Oregon was underwater in their rushing attack, and everything else that happened in this game proceeds from that fact. Outside of garbage time, they rushed on a 2:3 basis compared to passing, far less frequently than the rest of the year, and had just 6 successful designed rushes vs 8 unsuccessful ones, given the down & distance. They ran for only 3.8 yards per carry on those rushes and only two went for 10+ yards.
A few of those failed rushing plays were one-offs — a holding flag, a reverse play the defense wasn’t fooled by, a well-blocked chunk run but on 3rd & 19 — but the rest were simply losing blocks and getting overwhelmed by a defense that was determined to take away the run. The Ducks broke through on several of them but repeatedly put themselves behind the chains with penalties or ineffective 1st down rushes. Here’s a representative sample of the rushing offense:
(Reminder - after pressing play, you can use the left button to slow any video to 1⁄4 or 1⁄2 speed)
- :00 - The unbalanced look with four lined up to the boundary has got Utah’s defense bunched up, with the back in motion revealing man coverage and getting the DB out of the box. This power sucker run should be familiar to Oregon fans by now.
- :08 - Same unbalanced look, with the defense all to the boundary. But with no read or manipulation, it’s an eight-man box and Oregon is down a potential downfield receiver because #11 WR Franklin is covered up - essentially Utah is daring the Ducks to throw it to #2 WR D. Williams or #14 WR Hutson because they’ll get single coverage, but it’s a run and #21 RB Cardwell can’t pick his way through this much traffic.
- :15 - Here’s the triple option RPO working as intended - the DB pursues #19 TE Ferguson and the DE stays wide on the QB keep option, so it’s a handoff into the weak side with room to run.
- :26 - In all these run clips, the two linebackers are massively breaking tendency with Utah’s defensive philosophy for years - rather than immediately attacking their gaps, they’re playing back and waiting for the play to develop and flow to it. Here the strongside backer is nowhere close to where #77 LG Moore expects him to be from film study, and having patiently waited for the play is unblocked.
Effectively, Utah was challenging Oregon to throw against them, and in terms of passing explosiveness, the Ducks had one of their better nights, with 8.8 yards per pass attempt outside of garbage time and 18% of dropbacks ending in a 15+ yard gain. Some examples:
- :00 - I was expecting to see this exact free access throw a dozen times on Saturday, Williams against their true freshman corner. Instead it only happened a couple of times, all successfully.
- :09 - Great blitz pickup by #26 RB Dye, buying time to make this throw. Utah’s secondary outside couldn’t really keep up with the speed of Oregon’s receivers and I was expecting to see more deep shots like this as the night went on.
- :25 - Utah’s better cornerback is still giving true freshman #10 WR Thornton a big cushion, making this an easy completion on the comeback route.
The problem was that Oregon couldn’t consistently hit those passes to dig them out of the hole that Utah’s rush defense had created - on an efficiency basis they were still underwater with 10 successful dropbacks vs 11 unsuccessful ones, or 47.6%. I counted a couple of drops from Oregon’s freshman receivers, and four plays in which the offensive line broke down against Utah’s pass rush, but the biggest single problem was Brown throwing either inaccurate balls or to receivers who were covered. I was surprised that so many of Oregon’s passes challenged their four-star cornerback on the right side of the field and so few went against their walk-on fourth-string freshman on the left. Some examples:
- :00 - The defense is playing this RPO slant pass the best way they can - dropping the DB to change the angle of the throw. It’ll eventually break open, that’s unstoppable because they’ve chosen to blitz and have nobody underneath, but it happens late enough that the pass rush affects the throw and a lineman has gotten too far downfield.
- :15 - The bad snap here speeds everything up, although this pocket is fairly clean. The throw is too high and doesn’t give Franklin a chance to protect himself from the hit even if he had caught it.
- :35 - Utah’s pretty clearly going to blitz here, and this pickup is poor. I don’t like pulling the guard to fake a run — nobody’s buying that on 2nd & 19 — and both #78 C Forsyth and Dye fail to get to the DE. The QB has no choice but to retreat and throw it away.
Utah was in the opposite situation in terms of their run-pass balance: playing with a lead for the entire game, they kept the ball on the ground and used long, methodical drives to eat the clock and make it a low-possession game, with a 3:2 rushing frequency.
Unsurprisingly, Utah was fairly efficient on a per-play basis running the ball, with Oregon only successfully defending 13 rushes vs 20 failed rush defenses, or 39.4% - that’s about in line with both the Ducks’ rush defense and the Utes’ rush offense figures all year.
