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Duck Tape: Film Review of Week 1, 2021 vs Fresno State

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Somebody want to call a damn paramedic?

NCAA Football: Fresno State at Oregon Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Offense

The curious thing about this game is that #13 QB Brown is the single most responsible player both for being down in the 4th quarter and for winning the game. That’s commentary on the centrality of quarterback play in college football in general, but in this game in particular his accuracy issues killed a couple of promising drives and at the same time he hit some perfect passes and ran the ball like a champion.

After charting the game, I don’t think decision-making is an issue for Brown in the passing game. I tallied just one incorrect RPO read in which he handed off instead of pulling the ball and throwing it as I think the defense called for, but even that was a successful play anyway (the back got a good gain to set up a 3rd & short). And in pocket passing, I think he’s reading the field properly and deciding on the correct throw, and generally going through his progressions efficiently without locking on.

The issue is simply accuracy and his low release of the ball from his throwing mechanics, which were known factors going into his grad transfer and aren’t going to change over the course of the season.

In dropback passing the offense was barely above water, 15 successful plays vs 14 unsuccessful ones, given the down & distance, or 51.72% (screen passes were atrocious, zero successes and five failures, although most of those had to do with poor perimeter blocking). Of the 19 called passing plays that failed, I think three were drops of appropriately thrown balls, two were 50/50 responsibility between the protection and the QB, and six were all or mostly on Brown’s inaccuracy. I count sacks, scrambles. and throwaways as designed passing plays for categorization.

But the vast majority of the time, Brown was making plays, both with his arm and his legs, and there’s a decisiveness to his game which is refreshing. Some examples:

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

  1. :00 - These go down as “OGG” on my tally sheet, for open green grass - the quarterback isn’t flushed by a good pass rush, but rather the defense has opened up and the surest way to significant yardage is by foot. Brown’s recognition is quicker than most QBs I observe, and he had three successful scrambles in this manner.
  2. :14 - This isn’t an RPO or even play action, just a mid-field read of the zone defense and an on-target throw that threaded between the backer and Husky. I have eight such throws on my tally sheet.
  3. :22 - Two different Ducks show off their guns on this play - Brown’s arm strength making an off-platform quick release throw with a defender in his face, and #3 WR J. Johnson squeezing down the ball as he survives the tackle and rolls onto his back.
  4. :54 - The above deep downfield passing — something I think should have been a bigger part of the playcalling in the last two games — pays off again here, in which Fresno St’s best corner is playing off Johnson out of respect for getting burned last time, and the easy hitch is wide open for a 1st down.

In my opinion, the bigger issue — and somewhat more of a surprise — in the passing game was the offensive line and tight end protection, which I think wholly or substantially contributed to 10 of the 19 failed passing plays. There isn’t one poor performer to single out here; each of the seven linemen in the rotation has at least one major error. There are also a couple of receiver errors which, while I was in the heat (and I mean heat) of the moment in Autzen I felt were on Brown but upon film review I think were properly placed balls and simply drops or bad perimeter blocks that I’ll chalk up for now to opening game rust. Here’s a representative sample of failed passing plays:

  1. :00 - This was the first play for the offense and elicited groans about Brown, but it’s pretty clear that the ball is exactly where it should be and #26 RB Dye just drops it. The more recurring problem here is that even if he had caught it, the perimeter blocking by the receivers is getting destroyed and it would have been a failed play anyway.
  2. :08 - Right read here — in between the backers and before the safety can collapse on it — but the ball is just placed wrong, low and inside instead of outside and at the chest so the receiver can turn upfield.
  3. :17 - This is an RPO and Brown correctly pulls the ball for the throw given the Husky coming down, but he can’t get it off because #78 C Forsyth and #74 RT Jones are letting the DT through. It’s actually a pretty valiant effort by Brown to get all but one yard back.
  4. :24 - #56 LG Bass shows up most on my tally sheet of failed protections, but that’s just because of plays like this in which the play is disguising a dropback pass as a run by pulling him across the formation. There’s confusion between him and #18 TE Webb — whose blocking in this game was poor and not up to snuff as a blocking tight end starter at this point — as to which blitzer to pick up. Brown manipulates the pocket pretty well here regardless, but can’t feather the ball quite right for the receiver to get to it.

The rushing offense, by contrast, was incredibly efficient, and got more so after some halftime blocking adjustments. I tallied 24 successful designed rushes vs 13 unsuccessful ones, given the down & distance, a 64.9% rush effectiveness which in my experience is championship caliber.

