gets four yards. If you can do this, every other page in your playbook is just a backup plan.
- :14 - Here’s an off-tackle power run with #68 LG Lemieux pulling to hit the DE and Breeland lead blocking to take out the backer, leaving #26 RB Dye to make a nice inside move against the safety to earn another 5 yards.
- :29 - A nice treat for your film reviewer: an unbalanced line, with #58 LT Sewell as the tackle-over to the right. This run is designed to go between #55 C Hanson and #66 RG Aiello (swapping out with #75 RG Warmack on every other drive), but the backer shoots around into that lane so #33 RB Habibi-Likio cuts to the other A-gap and runs over a couple of linemen.
Interestingly, Oregon ran very little inside zone in this game, instead using zone blocking almost exclusively for outside runs. They were less successful at these than inside power (although still better than Cal had been surrendering in their previous games), 6 successes vs 7 failures, though one of these did produce their longest run of the night. A representative sample:
- :00 - The backer blows this play up by crashing hard into Hanson and pushing him into the back’s course, one of the few times I’ve seen Cal defend an outside rush this way.
- :06 - The long runway for this play allows the unblocked backside end to chase down Verdell from behind, but he breaks it and pushes through the frontside end (whom #54 RT Throckmorton has gotten a little lazy about blocking) to pick up a couple yards on forward progress and stay ahead of the chains.
- :14 - When everyone hits their blocks and you can seal the edge, as Sewell and #48 TE Kampmoyer are here, this play will break big - nobody in the defense can get an angle on the back and #80 WR Addison’s perimeter blocking gets him more.
In the passing offense, Oregon had 20 successful plays vs 17 failures. That’s only a little better than Cal was allowing in its previous games, though they fixed the two biggest problems I noted in last week’s film study (man vs zone coverage miscommunication on the scramble drill and schematically “cheating” defending trips to the boundary).
The biggest issue was not the pass rush, Oregon mostly handled that very well (Cal’s depth in their defensive front, including missing any true nose tackle, continues to be a huge problem for them), but rather the challenges that their talented secondary and tendency to drop a lot of guys into coverage created for #10 QB Herbert. When he reads their mostly cover-3 zone defense properly, there were some big gains to be had:
- :00 - Oregon has trips to the field and Cal blitzes six, leaving a great big gap in the shallow midfield. Herbert hits the pop to Breeland on a delayed release, and one sweet stiffarm later he’s got a 20-yard gain.
- :23 - The pre-snap motion clears out the backer, leaving the classic deep hole vulnerability in cover-3 wide open. Herbert stands tall in the pocket even though he’s about to get hit and puts a good catchable ball into #30 WR Redd’s improved radius.
- :37 - This 12-personnel pistol set has attracted Cal’s run-defense 5-man front, but play-action doesn’t fool these backers for long. Herbert makes a beautiful last second step in the pocket and has the arm talent to throw off-platform to get it out to Breeland, and it’s great to see #9 WR Schooler throwing a block to spring him for the 1st down.
However, in my opinion, eight of Oregon’s 17 failed passing plays were due to Herbert being late on a throw or being overly aggressive against a good passing defense (which is curious to say, since my biggest criticism of him in the first week was being too conservative against a flawed one). Some representative examples of all failures on dropbacks:
- :00 - This was the only sack of the night and by far the worse o-line foul-up, though there were three others in this game. It’s possible that it’s a simple humiliation of Lemieux, but I think something else may be going on: Lemieux may be assigned to the backer (who drops out) and expecting Hanson to pick up the 3-tech after handing off the nose to Aiello, but Hanson is late to do so … trying to help out Aiello too much, maybe? I’d appreciate your take, reader.
- :12 - If Herbert is going to try this throw despite the coverage, he needs to be putting the ball high so Breeland can go up for it while the backer is turned around. But it’s an absurd choice to throw it here at all, given that #6 WR Ju. Johnson is wide open on the easy crosser for a good gain and probably a first down, or he could have hit #4 WR Pittman who’s breaking open on the skinny post, or Dye on the wheel since this coverage scheme always leaves the outside flat open with the safeties so deep.
- :33 - The pump-fake and Redd’s nice move off the line trip up the coverage, and this is an easy wide open throw that Herbert makes too difficult. He steps around the backer coming into the throwing lane unnecessarily (the ball is going to arc over him anyway) and it delays the timing and trajectory so that Redd gets turned around. He should have just planted his feet and thrown as soon as the DB’s hips betrayed him.
This was a thorough domination that allowed Oregon’s offense good field position and the opportunity to re-assert itself, and earned the #1 SP+ ranking in the nation.
