Oregon’s OC Moorhead came out with a fairly different gameplan this week, one which I haven’t seen him deploy since he was the head coach at Fordham several years ago. There was very little downfield passing in this game, instead preferring to keep it almost entirely on the ground with read-option runs, straight handoffs, and RPO screens and toss plays. He also added some formational novelty - a split-out running back in an empty set who’d motion into a shotgun alignment with the QB, and then iterated on that with plays that added a TE in motion or had the RB continue into a swing pass. There were also several plays with the backup QB taking snaps, mostly for some specialty goalline plays and also the final clock-killer drive.
I suspect this was less of a response to the defense — although they are very aggressive and there were several plays where the RPO or screens gained a lot of yardage for exactly that reason — because other teams with less effective downfield passing games and poorer offensive lines in pass-protect have thrown the ball fairly well against USC. Instead I think Oregon’s strategy was to eat as much clock as they could to keep USC’s dangerous offense off the field, minimize the risk of a game-changing interception, and limit their opportunities for a furious comeback.
I would say it had mixed results. The rushing and RPO game was very effective on a per-play basis for the first three quarters of the game, even accounting for the short fields that USC kept giving the Ducks. Starting in the 2nd quarter after those four quick drives were over, Oregon ate up 26:25 off the clock, averaging almost 33 seconds of gameclock expended for every snap they took.
But there was an interception anyway (though it didn’t pay off for any points), and by the 4th quarter Oregon had grown overly conservative, in my opinion, and started deploying heavier personnel groups and straight handoffs that USC’s defensive front stacked up and overwhelmed.
These gamplan choices strike me as far more responsible for most of Oregon’s stalled drives than the purported read errors by #12 QB Shough that I’ve seen thrown around. He certainly made a couple of mistakes — the interception for one, and at least one read-option error on the 9th drive — but after careful review of how each play was designed I believe there weren’t nearly as many as some fans seem to think.
Overall, to that strategy Oregon was very effective running the ball - 17 successful designed rushes vs 13 failed ones given the down & distance, or 57%. The striking thing is how much it fell apart in the final quarter when the playcalls changed: they were at a remarkable 15 successes vs 7 failures, or 68% in the first three quarters, but in the 4th it flipped to just 2 vs 6 prior to garbage time.
Here’s a representative sample of successful rushes:
(Reminder - you can right-click or long-press any video to play it in ¼ or ½ speed)
- :00 - The is the TE-toss variant of the RPO, where the read is the OLB on the bottom of the screen. Pre-snap motion moves the ILB inside and we know it’s man coverage, so there’s a numbers advantage either way this play goes. Had the OLB stayed inside on the run then the QB would pull and toss to the TE, with the only DBs to deal with it are way off the screen. But the OLB covers the TE, so it’s an easy handoff into a light box for chunk yardage.
- :17 - A C-gap zone read with #5 RB Dollars, who got a lot of play in the absence of #7 RB Verdell. As usual USC’s inside backers make an overly aggressive choice for the interior gaps, making the rest easy pickings for Oregon’s big o-line, including a new move of #74 OL S. Jones to RG for a couple drives.
- :35 - One of the wrinkles on wrinkles - this motion from empty, instead of stopping at shotgun, turns into a potential sweep when the ball is snapped early, surprising the defense. Shough correctly reads the ILB following the sweep so he keeps it up the middle (the OLB follows too, giving the pulling lineman nothing to do, and indicating USC had not communicated how to defend this).
Oregon’s running backs had a very good night, including a breakout performance by Dollars, and USC’s aggressive defense made reading them correctly in the run game pretty straightforward with only a couple of errors. That leaves the primary reason that any given run failed to be the usual one: the offensive line losing their blocks. USC’s talented d-line gave Oregon’s a lot of trouble - unlike previous opponents who had at most one high-talent lineman, USC was able to field a full rotation of them from one end of the line to the other. Some examples of failed run plays:
- :00 - This is the only example I can say with certainty was a failed run because of a read error: a handoff when both backers are crashing and Shough should have kept. Note the timestamp: in the middle of Oregon’s 7:40 TD drive to open the 3rd quarter.
- :09 - This is when the playcalling got too conservative and obvious for my taste: it’s a straight handoff (note the H-back’s slice block of the edge defender, he’s not being read), and the interior of the line just can’t handle this many defenders in the box, not with the inside backers automatically hammering the middle.
- :18 - The read here is correct, with the OLB getting too far upfield on the back. But Oregon came out this drive in 12-personnel in the first two downs, and the signal that they were going to run was irresistible to USC, who stacked the box. The RT doesn’t handle the DT well, and the backers are able to flow to the play after Shough has to redirect to avoid him.
