Nota bene: This article will break down the offensive statistics from my tally sheet of every Oregon game in 2021; next week I’ll look at the defense. These numbers exclude garbage time, but otherwise include every meaningful snap the Ducks played in 2021 that I charted. I tested excluding the data from the FCS, Pac-12 title, and Alamo Bowl games (and every combination thereof), but with one exception in a single defensive category that I’ll discuss next time, doing so didn’t significantly affect any of the figures I track. So I’ve included them all for a more robust personnel-level dataset. It represents over 800 plays in 14 games on offense and a similar number on defense.
In four out of the six figures that I track in offensive effectiveness, Oregon had a playoff-caliber season in 2021. The Ducks’ rushing performance was incredible: a 67.5% per-play success rate on designed runs, gaining 6.2 yards per carry on such plays with 18.5% of them gaining 10+ yards. When throwing the ball, they had almost exactly the same explosive play rate – 18.5% of downfield or screen passes gained 15+ yards, again a playoff-caliber number. Yards per passing attempt were more modest, however, gaining 8.2 YPA, which is a good enough number in my experience to get to a conference championship game but shy of what playoff contenders usually post. The final category is passing efficiency, where the Ducks were just barely above water in per-play success rate.
Excluding screens, Oregon had 175 successful downfield passing plays vs 160 unsuccessful ones, or about 52% efficiency. That’s not a championship caliber number, but it’s actually an improvement in the same category compared to Oregon’s 2019 Rose Bowl-winning season when they were underwater in downfield passing efficiency.
Breaking down the Ducks’ 48% failure rate on downfield passing plays in 2021, three general categories were roughly the same as 2019: about 17 percentage points from protection breakdowns, 11 on incompletions due to bad throws under no real pressure, and 4 on miscellaneous stuff. Oregon had a higher rate of insufficient-yardage completions (the pass was caught, but didn’t gain enough yards to count as a successful play) in 2021, up to 9 percentage points from just 5.5 in 2019. However, the rate at which passes were incomplete because the receiver screwed up – a drop or running his route incorrectly – fell dramatically in 2021 to just 6 percentage points, down from 13 in 2019. Oregon was also much more effective on scramble plays in 2021 compared to 2019, up to 4 points from 2.
In other words, Oregon enjoyed basically similar quality pass protection (a little worse OL play but better protection from backs and TEs), had a much more effective set of receiving targets, and scrambled better in 2021 than in 2019; those things combined account for the jump in downfield passing effectiveness. However, Oregon suffered from the same inaccuracy and poor decision-making problems at quarterback, and was more willing to waste a pass on a minimal-yardage completion. The numbers are clear from the Ducks’ last two full seasons – they can get 10+ wins with all the surrounding talent, but going farther requires improved QB pocket performance.
Schematically, this was a very productive offense. Oregon played over 90% of snaps in 11-personnel, meaning there was no formational giveaway to opponents. They were fairly balanced on 1st down, about 54.5% run rate on 1st & 10. They really leaned into the run in short-yardage situations regardless of down, running over 78% of the time on all four with 3 yards or fewer to gain. For 2nd-down playcalling, it looks like the typical and appropriate curve – 56.8% run in medium-yardage and 35.4% in long-yardage situations. It’s a steep drop on 3rd down, however, falling to just 23.4% run in medium-yardage and 7.7% in long-yardage 3rd downs.
Downfield passing when the Ducks were in 3rd & 4 or longer was only effective 35% of the time, by far their worst intersection of situation and playcall. Overall, Oregon converted 52% of their 3rd downs excluding garbage time, which is a very good number. But that’s almost entirely on the strength of good 1st- and 2nd-down performance setting up 3rd & shorts, as well as Oregon’s high rushing success rate (including when they’d break tendency and run on 3rd & 4 or longer, at which they were 60% effective). Compared to other teams I’ve charted over the last decade, this overreliance on inefficient 3rd-down passing is the biggest departure from championship-caliber teams, and again points to a need to improve at QB pocket performance for the Ducks to take the next step.
One other schematic note, on former OC Moorhead’s trademark run-pass option plays: there’s a lot of noise and not a very big sample size so the R2 on the trendline isn’t great, but still I think there’s a pattern of RPO plays declining in effectiveness over the course of the year. From week 10 onward, defenses started employing a variety of techniques to contain the QB toss out of a keep on a run play, and from that point forward non-RPO runs (though retaining the read option and pitch plays) had eclipsed RPO plays in efficiency and explosiveness. Again, the data isn’t really robust enough to project forward into 2022 and it’s a counterfactual anyway, but an argument could be made that this playbook had run its course.
Oregon’s improved performance in running routes and catching downfield passes is probably related to the explosion of talent at the skill positions in 2021 compared to 2019. Indeed there was such a wide and even distribution of pass targets that I have a hard time singling out any one receiver for better or worse performance than any other. Outside garbage time, nine different players had at least 20 targets, and eleven more had between one and ten. 36% of throws went to RBs or TEs, and a higher catch rate by those two units compared to 2019 is a large part of why Oregon improved their downfield passing efficiency compared to their last full season.
