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Duck Tape: Film Review of Week 8, 2021 vs UCLA

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Oregon v UCLA Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Offense

There was a remarkable shift in Oregon’s run-pass balance in this game compared to the rest of the season: against UCLA they dropped back to pass the ball about 65% of the time, way up from their 48.5% passing rate in the previous six games. That 15- to 20-percentage point bump in passing frequency held up for all field positions until the Ducks got inside the 10-yard line, where it suddenly reversed: 100% rushing against the Bruins compared to 75% for the rest of the season.

In other words, when the Ducks needed to grab big chunks of territory they heavily relied on the pass, taking advantage of the Bruins’ poor explosive passing defense and avoiding their good explosive rushing defense … but when they got to the goalline, Oregon flipped their strategy and ran the ball, taking advantage of UCLA’s poor efficiency rush defense, since their ability to stop explosive rushes no longer mattered.

Betting that their offensive line would hold up against UCLA’s aggressive front paid off, with very little in the way of pressure except for a couple of all-out blitzes. Oregon once again shuffled its line around with #78 C Forsyth out for the third week: #56 OL Bass played the first half at left tackle, and #58 OL Powers-Johnson started at Bass’ typical left guard spot until leaving the game with an injury. #70 OL Jaramillo, who was previously in the rotation as a tackle, played left guard for the rest of the half. Then in the second half they shifted again, as #77 LT Moore came off the bench to re-take his usual position, Bass bumped back over to left guard, Jaramillo switched to right guard, and #74 OL S. Jones left the game with an apparent injury. #53 OL Walk and #51 OL Aumavae-Laulu played the entire game at center and right tackle, respectively.

In this season Oregon has now had two guys who look to naturally be tackles — Jaramillo and Jones — playing guard, while a natural guard in Bass was playing tackle. Cross-training all these o-linemen at multiple positions is very unusual in this sport, but from this game’s results it seems to be working.

Oregon was both efficient and explosive when throwing the ball against UCLA: they were successful on 23 designed passing plays vs 17 unsuccessful ones, given the down & distance, or 57.5%. They averaged 8.1 yards per passing attempt outside of garbage time, and seven passes went for 15+ yards which was 17.5% of all dropbacks, a pretty good number.

But there’s a stark split in effectiveness when breaking out screen vs downfield passes. As their previous games had made clear, UCLA’s aggressive blitzing (or blitz-threatening) defense is pretty poor at defending screen passes, and Oregon exploited that mercilessly: 8 successful screens vs 2 failed ones for 9.8 YPA, and with three of those ten screens going for 15+ yards. (And those two failures were a 3-yd gain on 1st & 10, and a 7-yd gain on 2nd & 4 before the ballcarrier fumbled.) Some examples:

  1. :00 - Six blitzers and man coverage, pretty standard for UCLA, gives Oregon a numbers advantage to the field and sets up clean blocks. Great display of athleticism by #2 WR D. Williams, but more remarkable is that #4 WR Pittman was finally throwing some great perimeter blocks in this game, a 180-degree turnaround from previous games.
  2. :09 - Like most of Oregon’s screens, this is a double, with an option to go right instead as the replay angle shows in case the defenders on the offense’s left back out. But they don’t so it’s another easy throw, this time to true freshman #11 WR Franklin.
  3. :25 - This one requires a little more timing, and is a better option against a zone blitz, letting the blitzers get in and the coverage back out, then hitting #26 RB Dye slipping out.

Downfield passing was far more modest: 15 successes vs 15 failures, including two interceptions and a sack. They averaged 7.4 YPA and four passes went for 15+ yds, or 13% of designed downfield passing plays, which are all fairly ordinary numbers.

What continues to be baffling about #13 QB A. Brown is that there’s no grey area with him: the 15 successful called passing plays were great - correct reads of the defensive structure, excellent pocket presence, and a crisply delivered ball. Here’s a representative sample:

  1. :00 - UCLA played pretty soft coverage on the sidelines for most of the day, making for an easy chunk of yards as long as the pass is delivered with some zip to beat the CB racing back upfield. Oregon got about 75 yards and three first downs on plays like these.
  2. :08 - This is pretty close to a perfect rep. Great protection, going through his progressions properly, quick release, exactly as much arc is needed to get over the defense’s hands, leads Pittman nicely.
  3. :28 - Same thing - protection, open throwing window, proper progression, accurate throw with a lead for #14 WR Hutson to get more.

On the other hand, while not all of the 15 failures were his fault, the majority were, and they look like rookie mistakes that a grad student in his sixth year of college ball shouldn’t be making:

  1. :00 - There’s no reason for this ball to be high. There’s no pressure coming, the safety is committing to covering the back and has drifted out of the lane, and Williams has the corner completely turned around.
  2. :17 - Jones is giving up some late pressure from the blitz here and it seems to affect Brown’s throwing motion a bit, but he’s a beat late as it is since Pittman has gotten the DB to take an inside step before the break and he’s wide open.
  3. :32 - I think Brown just plain doesn’t see the LB here. If he were reading him properly he’d know that inside step on Pittman means he’s covered and #19 TE Ferguson is not only open but has 30 yards of empty grass to run into.

