Nota bene: This game was effectively decided in just 82 combined offensive and defensive snaps - too few for granular evaluations of formations and most personnel, and creating a challenging environment for selecting representative film clips. I will therefore abbreviate the videos in this article and pay the extra time forward to catching up on my backlog of film study on future Oregon opponents, and writing up a midseason statistical review of the Ducks for publication next week.
Out of 46 offensive snaps prior to garbage time the Ducks only failed on seven plays, given the down & distance, for an overall efficiency rate of almost 85%. That’s several standard deviations above the median and one of the most impressive single-game performances I’ve ever charted.
The dominance of Oregon’s rushing offense forced Arizona to quickly switch from a cover-2 look at the start of the game to cover-1 by the early second quarter, and eventually the Wildcats weren’t fielding a high safety at all. That opened up the passing game to start hitting deep passes and put the game away even more quickly, after which the Ducks switched back to a heavy rushing attack to run down the clock in the third quarter. I appreciated seeing sensible situation- and clock-management approaches in this regard.
In the ground game, Oregon had 22 successful designed runs vs just 3 failed ones, an 88% efficiency rate which is staggering. A quarter of designed runs gained 10+ yards. All six of Oregon’s touchdowns prior to garbage time came on the ground, making computing the yards per play in such a low-possession game a little tricky. Overall it was 8.1 adjusted YPC, but that’s distorted by a single outlier — a 55-yard TD run — and four short-yardage TD pushes which only had 1-3 possible yards to gain. If the long run is excluded the number falls to 6.2, if just the short TDs are excluded it rises to 9.3, and if all are excluded then it’s 7.0 adjusted YPC. Regardless, any of these yardage numbers are excellent. Here’s a selection of the three most used backs in this game:
(Reminder - after pressing play, you can use the left button to slow any video to ¼ or ½ speed)
- :00 – Immaculate blocking and a great backfield cut get #22 RB Whittington nine yards without being touched, and power into contact with good ball security gets him another six.
- :15 – It’s midway through the second quarter and Arizona has started bringing down one of the safeties onto the run. The only blocker who can pick him up is #11 WR Franklin but the DB is too quick and he misses him, contacting #0 RB Irving only a couple yards past the line of scrimmage. But Irving’s speed and balance is remarkable, and he keeps the play alive for another six yards.
- :22 – Here’s the first of four jumbo 14-pers power runs which ended in Oregon’s fourth touchdown. This one is the taco grande variety, with #56 LT Bass over to the right, #53 RG Walk (who rotated drives with #58 RG Powers-Johnson) flipped with #71 RT Aumavae-Laulu, and #76 OT Conerly as the extra lineman. Beautiful pull and a great hit by “fullback” #88 TE Herbert to spring #20 RB James for 11 yards on 1st down.
The passing game had 17 successes vs 4 failures, or 81% efficiency. The Ducks gained an adjusted 12.1 YPA, and 28.5% of designed passing plays gained 15+ yards. Again these numbers are astonishing. The sample is too small to analyze properly, but as an interesting note — given how many of Oregon’s future opponents like to blitz or at least show it by crowding the line — all six screen passes prior to garbage time succeeded. Here’s a selection of the three most targeted wideouts during meaningful play:
- :00 – Arizona’s given up a deep safety entirely; the deepest defender is a cornerback who has to carry #23 WR Cota as the No. 3 receiver as he bends the route away from the play. The nickel over #1 WR Hutson has to peel off to provide underneath coverage on Franklin’s dig, and the safety can’t possibly recover from contacting Cota in time to catch Hutson. That is to say, the coverage that the Wildcats were forced into to defend the run is structurally incapable of preventing this deep shot.
- :21 – Here’s a cover-1 blitz, which the line picks up well with a hand from Irving. Closed middle means this route from Cota to the sideline is a one-on-one, and he simply out-athletes the DB.
- :36 – Another blitz, this time with Oregon in empty but the line does a great job with all five. Moving the RB to Z and Franklin inside puts the latter against a nickelback who doesn’t have his footspeed, and although this ball is a little high Franklin doesn’t have a problem with it.
With one uncharacteristic exception during normal play, and another during a last-minute FG drive, the Ducks completely shut down the Wildcats’ rushing game. Oregon successfully defended 10 runs vs 3 failures prior to garbage time, a 77% success rate, and Arizona had under 8% of runs gain 10+ yards. They gained an adjusted 6.3 YPC, though if their longest run is excluded that falls to 2.2 YPC.
The most interesting schematic adjustment the Ducks made was installing a modified 33-stack structure for about a third of the 36 meaningful defensive snaps, with three ILBs over three d-linemen. (Technically one of the defenders on the line was a fist-down OLB, but I don’t even know what to call that. I prefer to use the 33-stack term anyway, since there’s some poetry in so many teams in the state of Arizona using it in the past.) Strategically, the purpose was giving more underneath coverage options against the Wildcats’ prolific intermediate passing game.