I track how often the receiver had broken free of coverage and how often I blame the receiver for an incompletion for dropping the ball or running the route incorrectly. I don’t have significant differences within Oregon’s 2021 receiving units, other than to note it is overall a big improvement compared to 2019’s. Though again, because of that wide distribution each player has a relatively small sample size so I would only take the statistical suggestion — that everybody in the receiving corps is equally good — so far. At the very least it’s promising that the freshmen have comparable success rates to the upperclassmen.
Of the backs who’ll return for 2022, #21 RB Cardwell is the only one with enough carries to analyze. Compared to the entire sample set including #26 RB Dye and #7 RB Verdell, Cardwell had a lower personal per-play success rate at just 52.6% (15 points lower), but was much more explosive with 7.8 YPC (1.6 yards higher) and 29% of his carries gained 10+ yards (10.5 points higher). That’s probably a good sign if he takes over as primary back, since efficiency through technique is easier to improve than explosiveness through talent.
I score tight end blocking somewhat differently from offensive line blocking, looking only at reps in which their block quality had a measurable impact – good or bad – on the play. On that metric, both the true freshmen #19 TE Ferguson and #8 TE Matavao had excellent debuts, both about 70% high-impact blocks. However, fourth-year #18 TE Webb graded out at just 52%, and I think that explains why he was increasingly beat out for playing time. Two-way player #12 TE DJ Johnson came in at an incredible 90%, but the reader should take that with a grain of salt – he was used on certain specialty packages and deployed differently than the other three, where his almost superhuman strength and enthusiasm for blocking could really shine. I still see versatility and technique issues with Johnson which probably explain why he hasn’t been used on standard plays.
Oregon’s offensive line in 2021 was shocking to me in a number of ways. They used an eight-man rotation, and in most games this was planned with a set number of configurations swapping out every drive or every other drive. On top of this, every game had a different program for these rotations, without a single repeat. And even more remarkable, all but two of those eight (#78 C Forsyth and #71 RT Aumavae-Laulu) split their playing time evenly between two or more positions, and four linemen switched between tackle and guard. It is impossible for me to overstate how unusual this is; I have never charted or even heard of a team rotating this much on their offensive line. The fact that the line played as well as they did is either a revolution in the sport or a minor miracle.
Six of the linemen were in regular rotation, with 500+ snaps each, and the other two were backups: fourth-year player #70 OL Jaramillo with 273, and true freshman #58 OL Powers-Johnson with 105. Here’s a chart of all eight players with their total snap count and error rate on my tally sheet (combining all positions they played and all types of blocking):
Oregon 2021 OL performance
The four linemen who graded out under a 10% error rate in my measuring system had very good seasons – Forsyth, #56 OL Bass, #74 OL S. Jones, and #53 OG Walk – but have some room for improvement since elite linemen in my experience grade out under 7%. Forsyth spent much of the year dealing with back spasms, and I’d still like to see him continue to get stronger because I charted him repeatedly get shoved back immediately off the snap and affect the play. Walk’s technique is excellent and is really remarkable in a former walk-on – he’s overcoming his raw talent limitations. To my eyes, Bass is built like a guard and Jones a tackle, so it was bizarre to me that both of them split time playing inside and outside. It turns out that Bass moving to left tackle made sense since he’s more consistent there, with basically the same low error rate blocking run or pass, whereas at left guard he’s elite in pass blocking but grades over 10% error rate in run blocking. Jones is a couple points better pass blocking than run blocking at both right guard and right tackle. He could probably be used at either going forward, but needs to improve run blocking more and I expect that’s more of a liability at guard than tackle so I would lean to moving him outside.
Aumavae-Laulu played every snap at RT, and while he was very good at pass-blocking, his run-blocking error rate was over 15% which was the worst of any of the six “starters” at either play type. It’s going to be a real puzzle what to do with him in 2021 and this will be one of the top issues I’m going to be watching for in Spring ball.
#77 OL Moore used up his sixth (and I believe final) year of eligibility in 2021. He split time evenly between left tackle and guard, even though I think he’s clearly built like a tackle. He comes in for some really wild splits in effectiveness between inside and outside, run and pass. But the most significant number is an 18% error rate as a tackle in pass protection, which just isn’t sustainable for a left tackle on a team that wants to win a championship, and likely explains why he was moved inside in the back half of the season.
Jaramillo played all four spots besides center, and really surprised me by playing much more effectively inside than outside despite looking like a tackle to me. In fact as a guard when pass blocking (only 56 snaps but covering left and right sides equally) his error rate was only 5.4%, which is the lowest for any of the eight linemen at any intersection of position and play type.
Powers-Johnson played all three interior guard spots (and in the bowl game, switched to defense as a nose tackle!), which is almost unbelievable for a true freshman. His pass blocking was very good in every spot and was the most effective on the team, although a really low sample size, at downfield blocking on screen passes – he’s clearly pretty nimble to my eyes, subjectively speaking. But he got pushed around a bit in run blocking, with over an 18% error rate. It was a very promising debut for the young lineman but he’s got some work to do, and I think Jaramillo is ahead of him at this point for a guard spot.