A succinct but perfectly adequate summary of this game could be written in two sentences: “Oregon was 0-5 in turnovers. Otherwise they played fine.”
Since my editor Adam won’t let me turn in such an article — though he was gracious enough to give me some time to recover from dental surgery right after the game, which I used to review the SkyCam footage as well — the rest of this film study will go towards exploring that second sentence.
The turnovers in this game were catastrophic. They not only resulted in some easy points for Iowa St, they gave the Cyclones absurd advantages in time of possession (42:48 vs 17:12) and field position (63% of ISU’s snaps were in opponent territory, vs 38% of Oregon’s). And maybe most importantly, they turned the Ducks’ offensive and defensive gameplans — which I think were sound enough going into the game, based on my film study of both teams — into strategic liabilities.
If it’s possible to bracket off those awful moments and look at each event in a vacuum (a pretty decent survival strategy for the last 12 months in general, really) Oregon actually played a pretty even game with Iowa St and was slightly ahead in most measures of play from scrimmage. Oregon was more effective in yards per attempt at both rushing and passing, had 33% of its plays go for over 10 yards compared to just 12% for ISU, and given the down & distance on each play outside of garbage time was successful on 52% of all snaps. Oregon’s worst stat (other than turnovers) was converting none of their six 3rd downs, but the Ducks didn’t face a 3rd down until the final play of the first half because they were converting with big gains on 1st and 2nd downs for much of the game, until they got down by a wide margin and started to press.
Given the turmoil over Oregon’s quarterback situation, it might be surprising that their passing plays were their most successful quadrant from scrimmage - 17 successes vs 14 failures. I only counted one clear RPO read mistake (the first play of the game, which might be outsized in fans’ minds due to the anchoring effect), the pass protection held up better than I was expecting, and the biggest single problem was five dropped passes of catchable balls by receivers and tight ends. Here’s a representative sample:
(Reminder - you can right-click or long-press any video to play it in ¼ or ½ speed)
- :00 - Pretty clean pocket with a nice blitz pickup from #26 RB Dye, though #53 RG Walk is giving up some more ground than he should be. #12 QB Shough quickly identifies the void in the zone blitz structure between the safeties with the SAM no longer in the lane.
- :16 - This isn’t an easy throw for #13 QB Brown despite the clean pocket, since he has to put it over the backer. But he’s made his decision as soon as the DB hesitates on the out route and #3 WR Jo. Johnson pays it off with a toe-tap catch.
- :39 - This could have been right on the numbers from Brown, but it’s still a catchable ball that #30 WR Redd ought to come up with.
- :53 - Just not a very good blitz pickup from #5 RB Dollars or #56 LG Bass, forcing a quick backfoot throw. It’s still pretty accurate and Johnson catches it in stride, but ISU’s “Air Raid killer” defense is entirely designed around stopping passes in exactly this range.
I would also describe Oregon’s rushing offense as fine — 8 successes vs 8 failures — after some caveats. Three of their eight successful rushes were for 15+ yards, and only one went backwards. Two of those failed rushes were fumbles, which obviously is terrible, but one was an otherwise successful zone-read keep that got six yards on 3rd & 2 and was only stripped when Brown was fighting for more. The far more common issue than QB or RB mistakes was bad blocking - twice on the perimeter and four more on the offensive line. Some examples:
- :00 - This is the correct read of the SAM coming down so it’s a great response to this defense’s pivotal weapon by freezing him, and opening a huge hole with #48 TE Kampmoyer’s tremendous block of the MIKE. The safety getting pulled away by Shough’s fake throw is an amusing touch that helps Dye break for plenty of extra yardage.
- :16 - Reading the unblocked defensive end this time, who stays outside on Dollars so Brown keeps it up the middle. Great blocks by all five linemen, including #77 LT Moore who turns to wall off the backer and Walk who’s blocking the DB a dozen yards downfield.
- :32 - Here’s Moore and Walk getting beat instead; both just miss their assignment entirely. Still, in what’s become standard for Oregon, a four yard gain on 2nd & 10 dive isn’t a win but it’s not bad either.
- :45 - This is maybe the worst run-block of the season for the o-line. Moore’s leverage is wrong, Bass and #78 C Forsyth are getting bullied, Walk misses, and #74 RT Jones is playing with way too high pad level. A single yard gain with #33 RB Habibi-Likio ought to be automatic and this was a pretty poor down to pick for a bad rep across the board.