We only have about half the rushing plays as we do passing plays in this game, so these numbers should be taken with a grain of salt due to the sample size, but this is the second straight week in which Oregon posted more than 75% per-play efficiency in the run game: 16 successes vs just 5 failures. Brown continues to operate the read aspects of the RPO game very well as he did last week and in the first few games, making the poor performance in that regard during weeks 4 & 5 seem more and more like an isolated aberration.

Dye set an NCAA record with four consecutive rushing touchdowns, a strange enough event that it substantially bends the averages: across all designed rushes Oregon averaged 6.5 yards per carry, but that number jumps to 7.4 YPC if those four short-yardage touchdown rushes are excluded. Three of the Ducks’ runs went for 10+ yards, which is 14% of all called runs and a decent number, but again, that explosive rushing rate goes to an excellent 19% if those four TDs (which by definition couldn’t go 10+ yards) are excluded.

Here’s a representative sample of all rushing plays:

  1. :00 - The linebackers are getting through their second-level blocks from the right-side linemen, but Dye powers through them, enough for the 1st down, because the play design gives him straightforward pathing to accelerate.
  2. :08 - The reconstructed left side of the line was kind of rough to start the day, missing some tricky blocks on the pull.
  3. :21 - Really nice blocking here on this classic Oregon inside zone run, particularly the combo then up to the LB by Walk. Blockers include a walk-on center, a tackle playing guard, a true freshman tight end, a two-way DE/TE, and a wide receiver who hits like a truck.
  4. :32 - Correct read here of UCLA’s “Striker” DB crashing on the back. Many teams think they’ve got the inside zone read figured out with an immediate inside crash to force the QB to keep and then sending the ILB right after; but that’s what the slice block from #8 TE Matavao is for.


Oregon v UCLA Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Defense

In many ways this was a very similar defensive performance as last week against Cal. For one thing, UCLA clearly had a script for its first 20 plays or so, which spanned their first three drives (UCLA’s second possession had just one play, an interception), during which time the Bruins deployed some tendency-breakers and used some novel plays and formations they hadn’t shown on film before. Just like against Cal, Oregon’s defense did pretty poorly against the script, with an identically abysmal 15% per-play success rate on the first 20 snaps. But also like Cal, after UCLA ran out of new tricks and the defense had adjusted, Oregon’s defense finished the game with a 61% success rate.

The other major similarity is that while Oregon did no better than previous defenses at efficiency, they were much better than others at preventing explosive plays and limiting yardage, forcing the offense to march the field in a methodical drive.

The rush defense finished underwater in per-play efficiency: 13 successes against designed runs vs 17 failures, or 43.3%, which exactly matches UCLA’s rushing success rate on the season of 56.6%. Here’s a representative sample of failed rush defenses:

  1. :00 - This fake sweep pitch into a QB keep out of 12-personnel to the weak side was a new play, one of several in UCLA’s first few possessions (there’s another that fellow film reviewer Chris Osgood and I discussed in which the longsnapper lines up as a receiver). The DBs and backers do a decent job of figuring it out, particularly #48 OLB Ma’ae who gets out of the block then changes his angle to get downfield and stop the 1st down conversion, but the QB lowers his shoulder and powers through enough to flip this to a successful play for the offense.
  2. :09 - Hat’s off to the running back, he makes two cuts and breaks two tackles on this one. #5 OLB Thibodeaux forces him inside, #33 ILB Bassa takes that gap, #50 NT Aumavae breaks free of the center’s awesome grip to hit him once, #1 ILB Sewell hits him again, and eventually he falls over the line to gain. More than half of all of UCLA’s successful rushes were “yaco” plays like this, where they have to do an extraordinary amount of work for a few yards.
  3. :26 - By far Oregon’s biggest ongoing issue on defense is the ILB injuries forcing players like true freshman #21 ILB into early duty. Here he’s not setting the edge and jumping inside too much, so when the back bounces he doesn’t have the leverage for a proper tackle.

