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Duck Tape: Film Review of Week 7, 2021 vs California

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Stay out of trouble

California v Oregon Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Offense

We’ve seen two versions of #13 QB A. Brown this season: in the first three games, he’s been an effective game manager with a good command of the RPO offense and a lot of pocket presence, but with limitations to his passing accuracy and an inability to hit the deep ball. After sitting out the second half of the third game, he returned for the fourth and fifth games and we saw another version: the passing accuracy issues remained, but now with frequent read errors and misunderstanding playcalls.

Against Cal, the version of Brown was much closer to the first than the second. The single biggest cause of failed offensive plays was Brown making a poor throw, something that Oregon fans are probably going to have to live with for as long as he’s the quarterback, but at the same time he was back to operating the RPO offense at a high level, showing savvy pocket manipulation, and running the ball well. As I wrote of his performance in the opener against Fresno St: “Brown is the single most responsible player both for being down in the 4th quarter and for winning the game.”

Oregon’s passing offense was above water in this game on a per-play basis, with 18 successful designed downfield passing plays vs 15 failed ones, or 54.5%, given the down & distance. They had 2 successful vs 4 unsuccessful screen passes, though that has much more to do with ongoing poor perimeter blocking by the wide receivers - I didn’t observe any poorly thrown balls on screens, and in fact the longest play of the night was an inside slip screen to the back with the OL as blockers.

The Ducks averaged 8.5 yards per pass attempt, and had eight go for 15+ yards which was 20.5% of all called passing plays (and five of those went for 20+ yards). I had characterized the completed passes in Brown’s last game as near-exclusively ones that any QB could make, but in this game I was seeing him make some tougher throws, as well as deal with pocket pressure much better. Some examples:

(Reminder - you can right-click or long-press any video to play it in ¼ or ½ speed)

  1. :00 - I’ve got several of these RPO slant passes on my tally sheet, here working just as intended as the backers get pulled up on the run. Brown is reading the box safety who stays put, so he pulls and threads it between him and the ILB.
  2. :08 - Not an easy throw to make given the underneath coverage he’s got to loft it over, and the pressure coming for him. #2 WR D. Williams shows pretty good hands on this play, with more targets in this game than in the rest of the year.
  3. :24 - This play should have had a better blitz pickup, it’s pretty clear the safety is coming pre-snap and I think Oregon could really use their starting center back. Still, Brown does a much better job than he did in his last outing stepping out of pressure and running into the vacated grass.
  4. :32 - Good pocket presence here as once again some pressure is coming, stepping away from the blindside and then a little adjustment before the throw to put it through the window for a 5-yard gain.

Brown had to deal with quite a bit of pressure, mainly from issues in pass protection by #77 LT Moore, who graded out the lowest of the linemen on my tally sheet. This was the first game in two years in which Oregon didn’t rotate the line at all, with starter #78 C Forsyth still out as well as #70 LT Jaramillo and #58 RG Powers-Johnson not in the rotation this time.

The bigger issue, however, were several badly thrown balls in which pressure wasn’t an issue - I counted five such passes, a couple of which were just bewildering. (Those are on top of a couple more incomplete or minimal-gain passes which are expected for any QB.) Here’s a representative sample of failed passing plays:

  1. :00 - There’s pretty clearly a linebacker in the throwing lane to the in-breaking route, who deflects the ball. Brown probably should have dumped off to the tight end instead, given the down & distance.
  2. :08 - Brown’s staring down the receiver the whole way and the safety gets a jump on it, and worse the ball is pretty badly off target.
  3. :19 - This looks like a mesh-sit, where he either hits #4 WR Pittman over the top or dumps it to #6 WR Redd underneath, but he hurries the throw instead of stepping up in the pocket and waiting the extra beat for either to clear.
  4. :25 - Along with #74 RG S. Jones, Moore’s breakdowns created the most trouble in pass-pro for Oregon, here committing a holding foul. It would have been a nice scramble and toss for six yards, otherwise.

The rushing offense, by contrast, was spectacular: 21 successful designed runs vs just 7 failed ones, or 75%. That’s the single highest per-play rushing efficiency number I’ve ever recorded for any team outside an FCS game in over a decade of charting games. It’s almost certainly an unsustainable rate, but for reference in my experience anything over 65% is championship caliber.

