One should always expect the unexpected in the first game of any team’s season, but the personnel choices in this game still took me aback. Looking around the league at the other seven teams that played, I did a better job predicting the rotation and gameplans in my North and South projections articles last week for every other team than Oregon.
Ultimately the outcome was still as I saw it: the Pac-12’s only blowout of the opening weekend. For the entire 4th quarter with the exception of one offensive drive, Oregon had a 21-point lead: first 28-7 then 35-14. Most advanced stats systems consider a late lead of that size to be “garbage time”, and I could see on film that there were substantial changes in playcalling, clock management, and personnel from both teams. So those plays aren’t counted in my tally as they’re non-representative, though I do retain video and charts of them for potential future articles.
This was a perfectly balanced offense, not only in yards but in playcall frequency and effectiveness: outside of garbage time, the Ducks had 31 designed rushes and 31 designed passing plays, and they were successful, given the down & distance, on 21 vs 10 at both. Reader, in all my years of charting games I’ve never seen it come out exactly even before.
I thought new starter #12 QB Shough had an impressive debut. Four of his 21 successful passing plays were completions for over 20 yards, he went 17/26 (with two drops and two throwaways), and his 143.7 passer rating was second best in the league:
(Reminder - you can right-click or long-press any video to play it in ¼ or ½ speed)
- :00 - Just perfect timing and placement.
- :24 - Oregon used controlled tempo throughout the game, including several hurry-up plays and on this one they caught the defense before they were set. They’ve lined up the X-receiver tight to the formation, which is a new wrinkle, and with the TE and RB to the offense’s left it’s trips to the boundary which puts the backer in conflict. All Shough has to do is get it to #7 RB Verdell in stride for a big gain.
- :41 - The defense is crowding the line and showing blitz, but then backs out of it to rush only four with a twist. Good post-snap read to locate the soft spot that leaves and deliver an on-time, catchable ball on the crosser to #30 WR Redd.
- :49 - It’s subtle, but look closely and you’ll see Shough clocking the DB getting up on his toes to blitz pre-snap. Great timing to throw into the void that creates.
Shough was deployed as a runner more than Oregon’s starting QB has been in the past under Coach Cristobal, and he showed a readiness to scramble as well:
- :00 - I spotted QB power a lot early on in my review of new OC Moorhead’s career, and wished in that article we’d see exactly this draw play at Oregon for the first time in years. The defense flows to the field following the screen possibility, leaving the boundary open. Great blocks by #77 OT Moore and #3 WR J. Johnson to create the lane, but #78 C Forsyth loses control of his man so Shough bounces it outside of them.
- :09 - This almost went down as another draw on my tally sheet, but I think it’s actually a scramble on a called passing play. The impressive thing is the read: Shough knows the defense is in man coverage and this route concept will drag all levels of the defense to the opposite direction. I believe he’s made the decision to run before the ball is even snapped.
- :29 - Shough scrambled five times, this is one of two I thought were mistakes. #71 OL Aumavae-Laulu stumbles on Moore’s leg, letting his man through. Shough has time and a good enough pocket to step up into and hit Redd who’s burning a linebacker, but instead he tries to take off and barely gets back to the line of scrimmage.
- :49 - There were quite a few option plays of different types in the game, but none of them work without the credible threat of the QB keeping it when that’s what the defense presents. Here’s one of four such keeps, with the whole defensive front going inside. Nice block by true freshman #14 WR Hutson downfield.
The biggest surprise of the night for me was the offensive line personnel. Forsyth played the whole game as expected, #56 LG Bass played for all but two drives, and after missing the first quarter for whatever reason, #74 LT S. Jones was as dominant as I’d figured on the left side. But on the right side, they started out with Aumavae-Laulu at tackle despite being tabbed as a guard, and former walk-on #53 RG Walk played much of the game, including taking over for Bass in two drives at left guard. Moore started at left tackle, then moved to the right when Jones came in, and from that point there was a rotation between drives with Bass-MAL-Moore, Walk-MAL-Moore, and Bass-Walk-MAL.
