The old football truism that if you run the ball well enough the rest of the game is irrelevant played out yet again on Saturday. Oregon had the best rush numbers I’ve ever seen in a single-game performance against Stanford’s anemic rush defense, and it more than made up for a fairly mediocre passing game and frequent penalties, putting the game into garbage time with a halftime score of 31-3.
In the first half the Ducks had 16 successful designed rushes vs just 4 failures, given the down & distance, or an 80% efficiency rate. They gained 11.9 adjusted YPC and 45% of runs gained 10+ yards. A pretty good run rate is to be expected when a top-10 rushing offense meets a bottom-10 rushing defense (intriguingly, future Pac-12 opponents Arizona and Colorado are the only two worse Power-5 teams in raw rush yards allowed per game), but these adjusted stats are phenomenal. 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 – The Ducks hadn’t previously shown this motion into read-option play, but they ran it several times in this game to both primary backs #0 RB Irving and #22 RB Whittington, paying it off later with a 35-yard keep by #10 QB Nix. Nice perimeter blocks by the TEs, but the play is really made by the OL pulls going in the opposite direction fooling the LBs.
- :18 – Given how far off the safety to replace coverage was, this corner run blitz was unexpected. Irving just jukes him.
- :26 – Oregon did most of their run damage on this type of play where they pressed inside then bounced outside, taking advantage of superior RB speed and willing blockers. A backer and a safety are being driven five yards back off the snap, and another backer gets into the backfield only for Whittington to cut outside right in front of him. Good ball security going into contact.
- :52 – This 20-yard run failed to convert a 3rd down and so it goes down as a failure on my tally sheet. The defense is backed out against a pass and #5 RB Dollars wins in space with the help of some nice downfield blocking. I’m fairly sure the Ducks would have gone for it on 4th down – one of the many benefits of reliably running is that all 3rd downs are two-down situations – but they got the conversion anyway when the safety was flagged for complaining about the umpire blocking him, somewhat understandably.
After the previous week’s game against Wazzu in which Oregon’s first-half redzone efficiency was abysmal (followed by improved playcalling and effectiveness in the second-half), it was natural to be concerned that the Ducks’ first trip to the redzone against Stanford ended in a field goal. I don’t really detect the same playcalling issues, however, and think this was just a coincidence – Oregon only conducted three plays snapped from inside the 20 on that drive, with two false starts and an offside interrupting them, and none of those playcalls looked inappropriate to me. Certainly they weren’t doomed to fail for challenging one of Stanford’s defensive strengths, because Stanford has no defensive strengths. The next drive only made it to the 31 before a holding penalty knocked them back to the 41, so that’s not a redzone possession, and all subsequent redzone trips (including in garbage time) ended in a touchdown.
What is borne out by charting is that Oregon’s first-half passing performance was pretty modest, and that could be concerning against a passing defense that graded out fairly poorly in previous Pac-12 games (though not nearly as badly as their rushing defense). The Ducks were even in downfield passing playcalls with 10 successes vs 10 failures. Furthermore, all their completed passes except one were either short passes or behind the line of scrimmage, bringing the adjusted average down to only 5.4 YPA, and only 13% of designed passing playcalls resulted in a 15+ yard gain.
But after a close examination of those 10 failed downfield passes, I can’t spot any real trend here and I’m willing at this point to chalk it up to some bad luck and a few bad spots resulting from more penalty flags than usual. There were several different causes:
- four drops - two bad hands by TEs, two 50/50 balls to #11 WR Franklin that he didn’t get
- two bad deep shots from Nix (too far on the first, dumb throw on the second)
- one bad checkdown throw after being flushed due a pull protect miss
- one swat at the line, the defense just got lucky on that one, no real penetration
- one defensive win where they got the coverage right and Nix effectively throws it away
- one great catch but short of the sticks on 3rd & 20, playing to get into better punt position
Other than Nix kind of pressing at points – an ongoing issue of him putting the ball in danger that was well known when he transferred in – this is a real grab bag. Franklin and the tight ends otherwise showed great hands throughout the game and the season to date so the drops just seem like a one-off, and even a bad defense is going to win a couple of plays. Here’s a selection of four of those ten plays:
- :00 – Nix is moving pretty well in the pocket here when their best edge rusher is faster than #55 LG Harper coming over to protect (this happened quite a bit). I don’t think this ball is misplaced or thrown too hot, and it would have been an easy conversion with a catch.
