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Duck Tape: Film Review of Week 9, 2021 vs Colorado

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State of the art bang-bang

NCAA Football: Colorado at Oregon Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Offense

For the third straight week, Oregon’s rush offense performed at over 75% efficiency, which I’ve never seen from a single team in over a decade of charting games. Prior to garbage time, they had 20 successful designed runs vs just 6 unsuccessful ones given the down & distance, or a 76.9% success rate.

The Ducks got 8.0 yards per carry on designed runs during meaningful play, with six rushes going for 10+ yards, or 23% of rushing playcalls (those figures go to 8.4 YPC and 25% explosive if two short-yardage touchdown rushes are excluded).

I haven’t seen any schematic change to Oregon’s offense during this season, just excellent run blocking all season long and a steady improvement in the backs’ vision and proper cuts. Here’s a representative sample of all rushing plays:

(Reminder - after pressing play, you can use the left button to slow any video to ¼ or ½ speed)

  1. :00 - Oregon has been operating out of 12-personnel on 10-15% of snaps each game this season. Here it draws on Colorado’s defensive tendencies by getting them into their 3-4 look with an extra safety pulled into the box with two other DBs in man to the field. That means there’s no field safety to stop #21 RB Cardwell’s run once the hole opens up and the backers, again per tendencies, jump in early.
  2. :23 - Jones is giving away the pull to the left by being set so far back, and #6 WR Redd seems a little gunshy delivering this block after being flagged for an illegal crackback earlier in the year. #0 RB McGee probably should have taken this outside behind Jones.
  3. :29 - A well executed read of the outside backer by #13 QB A. Brown, which is typical, but this isn’t Oregon’s typical split-zone blocking with a cut and two pullers to the field. Nice block by #2 WR D. Williams.
  4. :49 - It’s been a pleasure watching #26 RB Dye over the years develop his vision and patience, here waiting for Jones and #19 TE Ferguson to come around and block through the hole.

Oregon once again spent the game reshuffling their offensive line, with three linemen rotating through the two guard spots on a drive-by-drive basis: #77 OL Moore at left guard, #74 OL S. Jones at right, and #70 OL Jaramillo playing both with one snap at left tackle. #56 OL Bass, #71 OL Aumavae-Laulu, and #53 OL Walk played LT, RT, and center, respectively, throughout. I continue to be surprised that two players I think are natural guards are playing tackle and three natural tackles are playing guard, but given the rush performance and virtually zero pass rush pressure on the quarterback, I suppose OL coach Mirabal must know what he’s doing.

Brown had his best passing performance as a Duck, with 22 successful designed passing plays vs 9 failures, or 71.0% (that breaks down to 16 vs 5 downfield passes and 6 vs 4 screen passes). Oregon averaged 9.7 yards per passing attempt outside of garbage time, with nine going for 15+ yards or about 28% of passing playcalls. Those are some of the best single-game numbers against an FBS opponent I’ve ever seen and probably unsustainable, but I said that about the rushing count a couple of weeks ago, too.

As with the rushing performance, I cannot detect any schematic changes to Oregon’s route tree - they’ve been using the same downfield passing patterns since the beginning of the year, and the same system of QB progressions through those patterns. There has been a shift in emphasis in playcalling balance over the past two weeks, flipping to slightly more passing instead of slightly more rushing with a greater frequency of screen passes - screens seem to be eating into the rushing play count, and downfield passing is fairly fixed. Here’s a representative sample of passing plays:

  1. :00 - Fairly standard crossing route, but note the couple of true freshman in action early in the game: #11 WR Franklin with the catch and nice athletic move downfield, and McGee picking up the blitz.
  2. :22 - This is the second week that McGee has just run right through #14 WR Hutson’s block on a screen pass for a big gain, and that #4 WR Pittman has surprised me with another high quality perimeter block.
  3. :31 - The most common cause of a failed passing play on Saturday was a throwaway because the play wasn’t there. Here nobody’s open against some pretty good coverage by Colorado’s defense.
  4. :40 - Checking it down to the open guy on 1st & 10 then seeing if he can make a move for extra yardage is often a wise call, here Williams really makes it pay off.