The Ducks averaged 7.2 yards per carry on designed runs, and seven went for 10+ yards which is 25% of all rushing playcalls. #26 RB Dye got almost every carry on a career night, followed by Brown on either designed carries or option keeps, and a couple of good runs by freshman #21 RB Cardwell. I noted a handful of blocking errors but even then Dye frequently converted those runs to successful plays with yards after contact, and the OL’s run blocking success rate continues to be excellent. I observed two plays in which I think that Brown made a read error, though notably he corrected one of them on the next snap.

Here’s a representative sample of all rushing plays:

  1. :00 - This counter play is somewhat new to the Oregon playbook, and consistently got pretty good yardage, here’s the first time they ran it and it went big. The back’s initial pathing looks like he’s going to the field and that gets the first ILB to bite, but then he bends it the other way and follows the TE and pulling guard, with the other ILB caught in the wash.
  2. :15 - The key to the freeze option is timing, holding the ball just long enough for the read defender to start to commit to the QB before pitching to the back. The fake sweep pre-snap to get the safety moving out of the way is a nice wrinkle.
  3. :34 - Here’s the first of the pair of plays mentioned above. The read defender isn’t making this easy, he’s keeping his shoulders square while scooting inside, but he’s sufficiently committed to the back that I think Brown should have pulled it and either run or made the toss to the tight end, depending on how the CB (who runs out of frame) reacted. The blocking is excellent though, look at that push into the DL.
  4. :40 - Try, try again … this is essentially the same play on the next snap, though the TE’s bluff is a little different because he’s on the line with trips right. The read defender comes off that block too far inside so it’s an easy pull for the QB, and with the corner staying on the TE he keeps it for more yardage.

California v Oregon Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Defense

Cal OC Musgrave came into the game with a pretty good script - on the first 20 plays of the game, Oregon’s defense succeeded on only three, an abysmal 15% defensive success rate. The rest of the game, however, were 38 successfully defended plays vs 24 unsuccessful ones for the Ducks, or 61.3% (that’s excluding three stops in the final minute of the 1st half which I consider garbage time).

In my preview of Cal, I documented how the Bears want to play methodical, ball control offense, and the key to that was their 60% rushing efficiency that consistently got them 5-9 yards every carry. That’s just what we saw against the Ducks - 13 successfully defended designed rushes vs 20 failures, or a 39.4% defensive success rate. Cal relied on its hard-running tailback room to consistently get yards after contact and stay on schedule, grinding out exceptionally long drives as they have in every other game they’ve played, generating 4.5 yards per carry (down from their 5.7 average previously). Some examples:

  1. :00 - Good penetration by #3 DT Dorlus sets up #12 DE DJ Johnson to make the tackle, but as we saw over and over in this game he struggled free for a “yaco” run while #46 ILB Heaukulani is being aggressively sealed inside by the LG. Three different DBs are in place to keep it from going any longer.
  2. :09 - The run blitz works to get into the backfield, a good understanding of Cal’s tendencies on 3rd & short, but this back is just too powerful to be brought down immediately by a DB and #33 ILB Bassa, himself a converted DB due to injuries to the inside backer group, isn’t able to fill the hole because he can’t get off this block.
  3. :20 - Bassa needs to be crashing into the RT hard as soon as he sees the pull, because otherwise his hesitation means that he gets trapped outside and the QB has an open lane. Nice stop by #7 DB Stephens to keep it from going any bigger.

However, as in their previous games, Cal never generated much explosive running - they got only four runs of 10+ yards, just 12% of their designed rushing playcalls, with the longest going for 11 yards. That trapped them in several long, fruitless drives as they kept grinding — and the Ducks kept yielding — only to stall out as they approached the redzone. In the second half Oregon tightened up considerably, doubling their rush defense success rate. Some examples:

  1. :00 - The more complex blocking schemes that might have allowed big runs just weren’t working for Cal throughout the game. Great leverage by #95 DL Ware-Hudson on the edge of this play and #91 DL Kr. Williams getting his hat playside forces the back to bounce the other way, but #48 OLB Ma’ae and #2 CB Wright are pursuing backside to stop it.
  2. :08 - Another great push by Ware-Hudson (against Cal’s best o-lineman, in my opinion) with Johnson and #93 DL J. Jones sealing it off.
  3. :17 - Cal lined up in 4-TE sets on a couple of occasions to try and bully Oregon into stacking the box, but the Ducks stuck with their standard 3-down plus a safety look against heavy sets and won their individual blocks.