The passing game is difficult to assess because so little of it was conducted from dropback pocket passing, and Oregon’s OL wasn’t able to maintain that pocket for very long against USC’s aggressive pass rush. More than 65% of Oregon’s attempted passes were RPO tosses or screens.
Overall Oregon was underwater when attempting to throw, with 10 successes vs 15 failures, or 40%, their worst performance of the season. A large part of that was how often the pocket collapsed - there were seven sacks, scrambles, or throwaways, which is a pretty awful 29%. I tallied a couple of mistakes by Shough, most notably the interception (which was actually the right pass to throw since the post route was open, but he should have put more arc on it instead of throwing it flat for the ILB to jump up to). But far more often the problem was blocking and a few receiver drops. Some examples:
- :00 - The mesh with the TE running an in on top of it gives this defense way too much to think about (I believe #30 WR Redd’s delayed takeoff from the slot is intentional, to make them think about a screen), and Shough puts it perfectly on #89 TE DJ Johnson’s hands. But Johnson doesn’t tuck it away properly, and actually loses the ball before the DB makes contact.
- :13 - This was a tendency breaker by USC - normally the safety in this situation either stays high or comes down onto the run. Shough reads the DE correctly, who’s crashing on the back so he throws the RPO toss to the TE, but the safety comes down to make the play.
- :19 - Here’s a 7-man protection against the blitz, leaving only three receivers in the pattern. It’s still not adequate since #26 RB Dye just gets run over by the blitzer, and there’s no hot route available in this play for Shough to get rid of the ball to as the reverse angle reveals - setting his base and cranking back his arm to throw would just give the blitzer the opportunity to strip the ball from him. Tucking the ball and taking the hit is the best available option.
Oregon’s passing successes came, as predicted, by exploiting USC’s overly aggressive defense. Some examples:
- :00 - The blitz plus man coverage of the wheel route creates a natural rub in the middle of the field and a big empty space underneath Redd’s route for #4 WR Pittman to run into. Nice delivery under pressure.
- :20 - Here’s one of #13 QB Brown’s reps in a specialty play - a half-roll to the left (not easy for a rightie), who can either run for the 1st down if the safety stays on Johnson, or since he decides to go for the QB, a toss over his head. All the information Brown needs besides that is given pre-snap, with the defense crowding the line and motion revealing the coverage.
- :42 - Throws behind the line of scrimmage made up a huge part of this gameplan, because they punish the defense for getting too far upfield. Freeze the clip at :45, just as Shough turns from right to left - all eleven defenders are onscreen, with five coming for him and four more chasing players to his right, leaving only two to the boundary to stop this play. Four blockers make short work of them.
The most interesting data we got from this game was that the defense — despite clearly being short-handed — returned to their 2019 form. I think there are a couple explanations for this. One is that USC’s offensive line is not particularly talented or well-coached, and among other problems consistently let #5 DE Thibodeaux face single-blocks only against their subpar right tackle. But most Pac-12 offensive lines lack talent and/or quality coaching, and through their first four games Oregon’s defensive front wasn’t making their opponents pay a big enough price for it.
I think it’s more likely that the defense was finally back in physical playing shape after missing offseason workouts. I wasn’t seeing the whiffs that plagued them in their first four games, instead their speed and familiarity with the playbook in its second year was getting them to the right places and, this time, paying off with sure tackles.
Oregon also benefited from its investment in the dime package it debuted at the beginning of the year, as well as playing a big rotation of talent in the defensive front. They were able to play #15 DB B. Williams in the box, which meant they could rotate between inside backers #1 ILB Sewell and #41 ILB Slade-Matautia. Unlike a lot of teams, Oregon had a huge rotation of very young players on the line of scrimmage, with ten different guys getting at least 30 reps apiece in the d-line or OLBs … and only three of those were from the 2017 class.
The Ducks’ rush defense was excellent on Friday, winning 16 designed run plays vs 9 losses, or 64%. The longest run they gave up was 8 yards. Doing so out of a dime package for most of the night meant that wins up front translated to being comfortable in more appropriate pass defense personnel against USC’s air raid offense.
Here’s a representative sample of rush defenses:
- :00 - Here’s the nickel look, with both ILBs in against USC’s 11-personnel package. Not much to break down here - even with just six, that’s too much beef for USC’s blockers, especially with big #50 DT Aumavae and #95 DT Ware-Hudson anchoring the middle.
- :07 - Almost all of USC’s successful runs looked like this one: kind of a mess up front, with the back making a play out of nothing. The price Oregon paid for playing dime so much is that lighter safeties, while they’ll prevent a big play, will give up an extra couple yards after contact.
- :15 - Plays like these were what was so refreshing to see - the OL can’t get off their combo block of #99 DT Au. Faoliu, leaving #41 ILB Slade-Matautia free to wrap up and stop the back cold, with help from Williams.
