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Duck Tape: Film Analysis of Arizona 2021

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A preview of Oregon’s week 4 opponent in Autzen

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 18 Northern Arizona at Arizona Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Offense

This is quite possibly the worst offense in the Pac-12, and given some of the coordinators in this league, that’s saying something. Arizona has converted just nine out of 45 on 3rd down, a 20% conversion rate which is last place in all of FBS this season, and if it holds up would be lowest recorded by any team since 2004.

The Wildcats’ passing success rate may be the lowest I’ve ever tallied - they have 38 successful dropbacks vs 70 failures, given the down & distance, or 35.2%. They generate only 6.1 yards per pass attempt outside of garbage time, and just 11% of dropbacks result in a gain of 15+ yards.

I’ve been writing about what’s wrong with Arizona’s passing offense for several years now, but despite the new coaching staff all four of the major limitations on this passing offense persist: first, the offensive line, despite being fairly experienced and made up of the same guys who’ve been playing since 2019, is probably the worst in the Pac-12 (again, that’s saying something) and can’t give the QB any time in the pocket. Second, they’re not using their best receivers - by far the most talented is #2 WR Curry, who has two TDs on the season including one excellent sideline route in which he burned the DB, but he’s buried on the depth chart with only three catches on the year whereas the top three receivers have 54 between them.

The third recurring problem is that, like the last staff, they can’t decide on a quarterback. They started by playing Wazzu transfer #9 QB Cruz, but by the third possession they’d swapped in returner #15 QB Plummer for a drive. Cruz again started in the second game, but Plummer played the final four drives. Plummer then got the start in the third game, but USF transfer #4 QB McCloud finished the last two possessions. The coaching staff has not announced the starter for Saturday and will likely keep it a mystery until game time.

Here’s a representative sample of Arizona’s passing offense:

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

  1. :00 - BYU had sacked the QB on three previous 3rd downs by blitzing six and overwhelming the line with numbers, but for the fourth they realized they only needed to rush four.
  2. :10 - Virtually all of Arizona’s few successful passes look like this, where play action draws up a defender — the boundary safety, here — and the QB just has to hit a wide open receiver with no one in the throwing lane.
  3. :21 - Even an 11-yard drop isn’t enough to keep the QB from getting hit as he throws.
  4. :28 - They’re not all as dramatic as this, but I tallied both Cruz and Plummer (the passer here) locking onto their receiver and getting tunnel vision, completely missing underneath coverage even when it’s right in their eye line.

I don’t have any meaningful data on McCloud. I think the smartest move the staff could make would be to play McCloud and write up a new playbook for him (he has 167 rushing attempts in two years at USF, so maybe a running QB scheme could work) and try to surprise Oregon with stuff they haven’t put on film before, but by definition I can’t preview what that would look like.

In my opinion, pulling Cruz has been a mistake. Passing plays when Cruz took the snap graded out at 28 successes vs 38 failures, or 42.4% (not great), but Plummer — who had an 87.0 NCAA passer rating in his three games last season, one of the worst in FBS — is at just 10 successes vs 29 failures, or 25.6% (appalling). Failed passing plays that I attributed to Cruz making a mistake was the smallest category on my tally sheet, instead the bigger talent and playcalling problems on the team are the real issues. One example of this: 23% of dropbacks resulted in a sack, scramble, or throwaway, but this would have been significantly higher if Plummer hadn’t repeatedly gotten rid of the ball early on 3rd & long to a receiver well short of sticks - that results in higher completion and lower sack rates but far worse per-play efficiency.

That takes us to the fourth recurring problem, which is that this playbook is poorly constructed for the offensive talent that they have, and frequently uses bafflingly designed plays. Some examples:

  1. :00 - Motioning both tight ends to the boundary pre-snap reveals man coverage, but this is a rollout to the field with just two possible receivers in the pattern, neither of whom is capable of beating man, nor is Cruz (or Plummer) capable of throwing well on the hoof, and at any rate the line can’t actually protect him when rolling.
  2. :12 - Another rollout to the field, with four over three this is pretty easy for the defense to cover, and two of the routes are short of the sticks on 3rd down.
  3. :18 - Not enough blockers in the first place, and it’s a delayed screen that’s caught five yards behind the line of scrimmage and so plenty of time for the linebacker to get over and absorb a block.
  4. :25 - Pre-snap motion where no one follows the WR but instead the second level just bumps over meaning this is zone coverage, and therefore the defense has an easy advantage setting the edge - that DB is going to stay put when the WR reverses and the offense has no one to block him.