As we’ve seen in previous games, for Cal to get out of the rut of methodical drives that go nowhere, they have to generate explosive passing plays. It was pretty clear Oregon’s defensive strategy was to take those away, and then start generating negative plays in the second half when their pass rush was finally back to full strength with both #5 OLB Thibodeaux and #44 OLB Swinson back in the lineup.

Oregon successfully defended 28 designed passing plays vs 21 failures, or 57.1%. Cal was limited to 6.0 yards per attempt (well below their 7.2 average in previous games), and just six went for 15+ yards, or 12% of dropbacks. I’ve been documenting for four years now how eager Cal’s QB is to scramble, but in this game those were mostly converted to throwaways instead - 31% of all Cal dropbacks resulted in a sack, scramble, or throwaway. Some examples:

  1. :00 - I thought #0 CB James had one of his best games in coverage against Cal’s deep shots (as well as an excellent single-handed stop of a flanker screen). Here he’s running in stride with their leading receiver the entire way and getting a hand in without interfering.
  2. :14 - Good blitz here with #19 DB Hill getting too wide for the LT and Dorlus beating the RT. The rest of the front is backing out to cover the dumpoff options, and #1 ILB Sewell crashes the QB after staying off to force him to get rid of it.
  3. :32 - It was nice to see Thibodeaux and Swinson back in action right away in the second half. Both are immediately beating the tackles to squeeze the QB, who has no intention of taking a sack and so throws the ball away.
  4. :48 - With Thibodeaux back in and rushing the passer from his Joker position, #29 OLB Jackson was freed up for the strongside which is his more natural role, here quickly covering 9 yards to the checkdown for a TFL.

There were three things I noticed in failed passing plays. First, the continuing problem Oregon is having with its depleted ILB corps in covering intermediate passes; second, a few tendency-breaker plays in which Cal passed out of heavy run sets (especially during the first scripted possession); and third, a few uncharacteristically poor reps from some of Oregon’s more talented DBs. Some examples:

  1. :00 - Oregon usually had an ILB spying the quarterback even during blitzes, which I believe cut down significantly the number of successful scrambles that he had. But it requires double duty, which is staying in the throwing lane for underneath throws. Here the reverse angle shows that Sewell is a little off and can’t deflect the pass.
  2. :14 - The number of times Cal has passed out of this formation since Musgrave arrived last year can be counted on one hand, so it’s clearly presenting a surprise for the backers to handle all the TEs scattering. #21 ILB K. Brown is late to react to their releases and out of position.
  3. :30 - Wright gave up two longer passes, I don’t have great video on the other one but here he’s clearly turned around on the out-and-up by probably Cal’s most talented receiver. #23 DB McKinley comes flying in to try and break it up with a hard hit, but it doesn’t work and he hasn’t wrapped up, so the WR gets even more.


California v Oregon Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Accountability Corner

I think this game played out almost exactly the way I predicted in last week’s preview. Much of the way they want to play offensively, and how it traps itself in its own efficiency, is already noted in the article. I’ll also claim credit for flagging the way the QB needs to be contained from scrambling, documenting the vulnerability to the edge rush, and identifying their only receiver capable of getting separation. We didn’t see any of the short out or comeback routes so there wasn’t a good test for my left/right disparity observation, though. I’ve got written down in my notes that I thought Musgrave was much more effective in his early, scripted drives (the only points they had against Wazzu were on the first possession, for example) but that observation didn’t make it into my article for some reason, and I regret the omission.

Cal’s defensive structure and principles looked the same as expected, including how vulnerable they are to the run, although I wasn’t expecting it to be this bad and so we didn’t see much split in effectiveness between halves as I’d noted in previous games. The Bears were much more sound defending the pass, which was expected, though I think much of that had to do with Oregon’s QB play and not because their young corners made a sudden jump in effectiveness. Their blitz patterns, as well as the OLB and safety I flagged as being their best defenders, showed up as advertised.