The biggest difference in Oregon State’s defensive strategy compared to Oregon’s previous opponents this year is how much the Beavers respected the Ducks’ passing threat and backed off of the box. Except in a handful of obvious goalline situations, and a couple 3rd & longs where they played dime, OSU spent the vast majority of the game in a 2-4-5 structure with four on the line and two backers at depth, with no nose tackle. In all of Oregon’s earlier games, defenses spent most of the time with seven or eight in the box to stop the run and dared the Ducks’ young quarterback to throw; it was a change for the Beavs as well who played with heavy boxes much of the time in their first three games.
That strategy did generate a couple of interceptions (though on the first one they had some help from the fog), but overall it was ineffective as the Ducks had a pretty good game through the air: 18 successful passing plays vs 13 unsuccessful ones, given the down & distance, or 58%. Five of those went for 20 yards or more.
There was very little havoc at the line, with just four plays resulting in a sack, scramble, or throwaway. I didn’t see much in the way of receiver problems, instead the main causes of failed passing plays were split pretty evenly between protection problems and quarterback mistakes. #12 QB Shough is getting pretty close to perfect in his reads — I only counted one RPO error where he handed off instead of keeping to throw — though there were a couple of straight dropbacks where I thought his timing was off getting through the downfield passing progressions. Some examples:
- :00 - A couple of comeback routes for #2 WR D. Williams like this one gave me flashbacks to Dillon Mitchell - the CB has to respect his speed with a big cushion, giving Williams plenty of time to turn and make a move after the catch for extra yardage. Nice job by Shough to stand tall and get the ball off before the unblocked blitzer gets home.
- :23 - This is one of five plays I counted where Shough just doesn’t get the protection he needs to set up for a productive throw; here #56 LG Bass isn’t setting a proper base and is playing over his center of gravity, letting the DT get around him easily.
- :31 - The second interception of the night really is on Shough; he’s got plenty of protection to step up and throw this one deeper down the sideline to let his receiver run under it, since #3 WR J. Johnson has already gotten even with the DB. Instead he underthrows it into traffic.
- :56 - The free safety isn’t fooling anybody with this blitz, and Shough knows he’s got a numbers edge to the boundary where his hot route is - one of the advantages of the pistol formation is disguising which way #33 RB Habibi-Likio is going on throws like this.
The other tendency OSU’s defense broke was their blitz rate - the Beavs blitzed on only about 28% of the Ducks’ pass plays, which was down substantially from their average, especially on 3rd downs. That’s probably because the RPO game creates uncertainty about when passing plays are coming, and because this offense is so balanced in its playcalling, with the same number of designed runs as passes.
With so much of the defensive structure playing back, Oregon had an even better game on the ground: 19 successful designed rushes vs 12 failed ones, or 61%, with five going for 15+ yards. Continuing the pattern of previous games, Oregon mostly concentrated its ground game in short-yardage situations: they faced 14 downs with under 5 yards to go, in which they rushed eleven times (79% frequency) and succeeded on nine of them (82% efficiency).
Here’s a representative sample:
- :00 - The timing on the pull by #53 OG Walk is essential here - he helps seal the DE just until #7 RB Verdell gets past him, then moves up to the second level to hit the backer. #48 TE Kampmoyer gets shrugged off by their great OLB, but he recovers enough to keep him from hitting the back; meanwhile Williams is throwing an aggressive block on the DB.
- :07 - This looks like a zone-blocking assignment error between two new starters, one of four I believe I saw on Friday - both Walk and #71 OL Aumavae-Laulu are moving up to the second level, with neither really blocking the OLB, and then neither really getting the ILB either.
- :15 - This inside run is a staple of Oregon’s rushing attack, and it’s mostly being executed well except #78 C Forsyth is having trouble getting off his combo block and up to the backer, who makes a play on the ballcarrier. But #26 RB Dye just blows through that arm tackle, and takes a cornerback with him on a 10-yard acrobatics & tumbling routine.
- :31 - The RPO mechanic freezes the outside safety, and the pistol formation keeps the backers from correctly guessing the direction of the play. Dye gets some fantastic blocks from Kampmoyer and #74 LT Jones, then does the rest himself with this humiliating juke of the safety.
Oregon St’s offensive strategy was unchanged, and their performance was in line with their previous three games - a dominant, run-first attack out of heavy sets, with modest play-action pass efficiency built out of it.
Against the pass, the Ducks did as well as other teams the Beavs have played this year, successfully defending 19 passing plays vs 14 failures, or 58%. While OSU did pick up two 20+ yard passing plays, they mostly focused on efficiency plays to move the chains until a two-minute drive to end the game.
Oregon’s pass defense performance was in line with their previous games as well - excellent coverage out of the starting cornerbacks which limited deep and outside passes, a pass rush that’s effective at pressuring the QB into quick passes and throwaways without blitzing but which isn’t generating havoc, and a vulnerability in the middle of the defense from thin ILB and safety groups. Here’s a representative sample:
- :00 - The quick stutter outside by #5 DE Thibodeaux opens the LT and lets him get inside to hurry the QB, who delivers a quick throw without panicking. But #41 ILB Slade-Matautia reads the QB and gets into the throwing lane to deflect the ball.
