No garbage time in this game, other than a pair of kneeldowns at the end of both halves, since it was reasonably competitive throughout. Although it’s worth noting that, just as Jeff Nusser and I observed in last week’s podcast, Wazzu’s defensive line were obviously pretty tired by the last couple of drives and weren’t putting up a lot of resistance. No such falloff was observed for Oregon’s defense.
Oregon was fairly successful on passing plays: 19 successes vs 14 failures given the down & distance, or 58%. That’s still a high quality number, but it is down a bit from last week. Half of those 14 failures were plays in which the defense simply won the down with the pass rush or good play recognition, and are inevitable in any game - if those were the only seven failures, it’d be an elite performance. But the other half were self-inflicted: an RPO read mistake, some bad throws by #12 QB Shough, and a few drops of perfectly catchable balls.
The passing attack had a number of surprising contrasts: while there were a pair of some of the most memorable long passing plays in recent years, those were the only two that went for more than 20 yards; instead the offense was much more concerned with efficiency, with eleven passes for between 10 and 19 yards. There were several incredible catches in coverage, but there were also at least three clearly dropped passes. Shough had by far his most productive day in an Oregon uniform, but he was also plainly off-target for a stretch. Here’s a representative sample:
(Reminder - you can right-click or long-press any video to play it in ¼ or ½ speed)
- :00 - This smoke screen with a backside QB draw option was employed several times to great effect, partly because of a good read and well placed ball so #7 RB Verdell can continue his upfield momentum, but also because of some great blocking all night long by the receivers and tackles.
- :09 - Let’s kill three birds with one stone - about a third of Oregon’s plays (possibly more) were RPOs like this one, in which the backer and DB come up on the run so Shough pulls the ball and throws it. It also shows off the two most common pass play failures from Saturday: a ball that’s thrown behind a receiver instead of leading him, and also one that hits the receiver in both hands but he doesn’t come down with it.
- :23 - This is an exceptional throw and an even better catch by #30 WR Redd. The timing and placement of this ball are absolutely perfect so that the trailing DB can’t make a play on it, the dropping zone CB will be carried too far in the other direction by his momentum, and the nickel over the top can’t make the hit.
- :46 - It takes an excellent arm and compact throwing motion to get this ball off before he’s hit, 12 yards downfield plus a 9-yard drop from the far hash. Strong catch by #83 WR Delgado as well.
Shough also impressed with his running, and so far this has been the biggest personnel-use difference in 2020’s offense compared to last year. He kept the ball on seven designed runs plus two scrambles for 9.6 YPC, and only twice he handed the ball off when I think he should have kept so the defense stayed honest for most of the game. Here’s a representative sample:
- :00 - Pretty classic zone read out of the pistol; when the unblocked end crashes on the back Shough pulls it out for a decent gain (they picked up the short 4th down conversion). This was on the first drive and it had a salutary effect on the edge defenders all night. #89 TE DJ Johnson is throwing if anything too aggressive of a block, his man recovers to help make the play.
- :16 - Like last week, I believe Shough decided on this scramble based on his pre-snap read: the backer is getting toesy showing blitz and he knows the DBs are in man coverage, with the route design taking all of them out of his runway. All he needs is for #3 WR J. Johnson to figure it out and throw an improvised block; the senior is good for it.
- :25 - This is what the first play from the earlier video was setting up: the RB takes off and the backers go after him, even the high safety starts to drift to the field, so Shough keeps it on a run to the boundary with fantastic blocks sealing it off by the pulling linemen.
- :43 - Here’s sort of a triple-option RPO: the end stays inside on the back so Shough pulls it. Meanwhile the H-back takes off for the sideline, pulling the backer with him. Had he stayed put it’s an easy toss past him to Johnson flaring out, but he turns his back so the QB keeps on running for the 1st down.
The running performance by the backs was, as expected against Wazzu’s poor rush defense, superb: 23 successes vs only 10 failures given the down & distance, 70% and even better than last week. It’s hard to quantify from broadcast angles, but both Verdell and #26 RB Dye seem to be running faster and harder than last year. But the lion’s share of the credit goes to the six offensive linemen in the rotation plus the tight end, who have had an astonishingly good start even without considering that all seven are new starters:
- :00 - Great pull across the line by #56 OG Bass, while #74 LT Jones and #78 C Forsyth have the backside completely walled off. #71 OL Aumavae-Laulu and #77 OT Moore’s men get away momentarily, but they both finish them off (legally) to keep them from affecting the play. Johnson takes their best edge player five yards across the field.
- :08 - Of the few rushing failures, most looked like this one: good blocks across the board, including both Johnson and Johnson (no relation) on the edge, but one lineman — here, Bass — doesn’t get off his combo to climb to the second level so the backer has the chance to make a play in a very big hole.
- :13 - I’m not sure that this is a designed counter (it looks more like an inside zone give), but when the backers bite this badly while Moore and Aumavae-Laulu are opening a ten-yard gap, the choice of running lanes isn’t difficult.
- :35 - In 2018 in Pullman, Oregon had no success at all with this stretch zone run, and it was probably run to excess. This year is another matter. I particularly liked the finish of this play.
