Sept 12, 2020: From the perspective of 2020, it might seem that since its gaudy final score was never repeated, this game wasn’t particularly predictive of the rest of the season. But in my opinion most of what we saw in this game wasn’t a one-off. Five of Oregon’s 11 touchdowns were on short fields due to turnovers; set those aside and you’ve got what’s a fairly typical score for 2019. There was a lot of talk about Oregon “playing mad” after the heartbreaking loss to Auburn. That’s not really what I saw, instead it was the dominant efficiency rushing attack and clean pockets for the passing game from the country’s best offensive line, and a defense that was absolutely stifling, especially in terms of explosive plays, and generated a lot of turnovers.
This game also highlighted what would become a pattern in Oregon’s rushing vs passing numbers: after installing a significant RPO component in the 2019 offseason, opposing defenses oscillated between crowding the box and allowing Justin Herbert (who whatever else his flaws, executed his RPO reads perfectly) to pick them apart, or opening it up and getting pounded by the running backs.
The other reason the scoreboard lit up is that Oregon, for the first time in maybe a decade, was operating with a truly deep bench. The second and third string players kept up the scoring and the stone wall around the endzone, and gave me a lot of decent tape for the new starters next season.
This will be a short article. Due to turnovers and several explosive plays, the game entered garbage time after only 36 offensive and 39 defensive snaps - not enough to provide meaningful analysis unless I include plays from after the outcome became clear, and experience has taught me that’s not worthwhile. It was nice to see the deep bench get significant minutes, and that film may be useful to future projects, but for now all we have is tape of a few signs about the starters that are suggestive at best.
The rushing game continues to post high efficiency numbers: 9 successful plays vs 4 failed prior to garbage time, with three more being the borderline cases of 3 yards on 1st & 10 (I code them as “3ff” on my tally sheet, in the elisional shorthand of license plates). It’s also producing more frequent big plays than last year, with runs of 17, 19, and 20 yards in the first half. Most importantly, they never had a negative-yardage rushing play. The blocking scheme is fairly complex, and the biggest limiting factor in the run game continues to be the occasional screw-up by a lineman. Some examples:
(Reminder - you can right-click or long-press any of these videos to watch in ¼ or ½ speed)
- :00 - Here #54 RT Throckmorton loses control of the DT who spins out of the block, and both #68 LG Lemieux and #74 RG Jones (in for #75 RG Warmack on every third drive) fail to climb to the second level after chipping and allow the linebackers into the backfield.
- :06 - Great hat-on-hat blocking here as #58 LT Sewell drives his man 7 yards downfield, #55 C Hansen runs his man out of the play to open the hole, and both #48 TE Kampmoyer and #87 TE Bay have their men walled off as well. This is an 8-man box, leaving just the safety’s tackle for #26 RB Dye to break, which he does for a big gain.
- :15 - Converted lineman #82 TE Aiello demolishes the interior line, while Lemieux pulls around to greet the backer, and #7 RB Verdell has so much steam that he runs right through the safety. Pause the clip at :24 … just beautiful.
The passing game was even more explosive, 13 successes vs 6 failures. There were three main factors I observed: first, Nevada was stacking the box much more than they did against Purdue, playing their backers closer to the line and bringing the safety down anticipating the run, which opened up the defensive backfield to big plays against their soft zone coverage. Second, there appeared to be a deliberate coaching emphasis directed at #10 QB Herbert to throw the ball deep, and he answered that challenge.
Third, oh my stars and garters, the ball sure is coming out of his hand hot … all six of the first half incompletions were on Herbert rifling the ball faster than the receiver could get to it (although two of them were him being hit as he threw, so not quite his fault); fortunately he settled down later and put some better touch and anticipation on his passes:
- :00 - #3 WR Jo. Johnson can’t run the route any better or faster than this, he’s completely dusted the DB and is going full tilt at the spot where Herbert is going to place the ball 50 yards away and he still can’t make it because the ball is traveling too fast.
- :16 - There are four potential receivers to the defense’s left; this scissors concept draws four zone defenders to cover the slot man with a fifth frozen by the back heading out (pause it at :32 to see it clearly), leaving #27 TE Breeland wide open on the wheel for a touchdown.
