Sept 26, 2020: There were a couple of trends that we really started to see clearly for the first time in this game.
DC Avalos’ new defense was now completely shutting down Power-5 opponents, especially through the use of complex and confusing defensive fronts that got pressure without blitzing. The run defense was excellent, though as would be something of an issue all season long, they tended to give up some yards after contact despite being in the right place to stop the back.
Offensively, this was the first game where the starting center was out and the right tackle moved over to snap the ball. That created some problems with blitz protections and RPO timing, something that we’d see in a couple of future games as well. It was also the first game in which Coach Cristobal made clear he was comfortable with a punt-and-play-defense strategy when he thought it was appropriate to the game situation. That’s novel for Oregon fans since it’d been at least 15 years since the Ducks have really thought much about winning field position battles as opposed to high risk, high reward offensive gambling.
This game was an excellent demonstration of winning through field position: using high-efficiency plays to keep moving forward, pinning the opponent deep to play defense, then getting the ball back with shorter and shorter fields. Here’s a chart with both teams’ starting field position for each drive. Oregon began 13-15 yards closer every time:
- Stanford average - 19.7 yard line
- Oregon average - 32.4 yard line
- Stanford had 5 of 11 drives start at their 12-yd line or worse, Oregon had 1 such drive.
- Oregon had 5 of 11 drives start at their 37-yd line or better, Stanford had 0 such drives.
That one poor field position drive for Oregon was at the end of the first half. Oregon elected to run out the clock, to what appears to be consternation from some fans I’m very happy aren’t Oregon coaches. Excluding that drive raises Oregon’s average to their 35-yd line.
This game entered garbage time in the 4th quarter, with Oregon up 21-6 as they chose to kick a field goal; after this point Stanford went to a desperation passing offense and Oregon played clock killer.
Overall, the offense stayed ahead of schedule, with 26 successful plays to 23 failed ones prior to garbage time. That was worse than their season average up to that point, and better for Stanford’s defense than their average.
The major culprit was the change at the offensive line: #55 C Hanson was out for the game and so as usual #54 RT Throckmorton took over for him, with backup #66 RT Aiello taking his spot. Unlike in previous games, #75 RG Warmack was not spelled by #74 RG Jones at any point. As I wrote back in January, this was probably the best move the coaches had available to them, but it’s still suboptimal at three positions: Throckmorton takes a substantial hit in his error rate at any other position but RT, Aiello is a backup for a reason, and I have doubts about Warmack’s longevity.
Running the ball, Oregon had 9 successes to 9 failures, with a single 3-yard gain on 1st down borderline play. The successes were all of the efficient, moderate gains behind quality blocking that we’re familiar with, when the RPO indicators pointed to keeping the ball on the ground. It seemed that the coaches were keeping #7 RB Verdell fresh for this game, because his powerful running was the key to several successes:
(Reminder - you can right-click or long-press any of these videos to play them in ¼ or ½ speed)
- :00 - Great blocks from the line across the board here, especially the exchange between Throck and #68 LG Lemieux to open the hole. #27 TE Breeland can’t seal off the backer, but Verdell runs through his tackle for extra yardage.
- :13 - The OLB leans into the lane past Lemieux’s pull and Aiello collapses as well, so Verdell has to squeeze through a collapsing gap, but keeps his feet to turn a 2-yard gain into 5.
- :29 - Throck gets rocked into the backfield, but Verdell smoothly adjusts his weight to avoid him and preserve his momentum, then runs through a teammate who’s failed his block against the OLB to pick up an extra 5 yards.
Now let’s examine all nine failed rushing plays. Each fits into one of three categories; the first is the smallest, problems with the ballcarrier:
- :00 - Warmack loses his block here, but it happens early enough that Verdell should have the vision to see the enormous leftside B-gap hole that Lemieux and #58 LT Sewell are opening up and made a cut.
- :11 - Verdell just doesn’t launch fast enough to outrun the unblocked OLB from the backside.
The second and largest category is blocking failures by the offensive line and tight ends:
- :00 - I think this is a zone assignment screw-up, where Sewell thinks Lemieux will take the DE while he climbs to take on the second-level backer; instead, the reverse happens: Lemieux chips the DT and then moves up, leaving Sewell to try and change direction and hit the DE without success. Breeland gets distracted by the whole thing and misses his block on the DB.
- :11 - This is just a mess ... both Warmack and Sewell get their feet tangled by Throck and the guy he’s blocking, and everybody winds up on the dirt.
- :22 - Here we start with a promising leftside B-gap, but Throck totally loses control of his man, so Verdell cuts backside … where both Aiello and #87 TE Bay are getting destroyed. But he still picks up 2 yards.
- :34 - (This snap was cut off from the broadcast by an idiotic video game advertisement; I’m including what’s left for the sake of completeness. The full play is shown from the skycam angle afterwards.) Throck loses control of his man entirely, but even if he hadn’t, Warmack has failed to turn and seal the DT or alternatively get to the overhang backer.
The last category is the most concerning to me going forward (assuming Hanson returns to the lineup soon), and I think requires a play design change. Oregon has incorporated a backer read into its outside run game, where #10 QB Herbert is watching the LB in the middle of the field (or sometimes the overhang) to see which way he’s going at the exchange with the back. Ostensibly, if the LB follows the back then Herbert would keep the ball and run the other way. However, even though this option presented itself multiple times, Stanford correctly guessed that Herbert would always hand off anyway, and they got a free defender. I don’t know if Herbert is being coached to always hand off or if he’s just consistently messing up his read (I suspect the former), but either way the jig is up, this play will never be successful as it’s currently executed.