Perhaps more importantly, none of those 13 run failures were due to a wrong read - I did count two bad reads in the run game, but the play succeeded anyway. Five of them were one-off stuff - the back slipped, a hold downfield, the corner got lucky on a run blitz, etc. Once the staff used Dye on a short-yardage carry instead of a bigger back and he got stopped by a hard-charging safety; it was a remarkable play by that DB and the blocking, playcall, and Dye’s execution were all good, but I think it was a mistake not to use #7 RB Verdell instead.

Otherwise, it was an excellent performance by the rushing offense, and I think leaning into it was a strategic decision for a number of reasons. On designed rushes the average gain was 4.62 yards per carry, and seven rushes that were under the average were short-yardage situations that picked up a 1st down or touchdown. Most of the failed rushing plays came down to what it usually does, bad OL blocks, but there was no one weak link and instead a pretty even distribution - each of the seven linemen has two bad plays apiece.

Here’s a representative sample of the rushing offense:

  1. :00 - An RPO read of the Husky, who stays outside on the possible throw and so is out of the play on the run, and just great blocking with a couple of combos on the tackles. Dye acts like he’s been there before.
  2. :17 - OC Moorhead likes to use power sucker against man coverage, but QB power works against zone too as here when the corner retreats on Verdell out of the backfield. #53 RG Walk can’t execute this pull athletically enough, but Brown makes up for it with a nice stiffarm.
  3. :31 - Pretty poor blocking on this split zone run, especially by Webb - my tally sheet is full of these ineffective shoulder hits on his slice blocks in this game, and I think it’s a step down in performance compared to recent years.
  4. :38 - Oregon employed 12-personnel five times in this game, all in short-yardage, obvious run situations, and was successful on four of them (the last set up a touchdown on the next play). This is against an 8-man box, something which seems to give many Duck fans the willies. No such nerves from #12 TE DJ Johnson, true freshman #8 TE Matavao, or the offensive line.


Fresno State v Oregon Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Defense

This offseason I reviewed tape from all 25 previous seasons of new DC DeRuyter’s career and had enough film clips for two articles, the second of which examined DeRuyter’s belief that turnovers can be coached and aren’t just the passive result of otherwise sound defensive play. Most advanced statisticians think he’s wrong about that, and I’m a bit skeptical too, but Saturday’s performance might convert the faithless. Oregon stripped the ball four times, recovering three of them, and each time I observed the same techniques that it’s clear DeRuyter has been teaching his entire career regarding arm strike position, body drag, raking the ball, and rallying to block the fumbler’s teammates from recovering. Here’s all four of them which I trust illustrate themselves:

Oregon effectively shut down Fresno St’s most potent weapons, which are its pair of excellent running backs. The defense was successful against 15 designed rushes vs 8 failures, or 65.2% effectiveness, again a championship-caliber figure. The Bulldogs netted just 97 yards on their designed runs, and more than half of that came on a single 45-yard burst on a containment mistake, which was the only rush for more than 8 yards.

Here’s a representative sample of rush defenses:

  1. :00 - This or a close variation was the formation Oregon was in most of the day, two down lineman with the Joker at 7-tech and an OLB either standing up or fist-down (#47 OLB Funa, here), two ILBs and a nickel secondary. Big starters #50 NT Aumavae and #3 DT Dorlus are completely clogging their lanes, with Funa compressing all of it from the outside and #1 ILB Sewell shedding the slice block to get in on the tackle.
  2. :10 - This was the first 3-down, double-eagle look of the day, which is what I think DeRuyter wants to use more of when the personnel is ready for it. Nice penetration by #91 DT Kr. Williams. Three players who were filling in for an injured or suspended defender also show out here: #48 OLB Ma’ae is shedding his block and wrapping up well, #10 ILB Flowe neatly sidesteps the other TE, and #11 CB Bridges recovers from a slip to help with the tackle.
  3. :24 - It’s good to know DeRuyter did as much film study of Fresno St as I did over the summer, because two different opponents used this same technique of keeping the designated rusher (#29 OLB Jackson, here) off the line to get the LT to fan, then following the read end (Dorlus) staying outside to get the QB to hand off with the ILB (Flowe) to nail the back for a TFL.
  4. :33 - I noticed this more than once, the defense isn’t in their stances yet when the offense uses tempo (an odd turnabout for Oregon). It was compounded in a couple of other plays by inexperienced DBs still running onto the field, but on rushing plays it’s the most obvious how it gives the OL an edge.