The rush defense started out poorly, giving up four runs of between 10 and 20 yards in the first half. It improved as the game went on, with the longest run of the second half going only 4 yards as well as tabbing four tackles for a loss on designed rush plays. Other than just tightening up technique (especially tackling), I think getting #23 DB McKinley back at halftime led to the Ducks being more comfortable in nickel instead of dime, putting some more size in the box. They played six DBs on about 60% of snaps in the first half, only about 48% in the second.
Overall, Oregon had 10 successful designed rushing successes vs 10 failures. Here’s a representative sample:
- :00 - #5 DE Thibodeaux is getting too greedy here, pushing the LT much too far upfield. That allows the pulling RT to fit between him and the LG to block #1 ILB Sewell and still leave room for the back to slip through despite #3 NT Scott rocking the guard into the puller.
- :19 - Last week Oregon introduced a passing-down dime package, this week they added a standard-down one with run-stopping linemen instead of the pass-rush specialists. Here, Thibodeaux does a fantastic job getting off the LT’s block to make the tackle.
- :33 - Oregon’s freshmen defensive tackles are in on this play, #91 DT K. Williams and #95 DT Ware-Hudson, and they’re slanting to the wrong side. With an offset back they ought to be slanting away from where he’s originally lined up since that’s a back’s typical direction of travel (one of the virtues of the pistol formation is concealing this). Thibodeaux and Sewell are both doing a pretty good job on their blocks, but that is a lot of space to have to account for.
- :43 - Both Scott and #99 DT Au. Faoliu are commanding double-teams, while #47 STUD Funa is flowing to the play and #41 ILB Slade-Matautia is positioning to cut off the backside. The back decides to cut back anyway, but he can’t escape Sewell.
Oregon was both more effective and more uniform in pass defense - 26 successful passing play defenses vs 21 failures, or 55%. There isn’t much of a split by halves, other than the fact that the Ducks’ offense held the ball for all but four minutes of the 3rd quarter while the defense forced two punts.
Between this offense’s proclivity for short passes and the QB’s occasional struggles with accuracy, most of Wazzu’s passing game was manageable. Oregon’s pass rush forced eleven sacks, scrambles, or throwaways, about a quarter of all dropbacks which is a very good rate, and no play in which their dangerous QB scrambled turned out to be successful for the Cougars.
Other than repeated short fields Oregon handed Wazzu on turnovers, the biggest problem the Ducks had was getting burned on deep passes: seven such plays for 20+ yards. Remarkably, several of them happened while the pass rush was in the QB’s face and he essentially threw the ball blind, but the Cougs’ excellent wideouts were pulling them down anyway. The cornerbacks held up well; only one slip-up apiece for #0 CB Lenoir and #2 CB Wright. Wazzu’s plan was pretty clearly to attack the safeties, which were short-handed without McKinley in the first half, #7 DB Stephens for the entire game, and #6 DB Pickett with a targeting ejection in the middle of the 4th quarter.
That forced some players out of their natural roles, and in particular Pickett was playing deep coverages that he’s not accustomed to as a boundary safety. There were also a few occasions where new starter #19 DB Hill was playing a bit too soft of a cushion and #32 DB Happle got beat athletically. Here’s a representative sample of pass play defenses:
- :00 - Happle needs to be figuring out this switch concept before it crosses his face, not after. And this isn’t Slade-Matautia’s best effort at tackling.
- :25 - This is the pass-rush version of the dime package mentioned earlier, with #55 OLB An. Faoliu heating up the left side of the line and #29 OLB Jackson twisting in behind him. When this QB scrambles he’s going to leave most defensive fronts in the dust, but Jackson is faster still.
- :44 - The pressure from #15 DB B. Williams makes the QB throw off his back foot, but the slot receiver has bent his route around #6 DB Pickett and he can’t catch up.
- :59 - Sewell’s coffeehouse blitz beats the right guard while #97 DL Dorlus sidesteps the back in pass-pro. There’s no dumpoff for the QB available, since Pickett and #19 DB Hill are covering the underneath routes.
Reviewing last week’s analysis of Wazzu, everything about their offense seems on-point. The structure and tendencies of their “stripped-down” Run & Shoot stayed the same, as did the abilities of their QB (although he was much less effective scrambling against the Ducks, he was just as likely to try it). I think I accurately described the Cougs’ wide receivers and their ability to haul in deep shots and somewhat off-target throws as the biggest danger, and that their running back, despite being a second-stringer, had a strong ability to run through tackles. While I think their pass-blocking performed as I expected, Wazzu’s o-line did seem more effective at run-blocking than it did in their opener. There’s not enough data yet to know if that’s about them banging off some rust for their second game, Oregon having a worrying step down in their run fits, or just my poor assessment, but I’ll keep an eye on it in future games.
The defense was exactly as I described it. The pass rush got some wins, certainly more than the coverage was, and the one defensive back I described as competent on the field was the one who pulled in all three of Oregon’s turnovers. And of course, the Ducks ran all over their essentially non-existent rush defense.