By contrast, Arizona’s rushing efficiency is pretty decent - 33 successful designed runs vs 25 unsuccessful ones, or 56.9%. There have been no real explosive rushing plays, but they get chunk rushes of 10+ yards at a little over 13% frequency outside garbage time. I think that’s mostly attributable to their pair of quality running backs: returner #6 RB Wiley and transfer #8 RB Anderson, who returned to his home state from Northwestern this offseason. They’re both very quick through the hole (when it exists) and I have them breaking tackles for extra yardage at a good rate.

However, the offensive line and play design problems obtain in the rushing offense as well, and are by far the most frequent causes of failed rushing plays. Here’s a representative sample:

  1. :00 - The left guard has so completely lost control of his block that it knocks out the fullback as lead blocker as well, but Wiley sees it and bounces outside with a nice footplant and redirect.
  2. :07 - Arizona takes about two-thirds of their snaps out of the shotgun, and it’s a strong pass tell: just 17% rushing when in shotgun, vs 67% rushing in the I-formation or otherwise under-center. So this is a tendency-breaker, but their FCS opponent has it cracked on the second snap of the game with every backer immediately flowing to the play and not a single o-lineman can execute a block.
  3. :14 - The center is losing the DT, and the right tackle seems not to know that his assignment is to get up to the second level to block the backer. Both are in on the tackle.
  4. :20 - It might have been designed for the back to press inside then head outside, but if so there’s no designated blocker for him to the field. Instead I think Anderson just turns away from the mess in the middle and makes the DB miss on his own.


Northern Arizona v Arizona Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Defense

New Arizona DC Brown, who spent the last five seasons at Michigan, is the most accomplished defensive coach Oregon faces on its schedule with multiple top-5 ranked finishes in his career. I think the talent level he’s inherited is having some trouble adapting to his scheme which calls for a lot of man coverage and disguises, but still it’s the better of Arizona’s two squads and he’s got them performing respectably. Taking into account that the Wildcats’ offense and special teams have been giving up points, the defense has been doing enough for them to win some games if the offense were functional.

The base defensive structure is best understood as a 4-3, with the third backer as a hybrid LB/S called the “Viper” but who’s primarily playing in or around the box and has mostly the same responsibilities that a backer would in a 4-3, as opposed to a nickelback’s duties in a 4-2-5. But what’s interesting is that on about 40% of their meaningful snaps so far, they’ve instead been playing a 3-4, pulling a DT and playing a fourth backer who could be up on the line or roaming the second level.

The thing that has me stumped is that I would have expected the 4-3 / 3-4 switch to follow how heavy the offensive personnel is, or whether it’s an obvious passing down. But that doesn’t seem to be the case, and I can’t find any rational pattern for why the defense changes configurations at all. There’s no strong statistical correlation between defensive structure and offensive personnel, field position, down & distance, time, score, or anything else for which I ran a regression. For all I know, DC Brown is rolling dice before each play to determine the defensive structure. There probably is in fact a pattern and your humble film reviewer simply lacks the data and intelligence to discern it, but I can say this: it doesn’t seem to be doing them any good, since all their effectiveness rates are the same regardless of configuration.

They’re better at rush defense, with 39 successful snaps against designed rushes vs 35 unsuccessful ones, or 52.7%. Except on obvious passing downs, they tend to play seven-or eight-man boxes almost all the time, and much of their rush defense success comes from simply putting extra resources into it. Where that costs them is at the third level, because once a run breaks out of the initial scrum it tends to keep going - they’ve given up 14 rushes of 10+ yards outside of garbage time, about once every five times the opposing offense calls a designed run. That’s resulted in giving up 5.2 yards per carry (4.5 if one excludes the longest single run, which was 55 yards).