Strategically, I think this was a pretty mixed bag for OC Moorhead. Overall, Oregon’s RPO game was fairly effective at neutralizing ISU’s defensive structure, and the run game took advantage of the big space they leave open in the middle of the field. Oregon’s staff seemed to see the same “net” of 5-15 yard passes that this defense wants to stop that I did in my preview, and avoided plays into it. They also used out routes into the wide side of the field when they did need intermediate passing plays, which is the coverage hole apparent on film.
There were a couple of tactical playcalls I disagreed with, but the more significant issue I had with the gameplan was the refusal for the third straight game to throw the ball deep. In previous games against Cal and USC that might have been a response to some combination of great DBs in coverage, a highly aggressive pass rush, or losing faith in Shough.
I don’t think any of those things applied to this game however - Oregon’s o-line held up well to ISU’s 3-man rush, their corners were badly mismatched against Oregon’s outside receivers, and they played Brown for a majority of snaps who has extensive experience as a deep field play-action pocket passer. On top of which they were playing from behind, with bad field position and lopsided time of possession for the second half … to me that should have added up to taking deep shots much more often than we wound up seeing. Indeed, Oregon’s eight-play final drive featured only one throw of more than five yards past the line of scrimmage and took almost three minutes off the clock when down by three scores.
Here are a few plays to illustrate the up-and-down playcalling choices:
- :00 - After my 11-game film review of the Cyclones, this was exactly what I expected to see a lot of: an RPO read of the SAM, who in many ways is the fulcrum of the entire defense, and then exploits the matchup advantage between Oregon’s talented WRs and ISU’s less effective corner.
- :16 - As this play illustrates, Oregon’s o-line didn’t have much trouble with ISU’s standard 3-man pass rush the way that eight other ISU opponents definitely did. I thought it was reasonable to be conservative early while figuring out if that would be true or not, but by midway through the 2nd quarter I think it was clear the QB had plenty of time to set up and throw downfield.
- :31 - This is one of the only deep balls Oregon attempted in this game, and it was a beautiful pass that demonstrated the potential strategy that I was expecting in the second half - a win in the trenches plus a matchup advantage on the outside, while down a couple scores with time running out. But it got called back on a holding flag on Jones, and that was pretty much it for the deep passing game.
- :55 - Screens did very well in this game, something else I’d noticed in film study, averaging about 13 yards an attempt. But they dried up after this one, which is just a mess - four over three and the back going the other way. I’m not sure if it’s an RPO or a screen the whole way, but there’s no way the play as it was executed was going to work.
Oregon’s defensive strategy was to stop the run, prevent explosion plays, and force Iowa St to methodically march down the field. In those goals they were pretty effective. Being constantly behind due to turnovers — in score, field position, and time of possession — simply made that strategy a lot less productive than it otherwise would have been.
The rush defense had the hardest lift against ISU’s unanimous first-team All-American running back, and they did their job well enough - 23 successful rush defenses vs 22 failed ones, and the average yards per carry on designed rushes was 3.8. That falls to 3.5 if one uses the common analyst’s tool of excluding their longest run of the night, 19 yards at the end of the game, which was one of only three rushes of over 10 yards. The Ducks forced five negative rushes and seven more stuffs (under two yards without converting). One negative rush resulted in the ball on the ground with an immediate recovery by Oregon, though the officials ruled forward progress had been stopped. Here’s a representative sample:
- :00 - Good penetration on the edge by #55 OLB An. Faoliu to redirect the back, and #0 CB Lenoir finishes the play well, but the tight end is wrecking #32 DB Happle because he’s playing with the wrong leverage - he shouldn’t be ducking into the hit with his inside shoulder, that leaves him incapable of spilling out onto the back.
- :20 - Oregon must have watched the USC-UCLA film because they took the same lesson in stopping QB power that the Trojans did - immediate backfield pressure to disrupt the blocks before they can develop by #41 ILB Slade-Matautia, #99 DE Au. Faoliu, and #1 ILB Sewell, with #47 STUD Funa cleaning up.
- :35 - With Slade-Matautia’s ejection and the injury situation at inside backer getting dire, Oregon played a lot of backups in the middle of the field. On this play Oregon’s Juco and walk-on backers get washed out pretty easily.
- :51 - I thought this was #91 DE K. Williams’ best game as a Duck so far. Here he’s forcing a double team and allowing #5 DE Thibodeaux to get free to make an athletic play on the back after Happle gets cleared out. #97 DT Dorlus is getting some nice push against the LT as well.
Oregon’s pass defense was similarly slightly above water - 17 successful defenses vs 16 failed ones, with only two going for 15+ yards. The pass rush forced 10 sacks, scrambles, or throwaways, which is 30% of all ISU dropbacks and a very high number.