Here’s every such failed play; I won’t annotate them because I trust once the reader sees the enormous run lane Herbert would have had if he kept the ball, it’ll be obvious. The second and third plays begin at :12 and :25, respectively:
The passing game was both more efficient and more explosive than the rushing game, with 17 successes to 13 failures (that includes 4 vs 0 on screens).
That’s a greater than usual number of failures in the passing game, but they come down to the usual culprits: Herbert’s conservative nature in target selection, deficiencies in the available receivers, and problems in pass protection. The first two we were seeing at about the same rate as in previous games, so the difference in outcome is mostly attributable, as with the run game, to the reshuffled o-line. Some representative examples:
- :00 - Bay loses control of his man here, which sadly is not that unusual, but the real problem is that the entire protection scheme is backwards - instead of doubling weakside, they should be doubling strongside, giving Aiello something to do besides standing around while his QB is sacked.
- :14 - This is 3rd & 15 and Oregon is clearly just playing for field position to set up a better punt (which worked, Stanford started on their own 8-yd line subsequently), but still, Herbert has a clean pocket to work with against just a 3-man rush, and there’s plenty of time to see if Addison or #17 WR Davis can break open. Instead he immediately throws well short of the sticks and #18 TE Webb wasn’t going to break all the tackles between him and the line to gain.
- :21 - Breeland doesn’t turn in time to make the catch here and I register this as one of two drops in the game.
The successes all involved the same factors we’ve been seeing all season, but a couple of things stand out:
- :00 - This drive ended in a touchdown, but it would have been a punt had #80 WR Addison not thrown the backer to the ground. Bigger, more physical receivers are what Oregon has been missing for some time now and I’m eager to see more entering the lineup.
- :17 - This is the most impressive thing I’ve seen Herbert do in four years of film study. The snap is extremely high, and almost anybody else would have seen this fly backwards for a huge negative play or a turnover. Herbert instantly leaps to field it, and amazingly, conducts his RPO read while in midair, correctly seeing the safety widen to take the flag route and the OLB crash on the back, leaving the throwing lane for the slant route to Addison wide open, slides to delay the DL as soon as he lands, and still throws on-platform.
- :31 - First, great pass-pro by Verdell against the blitzer, absorbing the contact without losing his base then escorting him 5 yards away from the pocket. Second, this throw is behind #3 WR Jo. Johnson, but he twists and snags it anyway on the move, and tucks it away smoothly before he takes the hit … does anyone think he would have caught this last year?
The per-play effectiveness of the defense — 36 successes vs 20 failures — is already excellent (about 65%; that’s playoff-caliber performance if it can be maintained), but even so it doesn’t show how stifling they were. Prior to garbage time, they had as many negative plays as they gave up 10+ yard plays (eight apiece), and only two over 20 yards.
They consistently forced Stanford into taking either very short throws or low-percentage intermediate passes. While they had 10 failed rush defenses, four of them were only because the back fought and clawed for the extra yardage through tackles, not because anyone was out of position (as I had gotten used to seeing over the last several years).
I’ll be using the bye week to deliver on my long-promised write-up of DC Avalos’ new defensive scheme. Since I have the skycam footage of this game, I’ll be using clips from it fairly extensively in that article (and this one is overlong already); so here I’ll just give one selection of great defensive plays from the run, screen, and downfield pass defense that exemplified the superior talent and conditioning Oregon is showing this year:
- :00 - Here Stanford makes a surprise move to the wildcat, which Oregon clearly had studied from last week, because they immediately adjust and cause the offense to hesitate on the snap, and seven different guys get in on the tackle, led by #34 NT Scott.
- :24 - Nice pre-snap adjustments here, with #8 S Holland and #23 S McKinley communicating well to get to the tackle, and #41 LB Slade-Matautia immediately backing out on recognizing the screen to help out.
- :42 - This sack is courtesy of S&C coach Feld - that’s 3-star #90 DE Carlberg physically overpowering a 4-star senior left guard.
I feel I did pretty well last week describing Stanford’s offense. The troubles with the offensive line, overdependence on an easily neutralized tight end, and improvement by their top running back were all in evidence, even their formation and alignment tendencies. Most of the talent issues and potential starters identified in my summer preview were spot-on as well. The only thing I think I missed on was my prediction that Davis Mills would see playing time at QB; KJ Costello looked as good as he did before his injury.
Stanford’s defense, particularly their front-seven, performed better than I was expecting, although I did note that I liked a number of their individual players. I regret not making a special effort to highlight their outside linebackers Casey Toohill and Gabe Reid, who were standouts on my tally sheet but the film clips I had of them just weren’t as good as other players … still, I should have made specific mention of them anyway, and they had some pretty important plays on Saturday. On the other hand, my description of the challenges the secondary face held up very well - burning Paulson Adebo at corner isn’t going to happen every week and the earlier twitter dragging was mostly an artifact of him being left on an island too long, which in a low-possession game like this wasn’t likely. But the rest of that group was forced into playing man coverage for much of the game to free up more personnel in the box to stop Oregon’s run game (which worked fairly well), and leaving to hope that they’d be able to withstand Herbert’s right arm (which didn’t).