Oregon made some interesting strategic choices to deal with Cal’s defensive structure in this game. The Bears played almost the entirety of this game in cover-2 or cover-3, and after the Ducks’ fifth possession they stopped matching the tight end count and played their nickel defense even against 12-personnel. The idea was to back out the defense and allow methodical plays, while denying Oregon deep shots (in terms of air yards) in the passing game and explosive plays in the rushing game, and they were essentially successful at both. OC Dillingham’s response was to accept the bargain - take efficiency runs when they needed to and make certain underneath throws combined with manipulating the defense so that they’d gain substantial extra yards after catch.
I was impressed again with Dillingham’s play sequencing in this game, using the aspects of the run game that Cal was allowing to set up bigger pass yardage later. Despite a couple of tough drops early on which likely took 10 to 14 points off the board, in terms of fundamental strengths the result was 23 successful designed passing plays vs 10 failures prior to garbage time, or 69.5% efficiency. Oregon averaged 11.5 adjusted YPA and more than 36% of passing plays gained 15+ yards. All of those are well above championship-caliber, in my experience. Here’s a representative sample of the passing offense:
(Reminder - after pressing play, you can use the left button to slow any video to ¼ or ½ speed)
- :00 – Relatively early in the game, Cal still had their 3-down front in against Oregon’s 12-pers sets. The line picks up the blitz without help, the TEs have run off the ILBs in coverage, and the OLB is wrong-footed when #0 RB Irving cuts back inside on this Texas route. With the rest of the defense’s backs turned to the play he just has one CB to beat in the open field for a big gain.
- :16 – This is top-notch manipulation of the defense from film study on their keys. #84 TE McCormick’s downfield release causes the safety to reverse and run back downfield with him, the RB wheel pulls one ILB away, and the half-roll pulls the other ILB who’s spying #10 QB Nix the other way. That leaves the crosser to #3 TE Ferguson not only wide open but with lots of empty grass to run into, with a helpful block from #22 RB Whittington.
- :37 – Cal left the flats open all day, which is simply part of their defensive structure. They play especially soft when the QB is on the opposite hash, not expecting the arm strength to beat the DB by this much of a margin.
- :45 – The pass defense improved significantly in the red zone, when the compressed field let the Bears get two defenders on any short routes and kept yards after catch to a minimum.
The rushing attack performed against Cal pretty much as expected. Given the Bears’ philosophy and prior performance at preventing explosive rushing, the Ducks mostly used their run game to convert short-yardage situations and set up subsequent plays, rather than the mainstay powering drives down the field as it has been in every other game this season. I also noticed Oregon trying out a few new run plays, to mixed results – some were executed well for big gains like the new QB power read, but others had some weird technical miscues that are uncharacteristic of this offensive line. It remains to be seen if those problems will be ironed out or those plays dropped from the playbook, but this was probably a good environment in which to experiment.
The Ducks had 21 successful designed runs vs 7 failures, or 75% efficiency. That’s an incredible number, but many of their rushes were just barely over the threshold to count as a success given the down & distance. Only two designed rushes gained 10+ yards (12 yards apiece) for an explosiveness rate of just 7%, well under the season average, and Oregon got just 4.2 adjusted YPC. There were only a small number of runs at around the median point, though, with a big cluster around 9-yard gains and another smaller cluster around stuffs at the line. I also thought the Ducks had some nice run sequences where they used Cal’s personnel choices against them. Here’s a representative sample of the rushing offense:
- :00 – This short pull by #53 LG Walk (again rotating at both guard spots with #55 LG Harper and #58 RG Powers-Johnson) to pick up the OLB so #56 LT Bass can seal the DT inside was an interesting wrinkle in the run game. Bass is enduring a hands-to-face foul and #78 C Forsyth is blocking the ILB 15 yards downfield.
- :16 – At times early in this game, as well as other times this season, I’ve had some criticism for #0 RB Irving being too eager to bounce outside and not follow his blocks on these gap schemes. Not so here, another new wrinkle out of their 21-pers look: good run behind the pullers with great finish and ball security.
- :22 – Here’s the LG pull again, but on the weakside this time and the spacing is wonky – the DT just gets off the snap faster than Bass can reach him, blowing up this play. Irving gets full credit for fighting off multiple tacklers to get back to the LOS.
- :38 – In addition to some fun “taco” (tackle-over) plays in this game, they also tried out this shotgun RG/RT flip which previously they’d only done in the I-formation. Walk has an easy path to blocking the ILB on the line, and the OLB breaks what otherwise had been great discipline staying on outside contain – here he’s just staring at the back, shoulders perpendicular to the LOS, while Nix runs right past him on the final meaningful play of the game.
Cal gained about 250 yards of total offense prior to garbage time. Almost 40% of that came on two deep shots early in the game — I thought the coverage was pretty good and the QB took a hit just after releasing on both, but the balls were perfectly placed to their two best wideouts — which resulted in 10 points. The Bears were held scoreless on their remaining eight possessions of meaningful play, with interceptions ending two drives while sacks and holding penalties effectively ended five more by putting them in very long yardages that Cal found impossible to convert.