- :36 - All four of the other receivers on this play — Johnson across the middle, Breeland on the sideline, Dye and #30 WR Redd in the flats — are more open than #80 WR Addison is on his post route, and last week Herbert would have checked down to one of them. But this week he’s found some more faith, and Addison rewards it.
- 1:03 - The RPO at work: play-action sucks down the backers, the screen possibility freezes the boundary safety, and Bay is left wide open.
I continue to be confused about the principles of the defensive fronts DC Avalos is deploying, which I’m beginning to suspect is the whole point. With this small amount of meaningful snaps I’m not much closer to being able to describe it with confidence, and will need to postpone my write-up on it at least until after the Montana game, or possibly as a special project for the bye week after Stanford in week 4. For now I will say that in addition to the twenty different front configurations I charted in week 1, in this game there were four new ones I had never seen before, including a 1-5-5!
Rush defense was very good, 10 successes vs 5 failures prior to garbage time (and I think one of those failures was an overly generous spot by the zebras). Oregon was quite stout in the middle, but to the extent there was a vulnerability it was some of the new players on the edges:
- :00 - Nice swim move by #99 DE Au. Faoliu to disrupt this inside zone run, but the back bounces outside and #5 DE Thibodeaux has lost contain and allowed himself to be turned inside, and #25 S Breeze comes down at the wrong angle and misses his tackle.
- :08 - Nevada’s playing with fire here and nearly draws a chop block flag if the center had chipped #34 NT Scott before he was cut by the guard, but #90 DE Carlberg and Thibodeaux spill off of their blocks and into the lane, with a great turn for the tackle by Carlberg.
- :28 - #35 LB Dye’s quick jump into the backfield eliminates the pulling blocker early enough that #41 LB Slade-Matautia has a clear path to the ballcarrier, and the reverse angle shows just how well he’s flowing to the play and getting outside leverage.
Pass defense was tremendous, especially against air raid concepts: 18 successes to just 5 failures. The secondary was unbeatable on Saturday, with the very few breakdowns coming from the inside backers:
- :00 - Slade-Matautia is taking the slant route as though this is zone coverage, but his assignment is the running back who slips out for a checkdown pass, and because the field safety and corner have (properly) been run out of that area by their assignments, the back gets a late one-on-one shot against #4 CB Graham and wins it.
- :10 - #6 CB Lenoir is playing with outside leverage on this double-crosser with a slant over, and so has the tough job of running all the way across the field, dodging the ump and two potential rubs, and starting from behind at that … but he is astonishingly fast and gets there to make the tackle (and nearly a fumble recovery) with minimal gain. Look at his burst when he clears the hash marks, just incredible.
- :18 - The pre-snap movement (more of a switch in shading than a full stem) does its job in confusing the blocking as the right guard neglects to deal with Scott, who gets a free shot at the QB and forces this quick throw. #55 LB Niu, whom the guard was eyeing as a potential blitzer, instead backs out and reads the QB’s eyes, plays off just enough to bait the throw, then jumps it for the interception.
Nevada’s offensive tendencies that I observed last Friday held up as anticipated. They dropped back to throw the ball on a 2:1 basis, and almost always out of the offset, while rushing heavily from an 11-personnel pistol. We did not see a whole lot of the QB arm strength I touted (though that may have had something to do with the amount of pocket time that he had), but I did predict his tendency to scramble when the pocket broke down, which was a lot. I liked their starting running back quite a bit and continue to think this offense is wasting him, but they leaned on their second-string back for a whole lot of their first-half plays and I didn’t give him much attention.
I feel like my simple description of Nevada’s defense as a 33 stack was a bit glib, considering that they hardly stacked their backers at all in this game, instead playing with one at depth and two on the line (their “heavy” run stopping configuration) for much of this game. But boy did I nail their soft zone coverage, they never switched to man even when it was obvious Oregon was eating them alive with switches and seam routes. I asserted that the strength of the defense was their linemen, and I’m not sure what to think of that claim now … Oregon’s o-line had little trouble with them, but maybe that says more about the Ducks than my observations of the Wolf Pack.