A 33 defense’s benefits against the run are hard to calculate – it can stymie some offensive systems but fail totally against others – but in this game it mostly didn’t matter since the Ducks were consistently winning at the line without any backer help at all. Other than a few dime packages on obvious passing downs against which Arizona didn’t rush during meaningful play, the remaining snaps were in the typical personnel-matching (second OLB against 12-pers) Mint front which has been excellent against the run all season long. Here are some examples:
- :00 – Penetration by #98 DL Rogers forces what would have been an inside run to bounce outside, and #2 OLB Johnson is maintaining proper outside leverage to shed the TE and make the tackle, with an assist from #11 CB Bridges.
- :07 – The LG is supposed to disengage with #91 DL Riley and climb to block #10 ILB Flowe, but that’s not going to happen with Flowe’s incredible burst. I’ve watched this play a dozen times and I’m astonished at how he seems to teleport two yards upfield.
- :14 – Here’s the modified 33-stack going up against a run play. Gap integrity is proper but it’s irrelevant as Riley wrecks a double team and makes the tackle himself.
Despite the 52 yards and a TD that the single meaningful rush defense breakdown gave Arizona, the play itself is fairly uninteresting schematically: Flowe is simply in the wrong gap and the back beats the safety to the sideline. There’s a glitch in the broadcast video, unfortunately, but here’s a low-angle shot of it showing the misaligned backer.
Against the pass, Oregon was successful on 13 designed passing plays vs 10 failures, or 56.5% efficiency. This was the Ducks’ worst quadrant of football in the game, though it’s still an above average rate and considering the talent of the opponents’ receiving corps a pretty good performance. With a couple early exceptions, the defensive structural changeup was very effective at taking away the in-breaking routes essential to Arizona’s offense and forced them into more quick hitches and slants. They still hit several of those, but for far shorter gains than the Wildcats were used to. Some examples:
- :00 – The 33 against a passing play, second play of the game, and this is what Arizona put on film over and over – they just need a bit of a gap in the throwing lane to #1 ILB Sewell’s right as he has to deal with the back pulling up. Subsequent plays out of the stack made a slight alignment adjustment so this was the only successful TE dig prior to garbage time.
- :15 – Oregon’s showing blitz but #33 ILB Bassa backs out of it. Great man coverage of the other three targets but #0 CB Gonzalez needs underneath help with the slant and Bassa’s late to get in the lane.
- :21 – A couple of young corners in on this fake screen, #8 CB Manning and #6 CB Florence. Just too much separation on the double slant without underneath help because this time it really is a blitz.
That strategy kept Arizona’s passing yardage to an adjusted 5.5 YPA, with only 13% of designed passing plays gaining 15+ yards against Oregon. Those figures are down more than 2.3 yards and 5 percentage points compared to their first five games, flipping the Wildcats from an above-average passing attack in yardage and explosiveness in previous games to a below-average one in this game.
In addition to schematic adjustments, the Ducks simply kept up the QB pressure without a lot of blitzing - they earned a sack, scramble, or throwaway on a third of all dropbacks for downfield passes. Oregon’s defensive gameplan was to maximize pass coverage resources while leveraging a personnel advantage at the line. Some examples:
- :00 – This replacement pressure was much more effective, Johnson is over the bunch and just immediately collides (legally, the ball isn’t in the air yet) with a couple receivers and derails their routes, while Flowe replaces him as the fourth rusher. The QB doesn’t do well when his first read’s taken away so he checks it down and even that’s off target.
- :07 – The QB is starting to press already on this play. #18 OLB Funa is in the backfield and he should hit the TE midfield (the No. 4 receiver is a decoy, he’s covered up and has to run backwards), but instead he double-clutches and tries a deep throw against two CBs.
- :24 – Only rushing three here, with #95 DL Ware-Hudson — of all people — backing out. The hitch to the field is cut off and with a collapsing pocket he just gets rid of it, something I tallied four times.
In last week’s preview, I noted Arizona’s inability to stop the run owing to real talent issues and some unfortunate injuries to their linemen, and that was certainly evident … arguably it was the most salient fact in this game. I spent quite a bit of time discussing their edge rusher who transferred from USC, and he does show up as more effective than the rest of the defensive front on tape (including a couple of wins against Oregon’s LG in pull protection, a worrying trend from the previous week against Stanford), but he made no difference in the run game at all. This might be another case of a self-defeating prophecy, however, since Oregon — deliberately, it seemed — lined up a tight end against him on most plays and worked him wide, negating his speed advantage. I think talking about their best corner as a difference maker played out, as he got a very nice endzone PBU in this game. On the podcast, Adam brought up the potential return of their best safety, Jaxen Turner, which I didn’t mention in the article – that’s my biggest regret, since he had several good tackles in this game which saved touchdowns.
I think the description of Arizona’s offense reads almost perfectly, from where their receiving threats are and what types of passes they want to hit, to their porous offensive line and the troubles that creates in both phases. There’s really only one miss, which is noting that I hadn’t seen their QB in three years of film review throw a deep ball with accuracy – he then did exactly that on the third pass of the game. (There was also apparently another sideline deep throw on Arizona’s second possession called back on a defensive holding penalty, but the broadcast camera never showed it – I’d be curious if anyone who was in Tucson can tell me about that play.) There’s a first time for everything, I suppose, but I’ll note that he only tried one other sideline deep shot during meaningful play and it was into double coverage and nearly intercepted.