- :08 – I’m fine with taking a shot on 2nd & 3, it’s what this situation was made for, but the defense is properly aligned here and the safety has time to get over. Credit Nix with placing this ball where only #23 WR Cota could get it, it’s either a touchdown or a throwaway.
- :17 – This one he shouldn’t have thrown. I really don’t know what he was thinking, this is one of the best corners in the conference, with safety help, and it’s underthrown. I’m not wild about this play design either, why is #7 WR McGee stopping up at the LOS instead of running the wheel?
- :32 – No serious complaints on this one, a 50/50 shot in the endzone on 2nd down on what was ultimately a touchdown drive anyway. Franklin is well positioned for it but the corner is playing it well and the ball just slips through his hands.
Oregon’s successes on passing playcalls involved a terrific sequence at the end of the first quarter, some well-timed scrambles from Nix, and a lot of free-access throws to the sideline that demonstrated awareness of Stanford’s coverage structures on film. Some examples:
- :00 – This coverage shell is designed to prevent deep shots and it sacrifices giving up quick throws to the flat to do so. Nix is just taking what the defense gives him.
- :07 – I think Nix can’t quite believe his eyes that Stanford’s best CB and best safety are both biting on Franklin’s dig, leaving #3 TE Ferguson this wide open. Note the 1-down front; this many backers in the box lets them pull off stunts like this. #53 LG Walk (part of a three-man rotation at the two guard spots with Harper and #58 RG Powers-Johnson) handles it fairly well.
- :15 – The second of two throws in a row to Dollars split out - the first one he was at slot and ran a switch against man that left him wide open for 6 yards; this one he’s at X against zone and the CB bails pretty deep out of respect for his speed, and he collects 8 and a 1st down.
- :22 – Not as dramatic as the 80-yd touchdown scramble in the second half, but a similar concept – the coverage clears out, Walk and #56 LT Bass handle the twist well, and Nix knows open green grass when he sees it.
Going into the game I thought deep downfield passing was the area that Stanford presented the greatest danger, given their talented QB and big receivers. But Oregon figured out the reads on Stanford’s slow-mesh offense and induced the Cardinal to run the ball on nearly every RPO play, into a Ducks’ defensive front that consistently won without safety help. Between that strategy, backfield penetration, and quality cornerback play, Oregon effectively eliminated Stanford’s threat in the passing game.
Prior to garbage time, Oregon successfully defended 16 passing plays vs just 3 failures, or 84%. More than half of Stanford’s passing attempts were incomplete, and the rest were all short passes or screens that were quickly tackled, so Stanford only averaged 2.9 adjusted YPA with none gaining 15+ yards (the longest was 12). These are some of the best single-game defensive stats I’ve ever seen. Here’s a representative sample:
- :00 – The blitz from #33 ILB Bassa is faster than the RG can handle, hurrying this throw and I think contributing to it being off-target. #0 CB Gonzalez legally maintains downfield position and contact, then lets go and turns for the ball to avoid a flag.
- :07 – Here’s Oregon’s dime package, swapping out a lineman and putting #4 DB B. Williams in the box. The “light” line is still bigger than a lot of normal Pac-12 lines and they collapse the pocket easily, and Williams gets the tackle of the short dumpoff.
- :15 – I don’t know if this was called from the booth or a decision on the field, but #7 DB Stephens coming up to play the run is the opposite of what Oregon did on every other slow-mesh of the 1st half. It’s exactly what Stanford wants, letting them throw this RPO slant which was their most efficient play of the previous two games. (The broadcast cut off the actual catch on replay but the lack of underneath coverage is clear.)
- :26 – This play is real pretty. Beautiful man coverage on all five targets including a double on the TE who’s the most worrisome in this field position, and a sack with appropriate lane discipline including great patience from #98 DL Rogers. #3 DL Dorlus’ versatility to play from inside all the way out to edge rusher is going to get him Sunday playing time.