But continuing the theme of similarities to the Cal game, Oregon succeeded in stopping UCLA’s explosive rushing offense, limiting the Bruins to just 3.2 yards per carry on designed runs outside garbage time, with just three going for 10+ yards or 10% of all designed rushes. (It’s 3.4 YPC and 11% explosive if three short-yardage TDs excluded). The longest rush was for 14 yards and the Ducks totaled 5 tackles for loss against designed runs. Those numbers are all significantly down from UCLA’s season averages going into this game of 6.0 YPC and 18% explosive rushing. Some examples:

  1. :00 - As expected UCLA tried out their Emory & Henry look, but Oregon’s got their personnel distributed properly so they check out of it into one of their more familiar tackle-over runs, which #95 DT Ware-Hudson blows up. #44 OLB Swinson has the blocking scheme figured out pre-snap and is occupying the LT, moonlighting on the right, so he can’t be handed off to the RT and #7 DB Stephens has a clean shot at the back.
  2. :18 - Another predictable play as the well of tricky stuff has run dry, here the play is a guaranteed run tacoside. #91 DT Kr. Williams and #93 DT J. Jones have done their film study and slant to the correct side, with Brown knifing in backside for the tackle and Thibodeaux knocking the slicing TE to the grass.
  3. :26 - Another strongside run, because of course it is, which means it’s Sewell setting the edge instead of one of the backup WILLs. Good engagement of the puller and then keeping his outside leverage to make the tackle.

The passing defense numbers tell a similar story. In terms of per-play efficiency the Ducks had 18 successful designed pass play defenses vs 18 failed ones, again exactly the same as UCLA’s season long 50/50 passing average. One aspect of that is, again, the number of surprises and tendency-breakers UCLA was throwing out at the beginning of the game, which waned after the script ran out.

But the other, more important thing is that in four years of charting him I thought this was UCLA QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s best game and one of the most heroic from any Pac-12 QB I’ve ever watched, in terms of playing through obvious pain and creating plays out of nothing when the scheme, blocking, and personnel around him were breaking down.

Some examples:

  1. :00 - One of the first plays of the game, and a huge tendency breaker for UCLA - a rare screen pass, and out of the tackle-over formation which was unheard of to date. Oregon’s lined up with a heavy box and two deep safeties, expecting either a run or a deep play-action pass. Good hustle by #47 OLB Funa and #23 DB McKinley to stop the 1st down conversion but structurally they’re too far away to prevent a good gain.
  2. :14 - Both aspects of this defensive scheme work - the blitz flushes the QB and the replay angle shows the man coverage holding up very well. But he’s way too good of a scrambler to let him get to the edge, and Stephens has to cover the TE to prevent a bigger gain.
  3. :34 - Thibodeaux is threatening the QB again despite the maximum effort of the RT, but the quick throw to the soft spot in the zone is there, probably the biggest structural weakness in this passing defense.

To conclude the narrative, the passing defense was successful at limiting yardage and explosive plays as designed: UCLA was held to just 5.1 yards per passing attempt outside of garbage time, and just three resulted in a 15+ yard gain, or 8% of all dropbacks. That’s well below their season averages going into the game of 8.9 YPA and 18% explosive passing. Very few long passes were even attempted in this game, instead it was entirely about the pass rush - it either got home and disrupted the play, or UCLA dumped the ball off for a modest gain or incompletion. Some examples:

  1. :00 - This is part of what Thibodeaux was referring to in his memorable post-game interview: UCLA is expecting a weakside pass rush and for Swinson to drop out in coverage since they’re unbalanced to the field. Instead Thibodeaux drops to cover the hot route, #46 Heaukulani races over to cover the No.3 receiver, and Swinson is unblocked and hurries the QB to target the crosser whom Thibodeaux hip-checks.
  2. :07 - Here’s a good look at Oregon’s dime package for obvious passing downs. They show blitz but instead Sewell backs out as a QB spy against a scramble, and tracking his eyes pays off with a swat. Nice move by #29 OLB Jackson to get free of the LT and hurry it.
  3. :27 - The delayed blitz by Bassa holds up the back from helping out the RT, but to be honest I don’t think it would have mattered against Thibodeaux.

Oregon v UCLA Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Accountability Corner

Last week’s preview holds up pretty well, I think. Other than the above-noted tendency-breakers UCLA employed, just about everything they did on offense matched their established patterns, with one exception: we didn’t see any runs out of long-yardage situations. Most importantly, holding UCLA’s rushing offense well below their typical performance turned out to be instrumental, as predicted, forcing UCLA into frequent hero-ball. I think my description of the offensive line as a real vulnerability was borne out, as well as the where the talent was in terms of the backs vs the receivers. As usual UCLA gave up 30% of all dropbacks as a broken play.

On defense, the ways in which UCLA’s blitzing — and inability to get pressure without blitzing — could be exploited all showed up, particularly screen passes. I also think Oregon exploited the weaknesses in UCLA’s secondary in the predicted way, with single coverage on the WRs and mugging the TE. I didn’t openly predict that Oregon would change their field-position based run-pass balance to match up with the strengths and weaknesses of UCLA’s efficiency vs explosive defense, but it was a logical conclusion from the observations I’d published. Still, it was a big surprise to me that they changed up so significantly and I consider not making that prediction a miss.