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Duck Tape: Film Review of Week 12, 2020 vs UCLA

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Benefits of a classical education

NCAA Football: UCLA at Oregon Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

For the purposes of charting, I consider Oregon’s kneeldown at the end of the game and UCLA’s 1-minute possessions at the end of each half to be garbage time. Obviously those drives were significant to the outcome of the game (Oregon had 9 successes vs 5 failures on them, including a sack, two pass break-ups, and a pick-six), but they constitute non-representative play due to the circumstances, so they’re excluded from the tallies in this article.


UCLA v Oregon Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Offense

Overall, Oregon had an efficient outing on a per-play basis, although it was a close-run thing: 32 successes vs 30 failures, given the down & distance on each snap. Where they excelled was explosiveness: eleven plays of 15 yards or more, about an 18% explosion rate, including four that went for 30+ yards.

The factor that contributed most to Oregon’s playcalling and efficacy was UCLA’s decision to stack the box with seven or eight defenders on virtually every snap, and blitz heavily on 1st downs. That’s something they didn’t show on film over the previous two weeks; the Bruins reserved blitzes almost entirely for 2nd or 3rd & long against Colorado and Cal.

Oregon reacted with a 2:3 run-pass ratio, since UCLA was essentially daring #12 QB Shough to beat them over the top with a quick read of his progressions, something Coach Cristobal was surprisingly forthcoming about in his Monday presser. We saw a number of passing solutions to punish UCLA for their cover-0 blitzing that were outlined by my fellow film reviewer berk18 last week.

That made for a very hot or very cold passing game, and it wound up only a bit above water: 19 successes vs 18 failures. Here’s a representative sample:

(Reminder - you can right-click or long-press any video to play it in ¼ or ½ speed)

  1. :00 - This is the play Cristobal is referring to at 11:05, a safety fire blitz that leaves #3 WR J. Johnson a matchup that he wins easily. Adequate protection gives Shough time to set up for the deep shot.
  2. :16 - A six-man blitz on first down which is getting through the middle of the line, and no quick options because the back isn’t getting out of that mess and the TE has stayed in to block (and is a little too impressed with it). Shough at least gets rid of the ball to prevent a loss.
  3. :32 - This fake to the field into a tunnel screen to the boundary (it’s supposed to go to #2 WR D. Williams, which is what saves the intentional grounding flag) requires precision timing that just isn’t possible without a much crisper snap and more of a chip before the line releases to block downfield.
  4. :43 - The RPO game was much less complex in this game, an interesting choice probably affected by UCLA’s overly aggressive rush structure, as I wrote about last week. Here’s one way Oregon made them pay for it - the Striker crashes on the back so Shough pulls, then the ILB comes down on the QB run threat so he pops it over him into the void he’s left.

Twelve of Oregon’s 37 designed passing plays ended in a sack, scramble, or throwaway, about 32% which is the highest number for Oregon since mid-2017, though three of those were successful scrambles for significant yardage. All things considered, Shough graded out pretty well under pressure on my tally sheet having to deal with all that (including what’s looking like the single best inside defensive lineman in the league this year), but he also made some puzzling decisions:

  1. :00 - The line’s letting inside pressure through, but Shough still has plenty of time to pull the trigger on the quick dumpoff to the TE. We saw plays like this several times on Saturday, where he inexplicably double-clutched the ball instead of confidently letting it rip, though only in the 1st half.
  2. :07 - This play has an easy crosser built into it in case of the ILB blitzing as he does here, but Shough can see the field side has cleared out so he just takes off, dodging the pressure in the pocket. Nice improvised block by the true freshman #14 WR Hutson.
  3. :25 - The read on this play is not to hand the ball off, the unblocked end is clearly crashing. Shough should have pulled it and then performed a secondary read of the Striker to throw to #30 WR Redd on the screen if he pursues or keep it and run if he stays wide.
  4. :31 - Good reads here on this option play - the Striker widens onto the back so Shough keeps it with a nice burst, and gets some great downfield blocking.