The pass defense was much more of a mixed bag: 27 successful defenses of designed passing plays vs 25 unsuccessful ones, or 51.9%.

There was a fairly clear pattern in how and when Fresno St was taking advantage of Oregon’s personnel in the passing game, however. As Coach Cristobal mentioned after the game, the replacement corners for the suspended starter had some signaling issues that caused them to play off when they were supposed to press in the first half, creating unintended free access problems on the outside. That contributed to 16 of the 25 failed pass defenses happening in the first half.

Those communication problems seemed to be corrected at halftime because I didn’t see them again, so instead Fresno St started throwing crossers against Oregon’s freshmen ILBs that require good handoffs in zone coverage to defend. There were some problems here too, but the upside is that gains from those types of plays are much less than to the outside - failed passing defenses in the first half cost the Ducks a 13.0 yard average, but in the second half only 8.5 yards each. Some examples:

  1. :00 - The Bulldogs’ QB was pulling off four or five of these scramble drill passes a game last year, so Oregon limiting him to just this one was something of a victory. This was by far their longest passing play of the day, everything else thrown from the pocket was short stuff to march the field. Sewell still has some work to do staying disciplined as he closes to guarantee the sack.
  2. :20 - #8 CB Manning is the odd man out here, this is far too soft of a cushion for this receiver. Not a great tackle attempt to make up for it, either. This stuff cleared up later, and I have three times as many positive plays as negative ones for Manning on the day, mostly in the second half.
  3. :38 - Good penetration by Dorlus, Jackson, and #93 DT J. Jones forces the quick throw here, but Sewell needs to be handing the hitch off to Flowe earlier to pursue the crosser. This is one of four poor crossing route defenses I charted that I attribute to the ILBs in zone defense - none got huge yardage but two got 1st downs and the other set up short-yardage plays.

The successful pass defenses were encouraging to see because the transition to the new defensive scheme is going smoother than I expected - it requires a somewhat different body type in the d-linemen than DeRuyter inherited, but a lot of guys have changed their bodies over the summer to match. I tallied seven different defensive tackles in the rotation, each with multiple significant plays. That contributed to a lot of pressures, sacks, and otherwise affecting the throw to virtually always keep it short and underneath.

Here’s a representative sample of successful pass defenses:

  1. :00 - Nice rush here by Ma’ae, #48 DE Swinson, and #95 DT Ware-Hudson to hurry the throw, while #11 CB Bridges patiently works the receiver out of bounds.
  2. :10 - Past Oregon defenses in recent years have frustrated me on quarterback scrambles, because they would over-eagerly go for the kill and leave open an outlet. Contrast here, where Flowe, Sewell, and #15 DB B. Williams stay cool and string him out, keeping each throwing lane covered while not allowing him to work very far downfield with his legs.
  3. :20 - I was on record in previewing Fresno St that their left tackle is their best lineman, and that I think he would be a starter at several Pac-12 schools. Dorlus bull-rushes him (no pun intended) while Funa wrecks the right tackle for a sack.

NCAA Football: Fresno State at Oregon Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Accountability Corner

Friday’s preview of Fresno St looks pretty accurate. The description of the offensive philosophy, its run-pass balance, and the ratio of carries between the two backs were all spot on. I think my description of the quarterback’s underneath throwing and scrambling preferences was evident, as well as the prediction that they would target their full set of returning receiving playmakers rather than the taller Power-5 transfer on the outside. I described inside running as more effective than outside running for Fresno St, which on a per-play basis was true, but the one big run they did have was outside - I think that was more about a Duck defender making a mistake than the Bulldogs’ relative blocking effectiveness, however. One tendency breaker Fresno St threw in was a couple of throws to the tight end in the red zone, that hadn’t really been part of their game plan up until now.

The Bulldogs’ defense fielded exactly who I expected, including the new players I noted as stepping up their performance each had at least one big defensive play. They were far more vulnerable to the run than the pass as I described, and in particular the note that their defense is structurally vulnerable to quarterback runs was certainly part of the Ducks’ gameplan. I think in general the commentary that Fresno St is vulnerable to vertical passing held up, though the Ducks didn’t test it as much as I would have liked. The closest thing to a black eye that I took was that I described one of their cornerbacks as better than the other and he’s the one that gave up the big pass and got juked by Brown on the game-winning run, but the UCLA transfer safety who I described as unplayable in Los Angeles got his ankles broken on that play too.