Comparatively, Stanford was more effective on the ground, though Oregon’s defensive stats against the run were championship-caliber anyway. The Ducks defended 11 designed runs successfully vs 7 failures, or 61%, limiting Stanford to just 3.9 adjusted YPC and only one run gained over 10 yards for just 5.5% explosiveness. Some examples of successful rush defenses:
- :00 – Wake Forest’s staff (from whom this offense was cribbed) has been notoriously tight-lipped on the clinic circuit about how the slow-mesh keys work, but evidently Oregon’s staff cracked it in one. #19 DB Hill knows he’s the read so he stays back in pass coverage, letting the backers play the run and gaining a numbers advantage. Good job by #18 OLB Funa to gain outside leverage and force this back inside.
- :20 – Bassa is signaling the coverage presnap; he retreats on the H-back wheel and the Ducks get what they want which is a handoff. The rest is just the Mint front doing its thing: clogging the A- and B-gaps with a fewer number of bigger bodies, here #55 DT Taimani and #95 DT Ware-Hudson.
- :29 – It’s been a quiet year for #48 DL Ma’ae so far but he really makes this play, one-arming the RG into the backfield then sliding off to make the tackle.
- :36 – One of two times in the first half that Oregon baited Stanford into a failed 3rd & long run by backing out the safeties and trusting the front, this time the light one with their dime package. Note Bassa and Williams’ patience waiting for the play to develop before charging; Bassa therefore does not get trapped inside by the LG and the back crashes uselessly into his teammate’s backside.
With how rarely Stanford gained much yardage on the ground, examining rush defense failures isn’t particularly useful for understanding this game. However, charting revealed there was one consistent theme in most of those seven plays – backup ILBs being out of position – and with #10 ILB Flowe absent in this game some of those clips are a good illustration of the issue:
- :00 – Bassa’s very good about converting his speed to power on this run blitz, knocking a much bigger center backwards. But Hill has to be backed out to induce the run so there’s no one behind him when the back slips through. It probably would have been better just not to blitz; patience and manipulating the offense proved more effective.
- :08 – This is too short yardage to be in dime, in my opinion. The back effectively picks his way through the lighter box, something he’d shown an aptitude for on film previously. Bassa has a chance to stop this but he overruns the play on the outside step and gets cut inside.
- :22 – Bassa is right to play this inside, his job is the cutback. #42 ILB LaDuke, however, gets trapped inside when his job is to maintain outside leverage and force the play back in to Bassa. I also think Gonzalez is much too valuable in coverage to be using on a corner blitz, especially one that misses, and trusting Stephens to get all the way over to cover their most productive receiver was a real gamble if this had been a pass. As it was, this became Stanford’s longest play of the 1st half.
In last week’s preview, I noted Stanford’s defensive problems stemming from their lack of linemen and how misleading their claim was about running a 4-3 structure, and pointed out that on a lot of downs they run what’s better understood as a 1-5-5. The Cardinal ended up operating out of that 1-down structure on over 90% of snaps in the first half and I think the preview pointed out exactly where the problems with that were and how it sometimes succeeded in creating blocking assignment confusion. I think the individual defensive players on the edge and in the secondary that I highlighted had pretty good games (a couple got hurt during the game, unfortunately). Predicting that Stanford would get run all over was an easy call, but even allowing for some bad luck on Oregon’s part, their pass coverage played better than I would have anticipated from their previous film. I had a lot of clips to choose from showing real breakdowns and miscommunications in their secondary which I figured would continue, but didn’t really show up at all in this game. When a team has dopey stuff like that on their film it’s only a matter of time before it gets corrected … too bad for the Ducks it happened on their turn, but I don’t think it means a whole lot.
All the elements of Stanford’s offense in my preview – the personnel used, the offensive structure, and its mismatch to their roster’s strengths and weaknesses – were perfectly accurate. I spent some time discussing my gut feeling that Stanford was more dangerous in their passing than rushing attack contrary to the numbers, and in hindsight I think that can be viewed in two ways. On the one hand Stanford’s relative effectiveness in run vs pass was the same against Oregon as it was against their other Pac-12 opponents, so maybe I was panicking over nothing; on the other hand, I think Oregon’s coaches probably shared the same concern I had and deliberately made choices to keep Stanford from passing, so perhaps this was a self-defeating prophecy. My biggest regret in reviewing Friday’s article is that I didn’t praise the replacement starting back Filkins enough – I said I thought he was fine (contrary to some doom & gloom I’d heard from the Bay area media about the loss of their starting back Smith) and that he showed good patience and intelligence, but his performance in this game was well over that bar and I should have stressed his quality more.