Overall it was an impressive showing for an entirely new line, which won Pro Football Focus’ OL of the week. The lowest graded on my tally sheet was Forsyth, who snapped the ball cleanly every time but wasn’t as consistent at the rest in controlling his block. There are some incredible displays of strength from the tackles in this game, as well as discipline - no sacks, no false starts from scrimmage, and just one declined holding flag in garbage time.
That showed the most in the run game, which had the same 68% success rate as the pass game, including four designed rushes that went for over 10 yards outside of garbage time. It was a bit of a slow start, with six of their 10 failed runs happening before the midway point of the 2nd quarter, which I attribute to Jones’ absence, the defense not having worn down yet, and Shough not establishing the threat to run by improperly handing off a few times. Once it got going, however, the run game was hard to stop:
- :00 - This looks like an RPO, in which Shough is getting one part right — the overhang backer moving away from the box to cover the pass options to the field means it should be a run — but the unblocked DE is clearly staying on the back and he should have kept the ball himself.
- :12 - Great addition to the playbook here - a power-blocked pitch option against a loaded box. Nice timing to wait for the read man to shift his balance, and another great block by Johnson.
- :30 - Later in the game, having established the threat to run keeps the DE honest, allowing Verdell a nice clean run. Just watch the downfield blocking by the linemen here, they are throwing defenders around.
- :38 - Stanford loads up the box but Oregon’s line is just too good for them to stop even with numbers.
The two most intriguing new members of the offense are Moorhead and converted defensive end #89 TE DJ Johnson. What I appreciated most about Moorhead’s playcalling is how he layers plays in to keep the defense off-guard … there is a way that these calls speak to each other. There was a very nice sequence of plays that showed this off, as well as Johnson’s bone-crushing slice blocks when lined up as an H-back:
- :00 - Starting with a split-zone fairly similar to last year - the H-back comes underneath the formation to wham the otherwise unblocked end on a rush play.
- :10 - Next, he fakes the block and goes out on a possible pitch or screen throw. The ILB sticks with him, so Shough keeps the ball and runs it through the open gap.
- :19 - Another fake, this time the end stays with the possibility of a QB run. So Shough makes good and pops it to Johnson for a walk-in touchdown.
- :32 - The end is sick of this and just crashes the mesh, earning another crushing from Johnson while Shough pulls the ball on the RPO and throws it quite crisply on the slant to the other Johnson (no relation).
As anticipated, Stanford made no significant changes to their offense; as such they started the game by attempting to establish the run in heavy personnel. They had some success on the first drive when the defense was still getting settled, but by the second drive Oregon had their rushing attack very well contained, which ultimately is what kept Stanford mostly off the board - it disables their redzone strategy and forces them into quick throws only between the 20s.
I tallied Oregon making 16 successful rush defenses vs 8 failed ones outside of garbage time, with only three going for over 10 yards:
- :00 - Nice job here by #5 DE Thibodeaux and #41 ILB Slade-Matautia getting off their blocks to contain the run. #54 ILB Mathis is flowing to the play properly and doesn’t overcommit so there’s no chance of a backside cut.
- :11 - True freshman #1 ILB Sewell gets past the center with incredible speed, forcing the back to where Slade-Matautia ought to be, but he’s overcommitted outside and has too much ground to cover, allowing the back to get some extra yards.
- :18 - One of many unexpected new personnel groups we saw in this game, they’ve sacrificed the nickel defender to put in redshirt freshmen #91 DT K. Williams and #95 DT Ware-Hudson, while backing up Thibodeaux to linebacker depth. Williams wrecks the 5-star right tackle, while #2 CB Wright has contain.
- :32 - By the 3rd quarter the defense had gotten in a groove and were effectively containing the run in their standard defensive structure (though Thibodeaux is standing up, a little unusually). He plays with proper outside leverage to force the run in, Sewell races through the gap to contain it the other way, and #3 DT Scott has gotten off his block to make the tackle with Slade-Matautia.
Over the summer I’d written a few times that Stanford’s personnel is better suited to a passing attack than running, so it wasn’t a big surprise that they had relatively more success through the air. I tallied 11 Oregon pass successes vs 8 failures (though in my opinion, one of those failures came on a DPI flag that I thought was improper; in a low-rep game like this one flipping that to a success would raise their effectiveness rate from 58% to 63%, which is why the reader shouldn’t take too much away from single-game stats).