It’s difficult to quantify, but I believe I’m seeing a lot more confidence and trust in his receivers out of Brown in his downfield passing game, something that started the previous week against UCLA and I think grew last week against Colorado. This performance looked a lot more like what I saw when I reviewed Brown’s three years as starting QB at Boston College in terms of accurately hitting his deep downfield targets, and I’ve been wondering where this guy has been during the first six games of 2021. Rather than any “simplification” of Oregon’s offense, I’m simply seeing better execution out of the quarterback at the same offense. Some examples:

  1. :00 - Great outside move to get a little separation by Redd, but this throw shows excellent timing fitting it between the inside backer tailing the H-cross and the outside backer dropping into coverage.
  2. :22 - It’s been five years since I’ve seen an Oregon QB trust a receiver enough to make this throw against tight coverage.
  3. :37 - Impossible to run this route or throw this pass better. Just perfect.


Colorado v Oregon Photo by Tom Hauck/Getty Images

Defense

When the scoreboard hit 45-14, Colorado had only run 35 offensive plays. That’s a pretty small sample from which to extrapolate how the rest of Oregon’s defensive performance would have proceeded if the offense hadn’t built a huge lead, and so some of the percentages in this article should be taken with a grain of salt.

The Ducks’ rush defense went pretty much exactly as expected, with 8 successes against designed runs vs 7 failures, or 53.3%, which is the first time in conference play they’ve finished above water against the run. As usual, a combination of an injured linebacker corps and a strategic choice to stop explosive plays at the expense of loading the box tends to allow some efficiency running - the Buffs only gained 3.6 yards per carry on designed runs prior to garbage time. Just two rushes went for 10+ yards with a long of 12, and the Ducks made four tackles for a loss.

Here’s a representative sample of rush defenses:

  1. :00 - Everybody’s in position to make this a minimal gain, but #21 ILB K. Brown and #48 OLB Ma’ae aren’t getting low enough to arrest CU’s powerful back and they give up nine yards. Their teammates could be getting in on this pile more aggressively, too.
  2. :10 - Good strike and shed of the TE by #5 OLB Thibodeaux to make this tackle, as well as #46 ILB Heaukulani getting inside the center’s pull to help and #11 CB Bridges cutting off the outside bounce with a powerful hit on the pulling LG.
  3. :16 - Thibodeaux wrecks the RT to affect the back’s path and #33 ILB Bassa should have a clean shot at the back, but can’t make the tackle.
  4. :37 - This RPO and 20-personnel don’t show up in Colorado’s playbook over the last two seasons. Thibodeaux again gets into the backfield to disrupt the play, but this time Sewell has gotten outside to force it in and Bassa wraps up cleanly. Nice pursuit by the linemen, too, #50 NT Aumavae and #95 DT Ware-Hudson.

Colorado made some changes to their offense for this game. Firing their offensive line coach really did seem to have a dramatic effect on o-line performance, to my surprise. The Buffs were passing far more often - about 57% of plays outside garbage time, up from about 45% in their previous FBS games. And they largely ditched the 12-personnel under-center formations which were so poor for them, instead playing most of the game in a spread 11- or 20-personnel out of the shotgun. There were a few new plays and formations they’d never used before, but mostly what I was seeing was simply cutting out large sections of the playbook that had been fruitless in previous games and throwing quick, first-read passes and a lot of screens to avoid suffering the pass rush.

