The most salient fact about Oregon’s offensive performance in this game is that they had an unusually low number of possessions - just eight outside of garbage time, as I tally it. The results of those drives were four touchdowns, two field goals, a punt, and a safety. That’s excellent drive efficiency, and it’s aided by both a high explosive play rate — nine went for 15+ yards out of only 45 meaningful snaps, or 20% — and a high 3rd down conversion rate — six of 10 — prior to the final two garbage time drives.
The challenge for OC Moorhead in this game was facing off with the most accomplished DC on the schedule this season, and there was a real chess match for much of the game as Arizona continually switched and disguised its coverages. There was a well designed set of answers for everything that the Wildcats wound up throwing at the Ducks, but figuring out which to use was the main obstacle for #13 QB A. Brown.
He did fairly well at it in the passing offense, with 12 successful dropbacks vs 9 unsuccessful ones, or 57.1% per-play efficiency, given the down & distance. Here’s a representative sample of plays that beat Arizona’s pass defense:
(Reminder - you can right-click or long-press any video to play it in ¼ or ½ speed)
- :00 - Arizona’s attempting to disguise their coverage here with how the CBs are aligned, but the backers and DBs give it away, and #6 WR Redd gets himself into the deep hole between the safeties with the MIKE staring helplessly as the ball zips past him. That’s really splitting the safeties.
- :24 - No mistaking this man coverage with a blitz coming. #70 LT Jaramillo is giving up too much pressure, but Brown gets the ball off in time to #0 RB McGee running a Texas route. The DBs are pulled off by the TE and WR, creating both a big void for McGee to run into and a pile-up that the linebacker who’s on him can’t run through when he comes back inside.
- :34 - Oregon declined the offsides flag here, and the jump might have affected #78 C Forsyth getting into his stance to block the nose, but regardless what a calm throw to #3 WR J. Johnson with the big guy coming for him.
- :48 - Big mistake to play man against Moorhead in the redzone. There are two (probably fake) screens on each side of the field, and both engineer an open man. Redd is open in the middle of the field after faking a block and the MIKE underneath has to chase the back. On the boundary, the DB bites on Johnson’s screen with #18 TE Webb seemingly blocking the CB, only to let Webb run past him for an easy touchdown.
For all the positives he brings, Brown’s ceiling as an accurate passer was the biggest limitation in the passing game as well. Of the nine failed passing plays, I think four were mostly on him and three more he has some share of the responsibility. Some examples:
- :00 - There’s a little pressure given up here by #56 LG Bass, but that can’t explain a badly overthrown ball to #4 WR Pittman, who’s got his man beat.
- :08 - I think Brown’s pocket presence is pretty remarkable and that veteran savvy would be a real loss if he were replaced, but here he outsmarts himself stepping out of the pressure that #77 LT Moore should have picked up. He knows that the throw to #7 RB Verdell is going to be open because of the blitz, but rather than just popping it over the OLB immediately, he tries to get around him before the throw and winds up tripping on Bass.
- :21 - Bass and Moore aren’t handling this twist very well, but Brown steps out of danger pretty well. The problem, which we’ve seen before from him, is that rather than resetting and throwing with a proper base, he just immediately flings and off-platform throws to the well-covered tight end, and doesn’t check down to the wide open McGee coming across.
- :37 - I don’ t blame Brown too much for this one, he’s taking the snap in his own endzone and Forsyth and #53 RG Walk are getting crushed.
I also charted what I believe to be six incorrect reads in the rushing game from Brown, which is a pretty surprising number since his read accuracy rate has been very high in all previous games. I think Arizona’s defenders were doing a better than average job at clouding the read, but there are rules about when to hand off vs keep even when it’s uncertain and I saw way too many mistakes in that regard.
Altogether, Oregon was 50/50 in their per-play rushing efficiency - 12 successes vs 12 failures on designed runs. The other half of the failures come from bad blocking, four of which were on the offensive line which is about the normal and fairly good rate for this line on the season. That’s all the more remarkable because they’ve now added an eighth lineman to the regular rotation, freshman #58 OG Powers-Johnson who played on both the left and right.
Here’s a representative sample of failed rushing plays:
- :00 - Pretty good frontside blocking from Jaramillo, Powers-Johnson, and Forsyth, and a nice cut by Verdell, but #74 RT S. Jones should be sealing off that backside backer who comes across and makes the tackle.
- :07 - The whole point of slicing #8 TE Matavao is to free up Jaramillo to get to the backer, but he misses and that guy makes the play.
- :15 - Should have kept the ball here, and either run or pop it to Redd.
- :21 - Both the end and the backer are staying wide, so this should have been a give to the back. The TE is bluffing the end but that doesn’t hold him for long, and the backer is covering the TE, so the second read of a keep is probably correct and it’s a nice move to fake him out with a little pump to buy a couple yards, but the damage is already done.
The successful runs, however, were spectacular, and several rushes for explosive yardage made up for mediocre per-play efficiency. Some examples:
- :00 - A variation on the slice triple option we saw repeatedly against Ohio St, here the TE stays playside and bluffs the backer to create a little more separation for the QB to keep before heading out for a toss. The DB goes with him so Brown keeps for a nice gain.