The rush defense certainly gave ground, but in terms of its established strategy that’s to be expected. Oregon kept Utah from really explosive rushing, limiting them to 4.5 yards per carry outside of garbage time and only about 12% of their rushes went for 10+ yards, which is 1.8 YPC and six percentage points lower than Utah’s rush averages against FBS competition prior to this game. Some examples:
- :00 - Nice job by #50 DT Aumavae and #93 DT J. Jones winning their blocks. I have eight plays on my tally sheet that look just like this - multiple TEs in to block but Oregon wins by just outmuscling the line.
- :06 - Another tendency breaker was Utah running much more often than their film suggested out of the shotgun with split TEs (this formation usually signaled a screen pass). #47 OLB Funa closes his lane and Aumavae and #1 ILB Sewell are where they need to be, but the back powers through the six-man box for several extra yards after contact.
- :15 - Backup #33 ILB Bassa has the gap figured out and successfully caused the back to bounce despite the close block he gets from the center, but #11 CB Bridges needs to play inside leverage here - he’s doubling up on the gap that #2 CB Wright has and this back’s vision is too good to miss the hole that opens.
Utah’s rushing efficiency, if not explosiveness, created two problems for Oregon. First, relatively short yardage 3rd downs which they reliably picked up on the ground - outside of garbage time, Utah was seven for seven on 3rd downs in which they rushed (not including some 3rd down QB scrambles on designed passing plays).
Second, Utah’s passing game was in sync with its run game, with frequent possession catches by tight ends when Oregon had to crowd the box against the run. The Ducks’ corners were fairly successful at containing the Utes’ wide receivers, but the depleted ILB and safety units weren’t able to defend tight ends in the middle of the field or effectively tackle them after catch.
On an efficiency basis, Utah passed a bit better than their previous numbers, and Oregon’s pass defense numbers, would suggest, with Oregon successfully defending 9 dropbacks vs 11 unsuccessful ones, or 45.0%. That’s only about one play’s worth of difference in this game, however.
Where Utah really put this game away was their explosive passing - they averaged 9.9 yards per pass attempt and an incredible 30% of their dropbacks ended in a 15+ yard gain. Those figures are well outside expectations for both teams. Here’s a representative sample of Oregon’s pass defenses:
- :00 - Blowing up the line like this, including moving #5 OLB Thibodeaux inside so he can’t be doubled by a TE and the tackle, was Oregon’s best play in pass defense.
- :06 - Backing Thibodeaux out has the desired effect here, they know from film that this down & distance usually goes to this three-man crosser, and it turns into a mess instead. But bringing Sewell around instead of leaving him to spy on the QB is a mistake, they also should have known from film study that this QB will always make this run.
- :17 - The linebackers are in conflict on this play-action pass - they have to honor the run and then Funa needs to pursue the back leaking out, and there’s nobody underneath in the lane when the TE camps out in the soft spot of the zone defense.
- :26 - This followed tendencies more closely - a passing down and their passing look. Oregon blitzes and it has the intended effect, and a nice breakup by #32 DB Happle.
Re-reading last week’s preview of Utah, I think the description of their rushing offense was pretty on-point, and the fact that Oregon’s run stops came on the DL simply defeating blocks on fairly predictable run looks was borne out. I described Utah’s passing offense as modestly efficient but potentially explosive, and we certainly saw that. I described the tight ends as basically dumpoff targets and we did see several of those, and that there were so few WRs on the field that they can be checked by the corners, but in this game Utah broke tendencies with formations and had a lot more downfield routes for the tight ends as well. I spent a lot of time talking about their QB’s refusal to take a sack and we certainly saw the ups and downs of that, but I also think this was the best game he’s played to date in terms of downfield passing and it was a real surprise to me.
The big shock defensively was that Utah played their linebackers completely differently than they had before, and so much of my preview of their defense particularly against the rush now reads like nonsense. It wasn’t a huge surprise that Utah wanted to take away the run or that they’d devote so much resources to it and dare Oregon to throw over them (on the podcast Avery basically predicted exactly how this game would go), but I expected Utah’s defense to be significantly easier to manipulate and I think Oregon’s staff was too. If the Ducks get the chance to play Utah again I’ll have to pay much closer attention in their regular season to possible signs I may have missed about how their linebackers attack.