Sept 4, 2020: Reviewing this game and my article about it in hindsight, I stand by the characterization of a 50/50 battle in the trenches in which Oregon’s skill talent unavailability eventually caught up to them as Auburn got to make the last adjustment for which the Ducks had no answer. That’s basically the theme of fellow film reviewer Berk18’s recent breakdown of the game as well.
In my opinion, looking at both this game and the rest of their 2019 seasons, Oregon was a better team than Auburn and the balance of improbable events that hurt vs helped the Ducks was decidedly in the Tigers’ favor (the dropped TD pass, the handoff fumble, the QB scramble on 4th down being awarded the extra inch, etc.) - just about everything that had to happen for Auburn to win did in fact happen; one fewer and it’s a different season for Oregon.
But it’s still the case that some systemic issues the Ducks confronted all year (besides lousy luck in scoring situations) showed themselves in this game: wide receiver depth, the QB’s hesitation to throw the ball deep and/or over the middle of the field, running backs constantly leaving the game due to transient injuries, and the defense allowing powerful backs extra yards after contact.
The first-half gameplan, in its differences from the 2018 general plan, revolved around two factors: first, a healthy respect for Auburn’s defensive line, and second, the extensive injuries to the wide receiver corps. The effect was far more outside running (about 50/50, compared to 80/20 inside/outside last year) and short, quick passes instead of taking deep shots or setting up for intermediate route progression (about 75% of all throws were within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage). This modified gameplan was fairly effective.
Two more things happened around halftime: first, both starting running backs were sidelined with cramps, and second, Auburn’s defense began to adjust to Oregon’s quick passing game. Even though Oregon’s first possession of the second half ended in a touchdown, the playcalling had shifted dramatically: seven throws and two runs (both with a backup RB). Auburn correctly redeployed their personnel to the perimeter to take away the easy outside stuff, and while they allowed somewhat more effective running up the middle when the starting back returned, essentially they were doing the same thing that Oregon’s defense did to AU’s freshman QB: daring Oregon to throw the ball deep.
That’s where the offense ultimately broke down: between pocket pressure, receiver issues, and poor QB decision-making, Oregon couldn’t answer that deep-ball challenge.
Overall, the rushing offense did better than I was expecting considering the quality of the defensive line: 11 successes vs 10 failures, with three more runs being 3-yard gains on 1st & 10 that are right on the borderline. That’s far better than they did against Utah or Michigan St, with a half-strength o-line against dominant d-lines. We saw a pretty even split between offset and pistol runs, but the most interesting thing is that with the exception of some short-yardage stuff, Oregon almost always ran behind zone, not power blocking. Some examples:
(Reminder - you can right-click or long-press any of these videos to watch in ¼ or ½ speed)
- :00 - The fake sweep gets the defensive backfield in motion and opens a wide gap for #33 RB Habibi-Likio to hit.
- :15 - Effective blocking up front, including a chip and movement to the second level by #74 RG Jones, who replaced #75 RG Warmack for a dozen plays, and #82 TE Aiello (subbing in from o-line duties on another dozen plays), who seals off the backside safety.
- :24 - #55 C Hanson handles the backup DT and #58 LT Sewell takes care of AU’s #5 DT Brown, springing #7 RB Verdell for a big gain.
- :32 - Verdell’s halfback dive out of the pistol has built up so much steam that he powers through Brown’s tackle for the 1st down.
The problems in the run game were mostly what you’d expect: the o-line losing individual battles to an incredible d-line. However I also thought #10 QB Herbert made a couple of incorrect reads:
- :00 - Here’s a three-TE set going to the edge, but Warmack is completely destroyed by Brown and there’s nothing to slow the crashing LB who blows up the play.
- :18 - Herbert should have kept the ball here, it’s an 8-man box vs 6 blockers and the read BUCK has his hips turned towards the back during the mesh, with the WRs in good position to block.
- :23 - Brown wrecks Warmack again, Hanson can’t make it to the second level, and #3 WR Jo. Johnson can’t handle the BUCK when he’s pressed into service as a TE.
The downfield passing game was less efficient, 14 successes vs 19 failures. Herbert’s arm strength and accuracy were on display:
- :00 - Simple play-action to a stop route, the linebackers get sucked up and #80 WE Addison is wide open for a nice quick gain.
- :07 - Here’s Brown beating the line again on a great swim move, but Herbert throws well on the move and the rub leaves #30 WR Redd wide open - good film study by the Oregon coaching staff here on just how to defeat Auburn’s 3rd-medium blitz packages.
- :27 - This is a tough throw and catch to make, but Johnson’s hands have really improved in the offseason and Herbert is looking a lot better on the rollout than in the last half of 2018. Verdell also puts in a nice block to keep the QB clean.
- :37 - This is an NFL throw. Herbert climbs the pocket and releases the instant the CB’s momentum has him stuck and only Johnson can make a play on the ball, perfect placement.
Oregon continued to be successful in the screen game, which got extended use in the manner of the last five games of Oregon’s 2018 season. Some examples:
- :00 - Simple flanker screen with a nice legal cut block by Redd.
- :07 - Redd can’t handle his man this time due to some good DB play, the common element in all four of Oregon’s failed screen passes.
- :15 - Motion into a tunnel screen for Redd, one of five in this game; check out Sewell smoking a safety a dozen yards down the field.
