Oregon’s offense was both explosive and efficient in this game, allowing it to control the tempo of the game at will – accelerating it with big plays, then draining the clock with methodical drives once the lead was secure. Stealing a possession with an onside kick after UCLA won the coin toss and deferred meant that Oregon had six scoring drives to UCLA’s four before garbage time set in with a 22-point lead, but that simply hastened the inevitable given the Ducks’ offensive advantages against the Bruins’ defense.
The rushing offense continued on its two-year hot streak of efficiency numbers that I’ve never seen before: prior to garbage time they had 25 successful designed runs vs 8 failures, given the down & distance, or almost 76%. UCLA’s defense played its safeties back for almost the entirety of the game, and those defenders’ high quality tackling kept Oregon from breaking off any runs longer than 14 yards, so the yardage was only a bit above average at 5.6 adjusted YPC. However, the Ducks were consistently getting right up to that mark, so better than 21% of designed runs gained 10-14 yards, which is a championship-caliber explosive rushing rate. Here’s a representative sample of the rushing offense:
(Reminder - after pressing play, you can use the left button to slow any video to ¼ or ½ speed)
- :00 – Fairly early in the game, first play of the second drive coming off a field goal on the first possession, while Oregon was still feeling out how much of a blocking advantage they had. Running against eight in the box was a bit much, there are two missed blocks here but even if they were made the extra DB was in position to tackle (well, if he hadn’t slipped).
- :08 – One of a several option runs by #10 QB Nix, this was a little novel since he’s reading the unblocked tackle in the middle of the line and they hadn’t done that during meaningful play before. Great job clearing out the playside ILB, but as usual the safety playing out of the box stops this going really big. I like Nix sliding instead of diving once he knows he has the 1st down.
- :26 – There were a couple new I-formation variations in this game. This one has the RG/RT as normal, but #76 OT Conerly on the right instead of the left, and one of the TEs split out. The extra space it creates by pulling a DB out was on-balance helpful, I think – it’s blocked so beautifully for #22 RB Whittington that the fullback has nothing to do.
- :44 – UCLA is expecting a pass on 3rd & 8 and excessively lightens the box, which indicates a poor command of Oregon’s film. #53 OG Walk and #58 RG Powers-Johnson (in the usual three-man drive-based rotation with #55 LG Harper) are blocking seven yards downfield and #0 RB Irving has no trouble picking through this.
The passing offense was nearly as efficient, 17 successful designed passing plays vs 8 failed ones, or 68%. I think this was the best game I’ve seen Nix play in four years of watching his tape, with every ball delivered into the receiver’s catch radius and almost always perfectly in stride to create bigger yardage after the catch. He delivered a couple of remarkable deep shots on the rare occasions that the Bruins went to a single-high look, but mostly the Ducks attacked the intermediate passing range for a series of 15-25 yard gains. That gave Oregon an elite 10.7 adjusted YPA, with 36% of passing plays gaining 15+ yards.
Explosive passing was predicated on the rushing success, with several well sequenced rush-pass combinations in which the Ducks lined up in the same formation, started showing the previous rush play, then hit a pass when the defense collapsed on it. I was generally impressed with OC Dillingham’s manipulation of the defense in the passing attack to generate the bigger explosive plays in this game. Some examples:
- :00 – Oregon has performed this exact tight-to-spread pre-snap reconfiguration several times this year, so I don’t know why UCLA’s defense had a hard time reassigning themselves. At any rate, the ILB is not in the overhang position their structure calls for and it’s an easy slant pattern for #11 WR Franklin.
- :12 – The Ducks threw quite a bit out of 12-pers, especially to the outside, which took advantage of the Bruins’ tendency to cluster their defense in the middle for blitzing or run-stopping. Putting nine in the box like this makes it an opportune time for a screen pass.