- :10 - More iteration here, with an even more extreme version of the unbalanced looks Oregon has been giving - all five receiving targets are to the left of the hash. The overhang backer stays outside so the handoff is inside, and it’s a light box for #26 RB Dye to run through with some great blocks up front.
- :42 - I don’t believe we’ve seen this off-tackle run with a couple pullers before from Moorhead at Oregon, but I spotted it three times in this game, all successful. Great execution by Forsyth and Powers-Johnson, and what a nasty cut by Walk.
- 1:02 - This stretch run has been a staple at Oregon for years, but its effectiveness rate on my tally sheet has bumped up due to improved vision from the backs. Here Verdell has just the right patience for Bass to get off his combo and come back against the backer, then plant his foot and accelerate through the hole.
Friday’s preview article speculated that, since the two pocket-passer QBs were the single biggest liabilities on the team and the playbook of the first three games was an unrealistic fit for the available talent, the smartest move Arizona could make was putting in the running QB and redesigning the offense around him to surprise Oregon with plays they hadn’t put on film. That’s exactly what happened.
Oregon’s defense took some time to adjust, but eventually Arizona ran out of surprises and Oregon quickly shut down the final two drives before garbage time (arguably the third-to-last was shut down too, but some thought-provoking calls from the officials extended it).
These surprises played into Oregon DC DeRuyter’s natural strategic inclination — to allocate resources into preventing explosive plays even if it allows shorter ones — because forcing a new QB in a new offense to march the field methodically increases the odds they’ll make a bad mistake before scoring and buys the defense time to figure out what they’re doing.
Preventing explosive plays was largely a success: of Arizona’s 76 snaps prior to garbage time, only one went for 20+ yards (a weird play for 35 yards where the QB’s arm was hit on a cat blitz and the DB fell down) and four more went for 15+. That’s an explosive play rate of just 6.5%, and an average explosive gain of only 21.4 yards.
That contrast between short and explosive plays was clearest in the rushing defense, which was slightly underwater on a per-play basis: 20 successes against designed rushes vs 21 failures, or 48.8%. But only two went for more than 10 yards and the average gain was 3.8 YPC, prior to garbage time. (Three of Arizona’s successful runs were short-yardage QB sneaks, pull those out and it’s 52.6% per-play success and 4.1 YPC.)
Here’s a representative sample of Oregon’s unsuccessful rush defenses:
- :00 - Arizona had just three designed QB runs outside of garbage time in their first three games, this game alone had double that. Here #12 DE DJ Johnson is jumping inside when he should be staying outside on the possibility of a QB keep and letting the ILBs take care of the back. Freshman backup #21 ILB K. Brown gets juked a little, then the DBs use bad leverage - #2 CB Wright should be playing outside to force the run in and #7 DB Stephens shouldn’t be getting trapped inside by the TE.
- :09 - This play wasn’t on film before, and it shows because Oregon would never blitz from the field if they thought a keeper to the boundary was a possibility. There’s just not enough guys playside to stop this.
- :28 - What I call “yaco” runs — only the yards after contact flip it to a win for the offense — accounted for fully a third of all Arizona’s successful non-sneak rushes. #1 ILB Sewell and #46 ILB Heaukulani are in position correctly and have dealt with their blocks well, but the back just powers through for another couple more.
- :35 - The interior of the defense does a good job closing the hole and forcing the back to bounce out, but freshman #90 DT Shipley — who’s been pressed into service as a stand-up end due to some injuries — isn’t staying square to the line to keep contain, then #0 CB James overruns the play and lets the back turn what should have been a 2-3 yard gain into a 1st down.
I observed a lot of adjustments to tighten up the run defense by the later part of the 2nd quarter. Starting with Arizona’s fourth possession and for the rest of the game prior to garbage time, the Wildcats were only successful on one out of their eleven attempted outside runs (the final clip of the above video), which were the biggest changes to their rushing playbook. Some examples:
- :00 - Arizona never got this sweep play working, Oregon is recognizing it easily and multiple defenders string it out for a TFL, particularly #47 OLB Funa (returned to the lineup after missing last week) who’s crushing the TE into the backfield to affect the run.
- :15 - Hard to say if this just a toss play or setting up a double-pass, but either way this wasn’t something Arizona had put on film before and there’s great recognition here by multiple Ducks - check out all the hands pointing out the shift to set up the tailback and fullback.
- :23 - This is exactly how to handle outside runs - #50 DT Aumavae and #93 DT J. Jones cutting off the B- and C-gaps, with Heaukulani getting inside the TE for the tackle and #19 DB Hill with his eyes in the backfield to crash in before the WR can block him.
- :30 - Late in the game, with Sewell out for a bit with an injury, we got to see more of the backups. Here #91 DT Kr. Williams beats the RT to the hole, Johnson gets off the TE’s block to catch the bouncing back, and Brown and #8 CB Manning clean up.