What Oregon couldn’t do was operate much of a deep game. Due to both Verdell and Dye being out of the game for a long stretch in the second half, Oregon switched to a pass-heavy offense even when they were ahead: 25 passing plays vs just 8 runs. That’s the main switch in the game and why the second half was so unproductive: changing the 1st down strategy from being run-heavy and setting up 2nd & manageable, to dealing with a bunch of 2nd or 3rd & long situations, which is not how Oregon wants to operate.
I can’t comment on whether Auburn’s DBs had deep receivers in great coverage or not, the broadcast angles won’t show me that. But I can say that Herbert wasn’t routinely getting full 3-second pockets, he was really hesitating to make throws to some of his new receivers, and I think the tight end unit is suffering without #84 TE McCormick:
- :00 - #26 RB Dye is having trouble with #3 DE Davidson — no surprise there — but Addison has successfully broken free of the CB at the :11 mark and Herbert needs to immediately pull the trigger. He doesn’t, waits too long, and throws it away.
- :16 - Herbert starts well climbing the pocket, but it’s foolish to try and scramble with this much territory to make up; his threat to run has pulled up the defense and he’s got two options to throw before he hits the line of scrimmage, Habibi-Likio on the checkdown and Johnson in the middle, either would have been a better than running.
- :26 - This is a senior starting tight end who can’t get six more inches against a backup safety.
- :34 - Herbert doesn’t see Delgado getting open for the throw with Redd rubbing the inside DB, and panicking instead into a useless scramble.
I’m going to wait until after week 2 or 3 to give a schematic write-up on DC Avalos’ new defense; I’m still grappling with the concepts and personnel and want a bigger sample size. For now I’ll say that I charted almost twenty different defensive front configurations in this game, quite a lot of variation and confusion.
The most interesting are the different blitz types on passing downs:
- :00 - Here’s a two-down front with #56 OLB Young in the middle, the ILBs on the edges, and #32 OLB Winston dropping into coverage. The TE has to step inside, freeing #35 ILB Dye to evade the back in pass-pro and flush the QB.
- :21 - This formation has two down linemen on one side and three backers on the other, then drops out the backers and blitzes the DB and far OLB. It’s effective at flushing the QB, but in a flashback to last year’s problems with scrambling QBs, #41 ILB Slade-Matautia drifts too far to one side and lets him escape.
- :40 - With a TE in, the OLB takes him releasing, and the DB does a better job of staying in containment to force a bad pass.
Downfield pass defense was mostly excellent, 18 successes vs 12 failures, with a sack, four scrambles, and seven throwaways. Per above, the biggest single problem in pass defense was the QB’s elusiveness.
Rush defense was a lot more mixed, 19 successes vs 21 failures. Successful plays were about an even split between outmuscling the offensive line and confusing the blockers:
- :00 - Pretty simple, #99 DT Au. Faoliu shoots the vacated gap of the pulling guard and the center can’t handle him, while Dye is too fast for that same guard to handle.
- :14 - #34 DT Scott gets into the backs lane, then turns around and occupies the cutback too. The LT gets locked onto the ILB, freeing Winston to cut under the crossing H-back to clean up.
- :21 - Scott fights off a double team to force the back outside; Young is initially on the WR if this is play-action, but he’s not fooled by the delayed draw and hustles to the play before the WR thinks to block him, and the rest fo the gang shows up to finish the tackle.
The shocking aspect of Coach Malzahn’s playcalling in the second half was his reliance on the run game, despite being behind and not being particularly successful in the first half. Auburn ran two-thirds again as much in the second half, and despite pretty frequent penetration, Oregon stopped being able to bring down #28 RB Whitlow, who turned nothing into a big play time and again:
- :00 - Faoliu and #90 DT Carlberg get into the backfield, but Whitlow sidesteps them and then runs through about four tackles. Dye should have had him stopped for a 2-yard gain but this turns into 7.
- :10 - Whitlow breaks both Dye and #16 S Pickett’s ankles running outside on really bad angles, but I’m impressed that #5 DE Thibodeaux runs him down from the other side of the formation.
- :24 - I don’t understand what’s going on here between #8 S Holland and #25 S Breeze pre-snap. One of them should be shifting to deal with the possible sweep, but instead both do and #4 CB Graham has to completely switch his momentum and run him down.
I think I did fairly well in describing Auburn’s offense. I wrote that they had issues with the interior of the offensive line and with their wide receiver distribution, and sure enough Oregon ate them up in the passing game. I was skeptical about the glowing camp reviews of ASU transfer Wilson as a replacement for their excellent fullback or much use of TEs/FBs as pass catchers, and we didn’t see them at all. I thought Whitlow was the biggest threat they had, and boy did that turn out to be true. I wasn’t sure, from watching their bowl game, that Coach Malzahn called plays significantly differently; he really stunned me with his guts in sticking with the run against Oregon’s gassed defense late in the game and I don’t think the former OC would have done that.
I probably deserve a more mixed grade for Auburn’s defense. There were three defensive players who got promotions from backups to starters — Truesdell at tackle, Britt at backer, and Tutt at safety — none of whom graded out well on my tally sheet in 2018 and I thought could be weaknesses, but Auburn developed all three very well over the summer and they played excellently. I think I deserve credit for describing AU’s defensive line as beatable with proper hat-on-hat blocking, which we saw quite a bit, and while it’s not much of an insight to say that superhumans don’t exist, it’s exactly the rushing gameplan Oregon pursued. In the first half, we certainly saw the cover-1/blitz strategy on 3rd downs quite a bit, but I was surprised at the times DC Steele backed out of it to deal with Oregon’s adaptation in the second half.