Rushing was also slightly above water, 13 successes vs 12 failures. It was reserved mostly for efficiency situations: five runs were for a 1st down or touchdown, and they had a 100% success rate running with under 5 yards to go. The tradeoff was that they only got one designed run for over 10 yards (the option keep above), which doesn’t look great in the box score but it was the choice UCLA was forcing Oregon to make:

  1. :00 - The Striker’s reading the mesh properly here and isn’t buying the screen threat to the field, immediately crashing on the run. But #26 RB Dye shows the speed and balance to cut in and step over him.
  2. :10 - Correct read here — in fact, two defenders buy it outside — and some great blocks by five of the six guys playing on the line of scrimmage. But it just takes one stumble by the LT and the play is blown up, that’s the nature of run-blocking.
  3. :16 - Here’s the play Cristobal referred to at 7:00 - stretch zone runs like this require everybody getting frontside leverage (their “hat” closer to the ballcarrier than the opponent’s) across the board or the backer can loop around to blow it up, and the whole right side including the center isn’t doing so.
  4. :24 - I love this, Redd as the wham blocker on this handoff, with the RT washing the entire defensive line down and opening a huge C-gap for #7 RB Verdell’s run.

The biggest surprise when Oregon had the ball — though with five new starters we probably should have been expecting it — was the weakest performance by the offensive line this season. Each of the six linemen in the rotation graded out lower on my tally sheet than their numbers the last two weeks, particularly #78 C Forsyth and #53 OG Walk. It was great to get #48 TE Kampmoyer back, his blocking has been excellent and it led to some more 12-personnel packages as well as several nice catches, but #89 TE DJ Johnson also blocked less effectively than he has in previous weeks.

Overall it was still a positive performance, all things considered — no offense puts up this many points without a good line — but there’s plenty of issues this game put on film to work on:

  1. :00 - Great pocket protection here, despite the Striker getting quite the head start.
  2. :17 - Way too much ground given here by both #77 LT Moore and #71 RT Aumavae-Laulu; Shough’s about to get pinched. But he sets his feet and gets it to Williams, who makes a great play downfield.
  3. :39 - Cristobal referred to this play at 10:50, the N-T stunt gives the right side no one to block and too much for the center and left side to handle.
  4. :45 - This is what I recorded on most of Oregon’s successful rushing plays: everybody’s winning their blocks across the board. The line is far from overmatched as this play illustrates, they just need some time to gel and get more consistent in their techniques.


UCLA v Oregon Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Defense

Without their starting quarterback, there was a lot of uncertainty about how this offense would perform. That they stuck to a rush-heavy approach — more than 2:1 run-pass ratio — when none of their linemen or top skill players were out and the best player on the squad is a do-everything back wasn’t a big surprise.

The surprise came in the formation that they did it out of: a two-back pistol with one tight end and one of the backs offset as a quasi-fullback. UCLA hadn’t showed this look at all in the first two weeks, and my fellow film reviewer Chris Osgood confirmed they hadn’t in previous years either. They had quite a diverse set of runs out of it - inside and outside zone, “fullback” dive, and both field and boundary pitch options.

It was clear that not having seen it before gave Oregon some trouble to start the game, though as Osgood noted in his excellent write-up of it [$], the Ducks figured it out as the game went on and clamped down on its effectiveness. The head start was enough for UCLA to win the per-play effectiveness battle, however; Oregon was successful on 21 rush defenses vs 25 failures, underwater for the first time in any category this year.

The infuriating thing about this rush defense performance is that Oregon was winning schematically (especially after the first quarter) and their per-play success rate should have been well above water, somewhere in the low 60s. But over and over again, Ducks were properly in position and then got run over or blew the tackle. On ten of those 25 rush failures, there was a clear whiff on the tackle - the defensive player is in the right position to make the tackle for a successful play, but then just misses it. In fact, overall their run fits were better than last week, but the tackling was significantly worse.

These plays are extraordinarily frustrating to watch so I’ll only include three of them and skip the explanation:

When they weren’t whiffing, Oregon’s rush defense was pretty decent. The defensive line had a pretty good day, and most of the issues I saw positionally had to do with the increasingly precarious depth (and a couple puzzling personnel choices) at inside linebacker and safety:

  1. :00 - By the end of the first quarter, Oregon had figured out the field pitch option (the boundary one never gave them much trouble), keying on the offset back and triggering the nickel, #19 DB Hill, to crash the pitch man early. Here he overwhelms the TE and earns a holding flag, while the rest of the secondary beats the overloaded WR blockers to the corner.
  2. :18 - Here’s the easiest way to beat the dive with a two-gapping front: get low, win your block, and lean into the lane. #99 DE Au. Faoliu stands up the RG, #47 STUD Funa crushes the TE, and #54 ILB Mathis gets around the center despite his best efforts to cut off the backside hole that #3 DT Scott has opened.
  3. :24 - Oregon didn’t have a great performance in short yardage, winning only six of 16 such rushes, which was the biggest factor in giving up touchdowns instead of field goals in the red zone. I think that was on DC Avalos’ choice not to play heavier packages in those situations, relying on player speed and quick decision-making instead. Plays like this show that wasn’t paying off - #41 ILB Slade-Matautia is flowing in the wrong direction, and #32 DB Happle doesn’t have the athleticism to get off his block.