- :19 – Oregon’s in an empty look, and UCLA is really spread out with two high safeties. Sending a bunch of vertical stretches against a blitz which clears out the underneath lanes creates a one-on-one for #23 WR Cota and the nickel whom he embarrasses twice - once outside, and again inside.
- :29 – This fullback wheel route to #88 TE Herbert was the first of two new plays out of the I-formation; the safety is too concerned with the run threat to notice (the second was in garbage time, a bootleg pass to the TE running an out pattern).
There are a few things to work on in the passing game. The biggest ongoing issue I’ve noted is that perimeter blocking by the skill players is hit-or-miss, and Oregon’s screen game isn’t reliably hitting elite efficiency or yardage numbers, although the mere threat of it does play an important role in play sequencing. I also think that in an attempt to completely dictate tempo, the Ducks sometimes hurry plays where the defense isn’t giving them the best look. Some examples:
- :00 – Pretty cool throw under pressure, but #8 TE Matavao has missed his downfield block and Cota’s not doing a great job containing his man either.
- :11 – This was a quick snap (check out the sideline, the chain gang is still on the move) and I believe it’s a predetermined throw to the flat. If the edge were rushing, then the DBs exchanging the No. 2 receiver would have left it open long enough, but he’s dropping into the hook/curl zone and so the CB can just fire down onto the No. 1. I think if they took time to assess the defense’s posture they would have checked out of this.
- :17 – Cota’s running this route a little too shallow, he’s getting the spacing he needs from the No. 2 pushing back the safeties so can angle it steeper to get the 1st down.
Oregon’s strategy in this game was to limit UCLA’s possessions by playing defense with its offense and eating up the clock. As a complement to that, they wanted to force the Bruins into a very low points-per-play ratio, getting them to go on long drives and eat a lot of clock themselves. It would have been ideal to force quick three-and-outs or otherwise empty possessions, but if that wasn’t on the table (and it probably wasn’t given the opponent’s strengths) then the next best outcome was exactly what happened - only letting UCLA have four meaningful possessions prior to garbage time, taking an average of 10 plays and four and a half minutes each, three of which ended in field goals.
Tactically that meant stopping explosive plays at all costs, even if that surrendered methodical plays. Overall, the Ducks were only successful completely stopping about 44% of UCLA’s plays, underwater in defensive efficiency for the first time since the opener, however they limited the Bruins to only 6.0 adjusted yards per play with only four explosives in their 39 plays prior to garbage time, or about 10% explosiveness. Oregon had about the same defensive success rate as UCLA’s previous four opponents, but the Ducks performed 2.2 adjusted YPP and more than 10.5 percentage points in explosiveness better than those defenses did against the Bruins.
In pass defense, Oregon played cover-2 and kept the linebackers back for most of meaningful play, trusting a four-man rush to simply squeeze the pocket. That allowed some underneath throws, which combined with some novelty out of UCLA’s offense and the quarterback’s ability to scramble into open space, meant losing the efficiency battle. In terms of forcing incompletions or insufficient-yardage gains given the down & distance, the Ducks’ defense was only successful on 9 designed passing plays vs 13 failures, or 41%. Some examples:
- :00 – This play is designed to rub the ILB and it works. If the RB hadn’t fallen down it would have gotten more. This was only the second time all season UCLA had thrown an RB wheel on 3rd down and it’s creating quite a traffic jam for the defense.
- :14 – Good penetration by #2 OLB Johnson and #3 DL Dorlus forces the quick throw, and #10 ILB Flowe is in the right position for a tackle for loss, but he should be attacking the thigh pads, not the shoulders.
- :31 – Coverage is excellent on the live side of the field for this throw, and #18 OLB Funa gets around the back to flush the QB, with #4 DB B. Williams camped out to contain the scramble. The LT has learned by now he needs to block the run if the QB can’t throw his first read.