Although Oregon recorded no sacks in this game, it was clear from studying the tape that the pass rush was still paying out - on 8 of 16 downfield pass attempts Oregon had a QB hurry or otherwise negatively affected the throw with the pass rush. The secondary mostly played a great game, including several jaw-dropping plays, though I did tally three breakdowns where I think the DB just made a bad choice. Most importantly, the pass defense was lights-out in the redzone and forced the offense, outside of garbage time, to march the field, with only three plays of 20+ yards:
- :00 - The QB has to throw this a beat early because the pass rush is about to get home, which is all the time Wright needs to climb the ladder on a much taller defender and record the prettiest pass break-up I’ve seen all year.
- :22 - This is an incredible move by Sewell on the blitz to get around the guard — I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a juke like this going in that direction — but the QB still gets the ball out, and Wright’s bit on the double-move.
- :44 - Yet another new defensive look, only three on the line and a stacked backer. Those three completely collapse the pocket and force the QB out, who dumps the ball off on this useless little crosser.
- :51 - Weird blitzes are getting to be routine for this defense, though it’s interesting to see true freshman #44 DE Swinson getting meaningful reps as the guy backing out into coverage. Sewell destroys their best lineman and forces a short dumpoff; #23 DB McKinley is in the right position but the ump throws a pick and he can’t quite wrestle him down before that last twist.
The most interesting new package that DC Avalos introduced this year was a dime look on obvious passing downs, with an extra defensive back in (usually #7 DB Stephens) and some pass rush specialists on the line, #29 OLB Jackson, back from injury, and #55 OLB An. Faoliu, brother of starter #99 DT Au. Faoliu (shown playing well in several above clips).
Oregon hadn’t played any dime at all last year so I was surprised to see it on eight different snaps on Saturday. Here’s a representative sample:
- :00 - The speed of this 6-man blitz is incredible, with Thibodeaux converting speed to power to bully the RT and Jackson coming in hot on a twist. That clearly affects the throw, and #0 CB Lenoir has patiently worked the receiver out of bounds (reader, spot the deep wing throwing his hat to indicate the receiver is ineligible).
- :19 - Stanford ran a draw play like this in passing situations five times, four of which Oregon defended successfully. But the first time they ran the play (on the third play of the game) it caught the defense by surprise and I think that affected the pass rush for the rest of the game. The dime package, as shown here, provides a better way of dealing with it - more flexibility on the back end.
- :28 - The structure of the defense requires Jackson to cover the back on this wheel route, which he does excellently with those big strides, maintaining downfield position and free of a DPI flag the whole way. Great coverage by the secondary across the board, including #6 DB Pickett against a highly unusual route in the middle of the field.
I didn’t write a Duck Tape preview of this game since it was the first of the year, but in my Duck Dive summer previews of Stanford and Oregon I made a number of testable predictions. When the Ducks had the ball, I think I did pretty well regarding both teams’ strategies and personnel. I expected relatively minor changes to Oregon’s offense with just some new wrinkles but basically retaining the pistol and RPO concepts, and all the skill position personnel except the injury-limited TEs went as I predicted. The offensive line was a big surprise in playing both Aumavae-Laulu as guard and Walk at all, though not in their quality, and I maintain that depth at the position is getting dicey and that’s the biggest threat to the team. Stanford’s defensive structure is, of course, unchanged, and their depth problems in the middle and at DB were obvious.
When Stanford had the ball, there were more surprises in store for me. Their offensive line, while exactly the personnel I predicted, performed much better than I was expecting, and they started a QB who was a disaster last year but played pretty well in this game. As such I’m starting to regret projecting a 1-5 record for them. I think I was right that their era of dominant TE play is over, and I think I accurately described their unchanging offensive philosophy and how it was ultimately their undoing, but I wish I had emphasized more how much I liked their starting RB when he was a backup last year - he was a big part of their early success. Avalos continues to surprise me in playing guys early who I wasn’t expecting and trotting out formations I’d never seen before, though the principles of course remained the same. I continue to be bothered by the safety situation, particularly with the transfers, though I did nail the boundary/field swap.