Iowa St wide receivers didn’t get much of a workout - only 13 targets on the night and 5.3 yards per attempt. With the exception of one breakdown by backup #12 CB James, Oregon’s corners had the sidelines locked down the entire game. Where ISU succeeded was in the middle of the field against Oregon’s safeties and inside backers - the Ducks’ depleted personnel there has been a problem all season and the Cyclones trio of dependable TEs, along with a strategy that was happy to take underneath throws to them every time, was Iowa St’s biggest advantage. Some examples:
- :00 - Just way too much space here on 3rd & 3. It’s early in the game and it hasn’t become clear yet that ISU isn’t sending its receivers any deeper than this, but this was a problem on 3rd downs throughout the game.
- :15 - Exactly as they’d shown on film all season, the wide receivers’ primary job was to generate rubs on routes like this to open the flat to the split out TE. #19 DB Hill shows he’s powerful and long enough to save the touchdown against a big tight end.
- :37 - I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how effective Dorlus has been playing off the edge when they line him up as a 5-tech. He and Thibodeaux look like twins beating both tackles at the same time.
- :52 - Nice penetration by Dorlus and Williams, and what great hustle by Hill to get the 3rd down stop.
I thought DC Avalos’ gameplan made a lot more sense in the first half than the second half. As with the offense, I disagreed with a couple of tactical playcalls, but the bigger issue was that the personnel mismatch between the numbers was never really addressed and the necessary aggression to produce game-changing plays after they’d gone down by multiple scores never showed up.
Avalos’ strategy of allowing methodical teams to indulge themselves marching down the field has been very effective against teams like USC, which are both inefficient and impatient. But against a disciplined team that just didn’t make mistakes, fueled by a bunch of turnovers, they can hold the ball the entire game. Iowa St had three 15-play drives, plus a 10, 8, and two 7s.
The biggest vulnerability ISU showed prior to this game was their QB’s tendency to throw multiple dangerous passes into coverage in every previous game … but that didn’t happen even once in Glendale. Partly that’s due to Coach Campbell’s staff for identifying an issue, but it’s also due to Oregon not making his job any harder. Some examples:
- :00 - This is the exact opposite of how you want to play Iowa St’s offense. The inside backer isn’t in the underneath throwing lane which is the only place this ball is ever going to go, the nickel has backed out into deep coverage which won’t be hit, and the DE is attempting a bullrush instead of a speed rush against the tackle next to an unoccupied guard who’s just going to knock him off on a combo.
- :21 - ISU spent all year showing this yo-yo motion in the backfield, and it’s got Oregon’s defensive backfield confused. #23 DB McKinley simply takes the wrong guy - Hill has to have the sweep man once he becomes the outermost receiver, which he indicates with his point.
- :44 - This is a phenomenal pass break-up by #2 CB Wright, but its his athleticism and not the scheme that’s getting it done - McKinley and #6 DB Pickett are behind the play the whole way, and Wright comes off his man to make the hit.
- 1:17 - Thibodeaux is getting double-teamed for the same reason as the first clip, but he’s winning anyway - forcing a backfoot throw that’s too high and lets Lenoir save the touchdown.
I think my preview of Iowa State holds up pretty well. On offense, the description of a methodical approach built around a great back and using multiple tight ends on every play obviously bore out. I think the vulnerabilities I described did as well - that their offensive line can be beaten which results in a high broken passing play and stuffed running play rate, and that their wide receivers are little more than decoys for the tight end passing game. The only prediction that didn’t come true is that ISU’s QB didn’t really put the ball in danger as he had multiple times in every other game. I failed to detect any pattern during the regular season as to when he’d do that — the usual suspects like pressure or desperation situations didn’t hold up statistically — and it seemed to simply be a bad habit, long ingrained through repetition. I’m not sure what to do with that; it would be irresponsible not to write about that tendency having observed it, but like any habit an individual can break it whenever they want.
Defensively, Iowa St’s interesting defensive structure, along with which types of plays they’re built to stop, certainly showed up. So did its weaknesses - efficiency runs, RPO plays, and to the extremely limited extent Oregon attempted them, deep passes against poor corners. I observed a game-to-game pattern that ISU’s 3-man rush either destroyed the opponent’s o-line (8 games) or accomplished nothing all day (3 games); Oregon appears to be the fourth team in the latter category so the observation seems valid, but since I didn’t make a prediction as to which it would be I don’t get any extra credit. It seems like Oregon’s staff felt like they’d fall in the former category, however, given their hesitancy to set up in the pocket and throw downfield. I had no explanation for it at the time and having sat with it for 10 days I still don’t.