Here’s a representative sample of why Arizona’s rush defenses fail:

  1. :00 - Oregon’s had some success running to the short side of the field against man coverage this year, for reasons reflected in this play: the outside CB is pulled out and has his back to the play, the inside CB follows the man in motion pre-snap, and all it takes is for the linebackers to stick their noses in early on the mesh and there’s nobody left for the outside run.
  2. :18 - Here Arizona is in its 3-4, with the Viper on the line, despite the heavy run look. The box safety can’t make the play in the backfield, something I saw a lot, and the high safety is incorrectly taking inside instead of outside leverage on his block which lets the back get to the sideline.
  3. :27 - The DE is lined up pretty wide here, but in all three games I saw the offense read the backer on this type of play instead, because they correctly determined that the unblocked DE is way too slow to actually catch the outside run. The corners are again run off in man coverage, so as soon as that backer bites inside the back has a huge swath of grass to run into.
  4. :45 - Depth issues on Arizona’s defense keep them from rotating much, and I noticed a lot of fatigue problems in addition to just the lack of raw size needed for this level of play. Here an FCS team is just pushing them around in the 4th quarter.

There have been a number of interesting moves that Brown has made, however, which complicate running against his defense, and I think this will be one of the trickier opponents that Oregon faces in its run game. Some examples:

  1. :00 - From the camera’s angle it’s obvious for us to spot the boundary safety creeping up to blitz from the backside, but from the back’s alignment the QB is making a field-side read and doesn’t see him. Brown is well known for saying “Solve your problems with aggression” and he certainly likes cracking the play and sending a backside run blitz.
  2. :13 - Arizona’s DBs aren’t doing an incredible job of hiding it, but this is zone coverage that they’re disguising as man. The outside keep by the QB would have worked famously against man, but the CB has his eyes in the backfield as he should in this coverage and so comes off his receiver to make the tackle.
  3. :20 - It’s taken them a while to figure this out, but I think #97 DT Tatum, whom Brown picked up as a late transfer from Fresno St (a pretty good evaluator of talent), is their best interior lineman. He’s got the highest penetration rate against run plays of any of the Wildcats on my tally sheet.
  4. :35 - Brown sometimes employs split-field coverage. Here they’re in man to the field side, but the boundary corner is playing zone. That again lets him spot the run, come off his receiver, and make the tackle.

Arizona is underwater in pass defense, with 33 successful plays to 35 failed ones, or 48.5%. They’re especially poor at defending screens, with only two successes over three games. That translates into giving up 8.15 yards per pass attempt, since they really can’t stop an efficiency passing attack at all. Some examples:

  1. :00 - I recorded blitzes against about 40% of all dropbacks, but there are sometimes problems with getting coverage in place to deal with the voids that creates. Here all the pre-snap motion has the defense confused, and the boundary safety winds up uselessly staring into the backfield instead of covering the H-back into the flat as he’s supposed to.
  2. :14 - Arizona has re-arranged their LBs and DBs with a lot of transfers into the program, but I still think they lack the necessary lateral speed to cover horizontally. The structure of the blitz works here, letting one backer through, but the QB still has plenty of time for an on-target throw and the other backer is far too plodding to catch him.
  3. :21 - Oregon fans should be able to diagram this RPO in their sleep. The DE crashes inside so the QB pulls the ball, and throws it to the slicing TE. The receiver hits the Viper who’s coming for the TE, while carrying the DB who’s covering him in man and causing that guy to smack into another DB.
  4. :51 - It was hard to choose one of the many plays like this on my tally sheet - pressure has gotten through but the backer whiffs in the backfield, and due to the man coverage there’s nobody in midfield to stop the scrambling QB.

The most successful aspect of Arizona’s passing defense is using pressure to generate broken plays - I tallied a sack, scramble, or throwaway on about 19% of all opponent dropbacks. What I’m not sure about is their explosive play rate - they’ve only given up eight passing plays of 15+ yards, just 11.8% of dropbacks, but I suspect that has more to do with the offenses they’ve played preferring an efficiency game rather than anything the DBs are doing. I would have liked more data on this question but the game is tomorrow and the following examples will have to do:

  1. :00 - The right side of the line has trouble handing off blocks of both backers coming in at odd angles, and the twist on the left side is getting through and flushing the QB.
  2. :19 - You don’t see a double-cat blitz from many coordinators, with both corners coming and the backers madly dashing out to replace in coverage. There are some clear opportunities to throw against this blitz if the QB knows it’s coming, but he doesn’t see the second CB who hits him as he throws.
  3. :27 - I tallied a pretty high number of holding flags generated by Arizona’s defensive front, I think simply because they’re so aggressive. This play draws two.
  4. :36 - Both the end and the outside backers have some nice moves here to get around their blockers. That generates a bad backfoot throw and a pick, one of several turnovers that prolonged this game.