Although it was clearly Cal’s strategy to limit possessions with 35-second playclock snaps and make this a high variance game (which nearly worked!), they weren’t able to effectively run much clock with their rushing offense. Cal only had 19 designed rushes in the game, which Oregon defended 12 times successfully to 7 failures, significantly better than the performances of previous rush defenses Cal faced. But even the per-play number doesn’t capture how stifling the Ducks run defense was - on designed runs Cal only got 2.6 YPC, only two runs went for more than 5 yards (6 and 8), and on most of those 7 plays in which Cal was successful they were just barely so.
Most importantly, Oregon was able to stop the run without bringing the safeties far down into the box, leaving more personnel in pass defense as Cal started throwing the ball more and more often as their lead vanished. Some examples:
- :00 - Cal’s under center with two tight ends, before they got hit with unfortunate line injuries and while they still wanted to run power. #34 DT Scott beats the left guard, #90 DT Carlberg splits a double team, and #56 OLB Young cleans up from the backside for this tackle for loss on 3rd & 1.
- :16 - Here’s a zone read where #32 OLB Winston is the unblocked man; he stays wide so the QB hands off, but Carlberg and #50 DT Aumavae have so thoroughly crushed the inside lanes that the back tries to bounce back outside where Winston is waiting for him.
- :22 - Really impressive for Aumavae to get this far into the backfield and wrap up the back’s leg, #99 DT Au. Faoliu has gotten deep as well, and #35 ILB Dye throws the freshman center to the ground to clean up for another 3rd & 1 TFL.
- :36 - #41 ILB Slade-Matautia correctly identifies the pulling guard and flows to the correct gap … that leaves 5 blocking 4 on the backside but two free defenders playside. Faoliu embarrassing that pulling guard inside doesn’t hurt either.
Oregon went 26 successes vs 15 failures in pass defense. That’s a much better performance than Cal’s previous opponents had facing their starting QB, though slightly worse than the (very limited) sample last week with the backup QB in for about a half.
What’s interesting is the big disparity in Oregon’s performance when they kept the QB in the pocket compared to when he broke it. For the former, Oregon’s pass defense was successful on 20 plays vs just 9 failures. Some examples:
- :00 - Oregon’s showing blitz here, but back out of it and only send three in a pass rush structure I hadn’t seen before, even in last week’s comprehensive defensive review. Scott gets pressure quickly and forces a quick throw, and the linebackers are handing off coverage of the four different short routes on this play well, with Dye breaking off for a quick tackle and minimal gain on 3rd down.
- :09 - #5 DE Thibodeaux gets around the left tackle and, most importantly, keeps his feet while bending around him, earning his first sack as a Duck.
- :29 - Another confusing and effective pass rush sending only four after showing blitz using a double-tackle twist and Thibodeaux showing more power than I expected, the backers get the short stuff covered, and #6 CB Lenoir runs his man-coverage responsibility out of bounds. This is an iconic play for DC Avalos.
- :35 - Carlberg coming across the formation so quickly draws the right guard away and leaves a big gap for both inside backers to run through, with only the back left in pass protection. Dye hurdles him which is fun, but Slade-Matautia’s movement, balance, and tackling form on this sack is immaculate. Watch the reverse angle showing his hips fluidly changing direction without losing speed as the QB breaks.
There are two things to work on for Oregon’s pass defense. First, I tallied on 12 of 41 dropbacks that the DB was not locked on tight in pass coverage. That’s about four plays more often than their usual rate in the previous four games, and in 10 of those 12 instances the pass was completed for a significant gain. (I think Oregon got lucky just once, when there was no pass rush forcing a bad throw and the DB was out of place but the ball sailed anyway. Compared to the four plays I tallied where I thought the coverage was excellent but the pass was completed anyway against all likelihood, I think they were on-balance unlucky in this regard.)
The other issue is that when the QB broke the pocket, he was far more effective in producing yardage, 6 successes to 6 failures. Here’s some examples of the QB making Oregon pay for not bringing him down quickly:
I didn’t have much film to work with on Cal’s backup QB, but I did note the possibility that he’d improve after settling in for a week and practicing with the first team. The fact that he was scrambling so often is also something I think I captured last week. In terms of strategy, I feel like I correctly predicted Cal trying to limit possessions and that (at least to begin the game) they’d lean heavily on running the ball. However, it was still surprising to me how much better the QB was playing, and between that and being without their second great running back, their run:pass ratio was 1:2 ... that was a big miss for me.
While I did put up a video highlighting some great plays by Cal’s secondary, I also spent quite a bit of time last Friday detailing a couple of schematic problems Cal’s secondary had been showing for several games, but those didn’t show up at all (I suppose they employ film reviewers, too). Given how well they played against Oregon — hemming in the deep passing game and breaking Oregon’s interception-free streak — I think my preview should have gone deeper into what exactly makes them so good. However, I feel I did a better job predicting Cal’s rush defense than any single unit I’ve previewed this year. Their tendencies regarding inside power vs all other forms of rush plays went down exactly as I wrote it would, as well as the other problems in their defensive front depth that have caused them to get fatigued and fall off at the end of games.