Oregon effectively shut down what was the more efficient aspect of Cal’s offense going into this game, which was running the ball with their great freshman back. The Ducks successfully defended 13 designed rushes vs 6 failures, or a 68.5% success rate. They limited the Bears to 3.8 adjusted YPC and only two runs, or 10.5%, gained 10+ yards (and on one of those I thought a couple offensive linemen were assiduously helping the Ducks straighten their jerseys). That represents a significant improvement compared to the defenses of Cal’s previous FBS opponents - more than 13 percentage points better in efficiency (and slightly better in both yardage and explosiveness as well). Here’s a representative sample of rush defenses:
- :00 – Oregon played #4 DB B. Williams on the line as part of a Bear front (no pun intended) for a good portion of this game. He’s well built for it and the front is showing good lane discipline here, with #3 DL Dorlus penetrating into the backfield and altering the path, #1 ILB Sewell getting outside for contain, and Williams getting off the RT’s block to contact the back at only two yards deep. Just too much surrendered after contact.
- :07 – Great job by #91 DL Riley to beat the center into the backfield, and #10 ILB Flowe to burst through before the LG can set up. Also note #2 OLB Johnson playing with proper depth and leverage to keep the back from getting outside, a real improvement from early in the season.
- :21 – Oregon used two different formations in long-yardage situation, the usual dime package and this interesting 2-4-5. Cal has more blockers than Oregon has defenders in the box but there’s some very nice block-shedding by Dorlus and #95 DL Ware-Hudson, as well as #33 ILB Bassa properly playing contain and Sewell staying lane disciplined.
- :36 – The biggest benefit from Williams as the Bear defender is that his speed as a DB lets him catch plays from the backside. That slide inside the wideouts leaves him totally unblocked.
Despite those two deep shots, Oregon’s overall performance against the pass was even better from the perspective of efficiency and explosiveness rates. The Ducks successfully defended 26 designed passing plays vs 11 failures, or 70%, which is their best pass defense success rate of the year. They limited Cal to 6.5 adjusted YPA, and less than 6% of passes gained 15+ yards (which were those two deep shots). That’s more than 9 percentage points better in efficiency and more than 11 points better in explosiveness than Cal’s previous FBS opponents (adjusted YPA is about the same). Some examples:
- :00 – This is sort of a blitz, but really Bassa and #18 OLB Funa are covering the TE and RB, respectively. Dorlus is in the backfield almost instantly, with Sewell smashing the center back on his heels so Johnson can twist in for the QB.
- :13 – The QB never gets a chance to set up on this bootleg, there’s too much penetration by the front even with the extra distance they have to run, and Bassa’s speed, which is his big advantage as a convert to ILB, closes this down and forces a throwaway.
- :26 – Nicely defended by #11 CB Bridges here. Some legal handfighting, but more importantly he’s staying in contact and not letting the dangerous receiver get a workable window against the sideline – just too narrow of a space to make this catch.
- :44 – Cal’s in 13-personnel here but Oregon’s staying in nickel and trusting the front. It’s a rollout into a flood concept and we get a nice shot of the secondary in coverage including Williams, #0 CB Gonzalez, #19 DB Hill, and even Johnson backed out. Great hustle by #98 DL Rogers and #99 DL K. Williams, in for the injured #55 DL Taimani.
Where Cal was most consistently effective was hitting 10-to-14 yard passes, of which they had five prior to garbage time plus a touchdown pass into the endzone that traveled about that far. All of these throws were fairly similar in the sense that they beat a cornerback off the break, and were either pre-planned throws released before pressure could possibly get home or Oregon’s pass rush just stalled out. Those strike me as the two biggest areas across the entire team that the Ducks have room for improvement. Some examples:
- :00 – No real pressure here despite the blitz, and Gonzalez mistimes his contact and lets the receiver separate from him on the break.
- :15 – Bridges has inside leverage here which is fine given that Cal usually bends this route to the post rather than the corner fade, but when the receiver breaks outside he turns his head over his inside shoulder to look for the ball and loses contact. He needs to be pivoting the other way to stay in contact and work the receiver out (as he does later in the game).
- :32 – This game got the most playing time since last season’s bowl game for #8 CB Manning. He graded out pretty well but with a couple beats on in-breaking routes like this one.
In last week’s preview, I noted Cal’s defensive line challenges and their declining quarter-by-quarter performance related, in my opinion, to fatigue, and I think we saw evidence of those things on Saturday. We certainly saw the prediction that Cal would allow efficiency but not explosive rushing come true. I also think it was worthwhile to note that the Bears had played maybe only one team with a high-performing quarterback and so their pass defense numbers were somewhat inflated, but that the structure of their defense would work to prevent deep shots all the same. I was expecting some underneath throws from Oregon in this game and in fact nailed the Texas routes that the Ducks used twice for big gains, but I was still surprised by the extent to which the Ducks threw short stuff that went big. Instead I thought Oregon would attack more over the middle in Cal’s defensive soft spot behind the backers, and they really only did that a couple of times with some nice mesh-sit plays. I had some comments about the ILB and CB personnel groups not being up to Cal’s usual standard, but those remain untested because there were some unfortunate absences from those units due to injuries announced just prior to kickoff.
On Friday I stuck up for Cal’s starting QB and said that he threw a pretty effective deep ball which their offensive scheme demanded, and he just usually didn’t have enough time to set up and throw them, and I think that played out on Saturday. Oregon’s forced sack/scramble/throwaway rate was about the same as every other team that played Cal, which is to say an awful lot. I noted that the skill players were a substantial upgrade compared to previous years and I think they showed that to be true on Saturday as well. In the run game I thought their numbers were inflated from a single outlier game and that while their RB room showed some real flashes on the plays that blocking lined up, those were rare and they should be easily contained, which also turned out to be accurate. The only thing I noted that we didn’t see on Saturday was any remnant of the multiple-TE heavy run game – I wrote that their OC had pared such plays down a lot compared to previous years since their TEs just aren’t very good blockers, but I was still surprised that he didn’t use that approach at all.