Oregon performed better in pass defense, above water at 14 successes vs 12 failures. Outside of garbage time, they generated two scrambles, a sack, and four plays in which the pass rush disrupted the QB’s throwing motion. The cornerback play in particular was stellar, I recorded only a single play where any of the three CBs in the rotation — #0 CB Lenoir, #2 CB Wright, and a surprising amount of meaningful time for #12 CB James — were even slightly out of position.

The most important victory for the pass defense was affecting the very structure of UCLA’s offense - 17 of their 23 passes attempted, or 74%, were short throws (either behind the LOS or fewer than 5 yards past it), because they had to get rid of the ball quickly and couldn’t take shots against the corners. Check out the heat map of UCLA’s passing targets - it’s almost entirely clustered in two spots, the left flat and short middle dumpoff.

As I wrote about in my preview, this strategy forced UCLA into almost entirely methodical marches down the field which they couldn’t sustain, and just like in the last two weeks, only one of their touchdown drives didn’t feature a massive explosion play that they’re dependent on (and that one required 13 plays and more than four minutes off the clock while they were down 10 points).

What kept the game close was that they did hit three of those explosive passing plays for 20+ yards (including one in the 4th quarter which likely would have ended the game much earlier had Oregon made the play) against the middle of the defense, the safeties and ILBs. Here’s a representative sample of passing play defenses:

  1. :00 - #5 DE Thibodeaux and #97 DT Dorlus are getting great pressure and hurrying the throw. But Happle’s drifting outside for reasons I don’t understand, since #15 DB B. Williams has the back on the wheel perfectly well covered, and #23 DB McKinley is slow to come downhill to make the tackle before the line to gain on 3rd & 18.
  2. :15 - Great coverage across the board here, and great lane coverage by Slade-Matautia earns him a PBU.
  3. :28 - Mathis is abandoning his zone to chase the crosser (McKinley points it out, on the bottom of the screen), leaving the throwing lane open on the hitch, and then another bad tackle results in extra yardage.
  4. :34 - Dorlus and #50 DT Aumavae are collapsing the pocket fast on this blitz, forcing a quick and inaccurate throw, and Wright is in position to force the receiver out of bounds for a minimal gain even if he had caught it.

UCLA v Oregon Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Accountability Corner

The news that UCLA’s starting quarterback would be out came well after my preview article was written, with no time or available film to assemble anything on the backup. The best I could do was speculate in comments based on how dependent the offense was in the first two weeks on the starter’s out-of-structure play. I was right that the backup wasn’t able to get much in that regard, but it turned out the Bruins had a pretty good — and just as brand new — gameplan which meant he didn’t need to. I’m not sure what if anything can be done about this, but it’s not a new situation for me to deal with, since in 2018 the majority of Oregon’s games were played against a different QB than the one who started the previous week. Of course, I did note that predicting what playbook this team would operate out of was a fool’s errand. Beyond that, I think I described the offense about as well as possible, including their reliance on explosive plays, mediocre OL, good but underutilized WRs, and do-everything RB and TE.

I think I’ve been slow to sound the alarm bell at Oregon’s poor tackling on defense, figuring this was just opening jitters in a weird pandemic year without much offseason strength training, and that they’d catch up now that they’re on campus and lifting more. But the whiffing in this game was so outrageous that I think something else is going on - film study doesn’t answer “why” questions so much as “how” ones, but I should have been saying how much of an issue this portended to be earlier. I think I have been noting the depth problems at ILB and safety pretty consistently, however, and ever since I wrote my personnel preview articles on Williams and Happle I’ve been telling anyone who’d listen about the puzzlement of their relative use.

My preview of UCLA’s defense, particularly their two irreplaceable players in the defensive line and at Striker, I think was on-point.