- :25 - Oregon held USC well under their season average in short-yardage rushing effectiveness, regularly winning plays like this one, with Thibodeaux and #3 DT Scott cleanly winning their blocks for a quick tackle.
Oregon also came out well ahead in pass defense, stopping 29 designed passing plays vs 23 surrendered, or 60%. Only three passes went for over 20 yards, well under the Trojans’ season average (and the turf played a bigger role in those than the personnel).
USC threw the ball at more than a 2:1 ratio compared to designed rushing, and true to form they mostly stuck to underneath stuff until their backs were against the wall. Oregon’s defensive strategy was similar to last year’s, where they essentially let them have the short stuff in exchange for disallowing the deep ball, forcing USC (or “hacking” them, to continue last week’s metaphor) into trying long marches down the field. Other than a relatively short 7-play TD drive in the 1st quarter — in which Oregon’s DB tripped on what would be a 47-yard pass — all of USC’s scoring drives took at least 12 plays to get down the field.
That means inevitably giving up some short or intermediate passing plays of sufficient yardage to stay ahead of the sticks. Here’s a representative sample of them:
- :00 - Really nice twist by Thibodeaux to collapse the pocket, so the QB has to dump it off fast. Slade-Matautia has to cover the throwing lane into the flat, so #6 DB Pickett has to hustle down to hit the receiver. He wraps up and gives a good effort to keep the bigger body from picking up the 1st down, at least.
- :09 - Oregon gets penetration while rushing only three, including Thibodeaux eventually defeating the RT’s innovative technique. USC’s good fortune hadn’t quite run out by this point in the game, and this was one of a couple of completions despite the Trojans otherwise losing the play.
- :28 - This was one of the defensive choices I didn’t like, a zone blitz when USC’s favorite target loves to camp out in the deep hole. #19 DB Hill has to peel off to help with the outside receiver and the other safeties can’t get over in time. This was also one of several plays where the refs were a little late with the whistle, which I thought was inappropriate in a heated rivalry game.
What ultimately won Oregon the game is what they need to bring to every pass-dominated offense: an unstoppable pass rush and excellent secondary play. Other than Thibodeaux’s MVP performance at the line, the biggest difference between Oregon’s defense shutting down USC’s comeback attempt and the three other defenses who let them get away with it was that Oregon’s DBs had USC’s elite WRs locked down. Some examples:
- :00 - Incredible 3-man rush from Thibodeaux, #97 DT Dorlus, and #91 DT K. Williams (all 2019 recruits). The reverse angle shows the other key aspect - great coverage across the board. I especially like seeing USC’s 5-star receiver being effectively covered by 2019 high 3-star recruit #12 CB James.
- :20 - Another quick throw under pressure, with Williams earning the break-up … that’s one of seven pass deflections in this game, on top of three interceptions.
- :27 - #2 CB Wright continued his domination of USC’s future NFL Z-receiver, and if Thibodeaux didn’t win MVP I’d have given it to Wright. All three of Oregon’s corners played a great game, and elite CB play across the board is what separates Oregon’s secondary from the rest of the league.
Last week’s preview of USC hit all the major points of their offense accurately, I think. Until the 4th quarter, it was the usual efficiency offense without efficiency, with the Ducks forcing them into high percentage but low yardage throws constantly, as well as an increased but counterproductive commitment to screen passes and early-down running that would only be effective with YAC. Early on we saw evidence of their QB making pretty poor throws, which cleared up in clutch moments toward the end of the game. We also saw throughout the game that their poor OL play, which I highlighted in almost every clip last week, giving Oregon’s defense plenty of opportunities for negative plays. Two things I noted were kind of a mixed bag, though: I thought blitzing was unnecessary, but Oregon used it more often than I expected, sometimes effectively but sometimes getting them in trouble. I also repeatedly described USC’s QB play as “charmed” which I think did show up at times, but they came up snake eyes on the last throw.
Defensively, the philosophical observation that this is a highly aggressive squad which can be effective against standard play but can also be manipulated with unorthodox play couldn’t have been more accurate. I was still surprised at how much Moorhead leaned into that, however, and I was shocked that he chose to essentially eliminate downfield passing from the gameplan, since vertical shots against cover-0 blitzes had been effective for other teams. I’ll leave it to others to speculate why that might be. In terms that the plays he did employ, we saw USC’s defense handle them as I anticipated: ILBs who guess the play and so misdirection was very effective, a DE converted to OLB who was the read man on most runs and couldn’t cloud it well, and good pass defense on one side of the field but not the other. I think their heavy blitzing approach did have, unfortunately, the effect it intended and gave Oregon’s new OL a lot of trouble, and I think obvious inside rushes out of 12-personnel was predictably a mistake given their tendencies.