- :07 - Oregon is in its pass-rush variant of the dime package here, with #55 OLB An. Faoliu and #29 OLB Jackson getting home on a T-E twist. Again the QB gets the ball off with remarkable poise, to the deep hole in the zone defense. #32 DB Happle is staying too far down, probably worried about the leaking tight end which is #15 DB B. Williams and #2 CB Wright’s responsibility, and doesn’t properly run with the WR who’s entered his zone, leaving him wide open.
- :28 - The coffeehouse blitz by Slade-Matautia fools the RB on check-release into vacating the pocket, whom #23 DB McKinley comes down to cover. The pressure isn’t picked up, forcing the QB into an overthrown ball to a receiver whom #0 CB Lenoir has well covered. The high angle shows Wright, Williams, and Happle in good man coverage across the board, with #7 DB Stephens (back from a long absence) providing appropriate help over the top as the high safety in cover-1.
Both OSU’s rush offense and Oregon’s rush defense performed as they have over the last several weeks - 15 successful rush defenses for the Ducks vs 22 failures, or 41%. I’m seeing the same issues as in previous games: an appropriate structure that matches personnel in the box to the offense’s formation, schematically sound personnel distribution, and talented athletes who are getting to where they need to be - but they’re whiffing when it comes to making the tackle and are losing more battles than they should at the line of scrimmage.
Film study can’t tell me why defenders aren’t making tackles and winning blocks when they’re in position to, but it’s clear that’s were the problem is:
- :00 - Oregon has its young defensive front in here by the end of the first quarter - redshirt freshmen #91 DE K. Williams and #95 DE Ware-Hudson, with #50 DT Aumavae the backup nose tackle between them. The line is just getting reset several yards back, and true freshman #1 ILB Sewell can’t engage the back until after he’s gotten enough momentum to pick up a few yards after contact.
- :07 - Thibodeaux gets off a combo block, something OSU threw at him all night, but while he gets his hands on the back’s hips he can’t bring him down. McKinley properly gets outside leverage to force the back inside, but there’s no help because Sewell is hung up on the downfield lineman.
- :16 - Good containment by #47 STUD Funa here, playing with outside leverage right on the line of scrimmage instead of getting too far upfield as has been a problem other times, then getting inside the RT when the back commits. #99 DE Au. Faoliu rips the RG nicely to get into the back’s lane, and #3 NT Scott throws the LG into it. The back cuts outside where Slade-Matautia is waiting for him after surviving the fullback’s lead block, but despite getting both hands on him, the back spins free for a succesfful gain.
- :25 - This is just weak defense of the boundary. Funa has his hat on the wrong side of the LT when they engage and has no leverage to set the edge. Slade-Matautia is coming down too hot outside and is easily redirected by the TE, and Sewell is caught in the wash instead of flowing around to the play.
What’s maddening about watching the Ducks perform this way in rush defense is that they’re not getting destroyed by superior athletes or totally confused about where to be. They’re winning on a substantial number of plays with the same great technique and natural ability that we’d grown accustomed to seeing last year, they’re just not doing it often enough. Since I know many Duck fans won’t believe that there was a single effective run defense, here are a few examples:
I think last week’s preview described the Beavs’ defense pretty accurately. That OSU’s linebackers were that squad’s most effective personnel seemed to show out, and I noted the possibility that they’d forgo a nose tackle despite their typical 3-4 structure. I would have expected to see more outside running given the difficulties I saw there in earlier games, but the Ducks seemed to think (evidently correctly) that they’d do just fine up the middle against a lightened box. OSU was much less effective at generating sacks, scrambles, and throwaways against Oregon than they had been in the past, and if that counts as a mistake on my part I’m happy to take it. I spent a lot of space talking about OSU’s frequent blitzing and so I was a little puzzled when it didn’t really show up; in hindsight I wish I had mentioned in my preview that they hadn’t really played an RPO offense before and they might have to adapt by changing that up.
Unfortunately, most of my description of OSU’s offense held up as well. I noted that the Beavs are liable to break a big run but only maybe once a game, and otherwise stuck to efficiency gains - taking out the 82-yd TD on the opening drive and the QB sneaks, OSU averaged 4.8 YPC, had only two other runs over 10 yards but just two negative rushes. While their QB had similar accuracy issues and deep-ball limitations that I’d observed in previous games, the biggest surprise for me was his poise in the pocket - I’ve charted all four of his previous full games at OSU and never saw him make these kind of last-second passes before contact and read the field so well without panicking or throwing interceptable balls. I’m not sure what to do with that - Oregon seems to have a way of making backup quarterbacks look like starters and those with modest records look like Davey O’Brien candidates; maybe I should start working that assumption into future previews.