Mostly the same principles applied to the passing game as well, with the major adaptation being rolling the QB out of the pocket to take advantage of his mobility - there were almost twice as many such plays in this game than in the previous three combined. Arizona largely discarded their pro-style passing attack that had failed so miserably in previous games, in favor of a quick-passing game and a few more novelty plays.
The results for Oregon’s defense was similar to the rushing game but above water - 18 successful defenses of designed passing plays vs 17 unsuccessful ones, or 51.4%.
DeRuyter responded with a similar philosophy as in the rushing game - playing a softer coverage to take away explosive plays while sometimes allowing short passes, and other than a couple of total surprises the major factor in unsuccessful plays was simply execution by younger players allowing what should have been modest gains to get extra yardage. Some examples:
- :00 - Arizona had certainly never shown a pass to the fullback before, and indeed not any passing out of the I-formation at all. Early in the game Oregon was late to recognize the shift, with Shipley slow to get into the throwing lane and Brown stuck inside the TE.
- :09 - Scrambling wasn’t a huge factor in this game but Arizona’s new QB certainly does it far better than the others. The recognition and coverage on this play-action rollout is pretty good, but Stephens is riding the WR way too far with his back turned to the ball — a no-no in DeRuyter’s system — even though #15 DB B. Williams has that coverage, and so he’s late to come down onto the QB when he turns the roll into a scramble.
- :21 - Backup #33 ILB Bassa, converted from safety last week due to all the injuries, needs to adjust his field awareness to playing backer. His part of the field only has one threat, which is the WR breaking in, and he should be getting over into the throwing lane and letting Sewell and #32 DB Happle deal with the TE.
- :33 - Letting the WR camp out in the hole isn’t fun for fans to see, but it’s acceptable within the structure of the defense to give up six yards on 2nd & 15. The only problem here is that James isn’t coming down hard enough on the catch and letting the receiver get five more yards to set up 3rd & 4 instead of 3rd & 9.
Other than the first clip in the above video and the aforementioned weird 35-yard play, there was just one pass for more than 15 yards (a 19-yard gain on a crosser, still a problem for this defense). We saw DeRuyter’s fingerprints all over the successful pass play defenses - pressure on the QB, adaptation throughout the game, and layered coverage that baits throws and resulted in five interceptions. Some examples:
- :00 - The quarterback panics at the pressure from Shipley, and Johnson chases him down from the other side of the field. Good discipline by Sewell and Williams to stay in coverage and deny any outlet instead of getting greedy for a sack.
- :10 - Engineering 3rd & long situations is what this defense is trying to do, and here they put in the dime package with a third CB and #13 DB Addison as the second high safety. Pressure from #94 DT Poti on the twist forces a quick throw which Sewell shuts down immediately.
- :17 - The defense has adapted to these play-action rollouts, with a layer of five LBs and DBs for the three midfield options, while Aumavae gets into the backfield then out to the QB and #3 DT Dorlus keeping his eyes on the QB the whole way instead of getting pulled the wrong way as we sometimes saw last week.
- :31 - Oregon blitzes five against seven-man protection and still gets Aumavae and Stephens through to hurry the QB. The back end is playing off coverage but layering it - Williams is over the sweep man and under the slot receiver, #23 DB McKinley is over the slot and under the Z, and Manning is over the Z with James coming over and Sewell underneath all of it. All of them are simultaneously covering two guys while appearing to be tight against none. Williams has his eyes on the QB the whole time and can easily jump what looks like an open pass.
Last week’s preview of Arizona predicted almost verbatim what they wound up doing in terms of switching out the quarterback and playbook as well as the reasons why. I don’t regret not being able to preview it on film, because how could I have, but I think I should have been clearer about the implications of it. Namely that, since I thought their running game was decent and they have a couple of good backs but the offense was being severely restricted by bad QB play and an unrealistic passing playbook, there was a possibility Arizona could plug the passing game hole and right the entire ship offensively. I think dismissing Coach Fisch as a gameplanner despite his long NFL credentials just because of their rocky start was a mistake. Still, noting that the Wildcats produced very few explosive plays even under the best circumstances held true, and that was probably the most important factor in the game when they had the ball - not being able to pull off big shocking touchdown plays when Oregon was still figuring them out.
I spent a lot of time trying to draw attention to DC Brown’s tricky defense and why I thought his disguised coverages and blitzes would make this a tougher opponent than their talent would indicate. The structure and those disguises played out just how I wrote, as well as the fact that they got no real advantage from switching fronts but did successfully make it tough to manipulate them as elegantly as OC Moorhead has done to past opponents. Arizona was better against the run than the pass as I noted, and while they did give up significantly more explosive plays to Oregon than their past record indicated, I expressed skepticism last week that this was due to the DBs and suspected it was particular to the offenses they had faced. I think the only surprise I saw was that a certain d-lineman, #1 DE Harris, played much faster in this game than his previous film indicated, including one play where he ran a back in a receiving pattern out of bounds. I’m not sure what happened there, maybe Eugene’s vegan fare put more of a spring in his step than Tucson’s carne seca.