However, per their strategy, Oregon was excellent at defending deep throws and mostly kept UCLA from even trying them, with pass break-ups, near-interceptions, and incompletions on almost every such attempt during meaningful play. The Ducks also did a good job of adjusting to the new plays and tendency breakers that the Bruins introduced in this game, and didn’t let the same play beat them big twice. Some examples:
- :00 – UCLA didn’t attempt many 15+ air-yard throws in this game, and Oregon concentrating their safety resources deep like this, in zone coverage that forced the QB to actually make decisions, is the reason why. #19 DB Hill has two guys in his zone but he reads it well and comes over to help Williams with the PBU.
- :20 – The Y-cross coming at him from the other side takes away the safety help so #0 CB Gonzalez has to handle UCLA’s only real WR speedster down the sideline on his own. He does, working him out of bounds perfectly. The WR gives him a real pat on the back in admiration.
- :42 – Here’s Oregon’s dime package, with #13 DB Addison back in the lineup from injury. He recognizes the Z-receiver motion back across the formation and then the RB wheeling out from earlier, and since they’re in zone this time he’s free to close the distance on his own.
In the run game, UCLA introduced a couple new formations they hadn’t shown before, and deployed much more frequent tackle-over run formations than they’d used in the past this year. Oregon handled these fairly well after some time to adjust — especially given that they were playing with relatively light boxes to help with explosive pass defense — with the most serious issue simply being that their lead back is extremely difficult to bring down on first contact.
The Ducks successfully defended 8 designed runs vs 9 failures, or a 47% defensive success rate. They limited the Bruins to 5.2 adjusted YPC and only about 12% of them gained 10+ yards. More than half of those failures to stop UCLA rushes are coded “yaco” on my tally sheet, meaning that Oregon defenders were in the right position for a successful play on contact, but let the back power forward to flip it into a failed defense.
Here’s a representative sample of all rush defenses:
- :00 – This play was UCLA’s debut of a tackle-over with two TEs and a big WR stacked on the RB (in consultation with fellow film reviewer Chris Osgood, I’m calling it the “gordita crunch”). The defense is handling it alright but Flowe needs to get to outside leverage faster, since he has help from #1 ILB Sewell on the inside.
- :07 – Funa just crushes the TE here, closing the gap and jamming up the WR who’s supposed to block Flowe. The latter has already dodged the RG and stuffs the run.
- :14 – There’s two eligibles to the boundary so #7 DB Stephens can creep down a bit to help with the relatively light box. He’s in the right position and going for the legs is the right move, but this back is really hard to bring down.
- :21 – Another taco play, the QB has three big lead blockers playside. Funa gets the over-LT, #55 DL Taimani’s penetration interrupts the pull for another, and Sewell takes on the RB, so no one is left to stop Stephens getting to the QB at the LOS.
In last week’s preview, I think I accurately predicted UCLA’s rush defense as being unable to stop methodical runs from a competent line, but good safety tackling would prevent explosive rushing. The description that the pass rush was much stronger than the secondary play in defending the pass also held up, as well as the prediction that the Bruins would play most of the time in cover-2. I think I was right to point out that their methodical pass defense numbers were inflated somewhat by going up against Colorado and that they’d be vulnerable to throws behind the backers and in front of the safeties, as well as down the sidelines and to the flats. The only thing I noted that didn’t show up in this game was inexplicable ILB movement to the C-gaps; they seem to have either cleaned that up in the bye week, or I was just incapable of finding the pattern to it and whatever the trigger was Oregon simply didn’t do.
Most of my description of UCLA’s offense proved accurate, including playbook simplification, frequent scrambles, redzone issues, TE blocking issues, only two receivers getting virtually all targets, and the programmatic nature of the passing tree. However, despite the warm reception my article received among some Bruins fans, there were a few surprises - I had noted that passes to the running backs were way down and in particular the backup RB had no catches at all; in this game their biggest play and only touchdown prior to garbage time was on a wheel route to just that backup. While I wasn’t surprised that they introduced several new formations and playcalls, I failed to predict which exactly those would be. Although if I had, I should probably get a higher paying job in football.