On an efficiency basis, Oregon did better against the pass than the run: 12 successes against designed passing plays vs 8 failures, or 60%. Overall, they were fairly effective in limiting yardage as well, allowing a pretty modest 7.5 yards per passing attempt. Here’s a representative sample of pass defenses:

  1. :00 - I’m not sure why Bassa is hesitating here, #2 CB Wright has the zone he’s attempting to cover and he should be pursuing the back wheeling back inside. Give some credit to CU’s young quarterback too, standing tall even though he’s about to get lit up by Thibodeaux.
  2. :21 - After #7 DB Stephens left the game with an injury, #13 DB Addison, a converted WR, came in for him. Nice job here sniffing out the screen and breaking it up.
  3. :35 - Oregon’s dime package again, it normally has Addison in it so this is three CBs, nickel #19 DB Hill in the box as a quasi-backer, and two high safeties, with only one defensive lineman. Great penetration by #44 OLB Swinson, and I don’t think this ball gets back to the line of scrimmage.

Three of Colorado’s passes prior to garbage time went for 15+ yards, which is a 15% explosive rate and for any other team that would be a mediocre and unremarkable figure. But those three plays added up to 90 yards, which is about half CU’s total net yardage during meaningful play, and the Buffs went into this game with one of the worst offenses in the country, so they bear examining closer.

Here are all three of those passes. Note that these are not representative of passing performance in this game; they’re offered for illustration.

  1. :00 - Pretty well executed screen against this coverage. Addison and Bassa might have been able to contain this a bit better getting under some blocks but it was going to gain about ten yards anyway just by the initial alignment.
  2. :10 - I really don’t think #0 CB James could have covered this any better, including getting his arm inside the receiver’s. Just a great catch of a 50/50 ball.
  3. :34 - This looks like zone/man confusion to me. The corners’ leverage, Hill’s blitz from the nickel spot, and Sewell pursuing the back all tell me that this is man, but Addison is going outside like this is zone. That leaves the TE in the slot uncovered for a big gain.

In my opinion, the first two aren’t a big deal; the offense simply made a great play which any team can do on occasion (and in fact CU had put on film nearly identical plays before, to the same receivers, against Texas A&M and Arizona respectively). If those were the only two it would be a 10% explosive pass rate which is a fairly low number and in line with CU’s previous performances.

The third clip, however, is concerning, and it’s far from the only play in which a backup DB or backup ILB was totally out of position in coverage during this game. There are a lot of Ducks who have been pressed into service at both positions now that there are three injuries apiece to players who would otherwise be starters. The concentration of injuries at those two units is starting to seriously affect Oregon’s defensive performance.


NCAA Football: Colorado at Oregon Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Accountability Corner

Last week’s preview of Colorado called them possibly the worst offense in FBS, which given how they put together some scoring drives looks pretty silly now. I’m shocked that their offensive line performed fairly well in this game after firing their OL coach, I believe my comments about that being the single biggest problem were borne out but I had no idea that having a bad OL coach was actively depressing them this badly (in fact I joked around on a podcast about how unlikely it was that he was a double agent who was sabotaging them, now I’m not so sure he wasn’t). I will claim some credit for warning that I thought the rest of their offense, especially the skill players, were pretty good and the young QB was effective when he got protection. But I didn’t suggest that they might change up their offense as I predicted Arizona would, and I realize now it was a logical inference to make and regret not doing so.

The defensive side of the Buffs was also kind of upside down from my predictions, though that’s happier news for the Ducks. I thought they’d play about 50/50 effectiveness, maybe a bit lower since they’re missing their star ILB Nate Landman, but I didn’t think they’d perform this poorly. Colorado had their entire defensive line and I highlighted them as what I thought was the best unit on the entire squad; they accomplished very little in this game. I was on the fence about what I thought about their DBs; Oregon’s WRs made them look silly a few times but I did note that the stats indicated a propensity to give up big plays and that was certainly borne out. It would be easy to simply say that Landman tied everything together and it fell apart without him, or that the Ducks’ offense is so overwhelming that even a good defense will get shredded by it, but I suspect there’s something else going on with the Buffs’ defense and I still haven’t figured it out.