The most productive part of Oregon’s offense in this game was its downfield passing attack, which was remarkable given the injury situation at quarterback and offensive line. In terms of efficiency it was evenly split, with 13 successful designed downfield passing plays vs 13 failures, but it was highly explosive with 8.7 adjusted YPA (9.8 unadjusted) and 23% gaining 15+ yards.
Utah made an interesting strategic choice in this game to repeatedly show blitz by crowding all six linemen and backers at the line on obvious passing downs, but almost always backing out two and rushing the standard four. Their blitz rate on passing downs (and on all downs) was much lower than it had been in their previous three and a half games, since halftime in week 7 against USC.
This was a curious choice and possibly a mistake; they did generate more pressure rushing only four going up against Oregon’s depleted o-line than previous games would have suggested and #10 QB Nix was less able to scramble free from such pressure than in the past, but he was still more than capable of picking them apart even with more defenders in coverage. With hindsight, I think both teams played this sub-optimally – the Ducks should have been passing downfield more often against a secondary that (with one exception) wasn’t able to defend their more talented receivers, and the Utes should have blitzed more and gotten Nix off-schedule.
Here’s a representative sample of downfield passing plays:
(Reminder - after pressing play, you can use the left button to slow any video to ¼ or ½ speed)
- :00 – This was the most common defensive look when Oregon went empty, crowding the line but then not blitzing and backing out the LBs. I thought that given how successful downfield routes with the outside guys running off the DBs and inside guy running away from those backers were, these should have supplanted a lot more of the screen passes.
- :14 – Here Utah’s got a linebacker and box safety on the line, and another safety fairly shallow, not a great run look despite short yardage. Oregon’s solution was short passing out of it, but I thought Nix picked the wrong receiver here, he should have gone to #1 WR Hutson against the third safety, rather than #2 WR Thornton with one of the best CBs in the league on him.
- :22 – Much better idea to throw to Thornton when literally any other defensive back is trying to cover him. Nix’s power and control despite having to load up on a bum ankle is impressive.
- :39 – Again showing blitz but then only rushing four, this should have been easier for the line to pick up. It’s really shocking at this point to see #56 LT Bass lose his anchor like this with poor hand technique, and #55 LG Harper isn’t maintaining control of his block by the end either. Nix steps out of pressure adroitly but throws it away; this is a pretty good scramble opportunity out the backdoor but that option was foreclosed this game.
One reason Utah may have felt less free to blitz was Oregon’s heavy use of outside screens, which represented a third of passes and a fifth of all plays. This probably had the intended effect of keeping the defense honest, though Utah effectively defended a majority of them with just their secondary and I think OC Dillingham realized later than he should have that the Ducks were much better off throwing screens inside behind the pass rush rather than outside with their shaky perimeter blocking.
Here’s a representative sample of screen passes:
- :00 – Even with the backers retreating, crowding at the line set up tunnel screens nicely. I thought these would have been more common.
- :14 – Instead we saw a lot of screens like this where Utah’s very physical secondary was throwing around Oregon’s blockers.
- :22 – I thought there was ample evidence from early in this game and also Utah’s game against Wazzu that outside screens weren’t going to work, and so I was puzzled we kept seeing them.
- :30 – Finally Oregon wised up and returned to what had worked in the intermediate passing game: running off the DBs, getting the LBs to back out, and throwing underneath the coverage.
Oregon’s rush offense was efficient, with 12 successful designed runs vs 9 failures, or 57%. That figure is still down from every other game this season, with several tackles for loss dragging the average down to a substandard 3.6 adjusted YPC, though they still broke through on enough to get a decent 14% gaining 10+ yards.
Utah wasn’t really stacking the box in this game; they played their standard 4-down, 2-LB front with a box safety added if Oregon had an in-line TE on virtually every snap. Oregon wasn’t running excessively or giving away the play formationally, either, so I don’t think Utah gained any extra advantages from playcalling they wouldn’t have had anyway.
In my opinion there were two factors unique to this game’s circumstances that resulted in a worse rushing performance than both these teams’ season-long numbers would have predicted. First, Nix was no threat to keep the ball, which meant that on almost all runs the Ducks were trying to block seven with six. Second, starting in the 3rd quarter the Utes brought in their heaviest defensive tackle who was effectively defeating the re-shuffled interior of the o-line.
Here’s a representative sample of the rushing offense:
- :00 – The main schematic issue is that Oregon’s run game is built around eliminating a defender by reading him, that wasn’t available so the Ducks were always outnumbered by one (but just one, these aren’t stacked boxes). Here it’s the box safety who’s pointing at the start, he jumps inside on the back so if Nix could run he could have housed it. The solution here was for #0 RB Irving to press in then run outside him and lose him in the wash. Nice block by #11 WR Franklin.
- :23 – Again the read defender is the box safety, and again he’s free to crash on the back because Nix can’t take what would have been a big run. Otherwise good blocking here, and #22 RB Whittington just has to run through the unblocked guy for a 1st down – efficient, but no risk of explosion.
- :29 – In the second half this problem compounded as they were immediately going for the back, and had a much heavier DT in; here he’s crushing #53 C Walk (moonlighting for an absent #78 C Forsyth) while the DE just sidesteps #55 LG Harper’s pull. Nice job by #74 RG S. Jones taking on the nominal starting DT, back in for the first time since week 2 and taking Walk and an injured #58 RG Powers-Johnson’s spot.
- :36 – Another win for the same defenders here – the big replacement DT (who loses his helmet) against Walk and the DE against Harper’s pull.
Oregon’s prevailing defensive strategy was to take away big plays and force Utah to slowly march down the field, betting that they’d make mistakes along the way. The Ducks were successful for their part, allowing only three plays over 15 yards and none of 20+, and surrendering just 4.7 yards per play. The Utes obliged by making plenty of drive-killing mistakes in terms of drops, forced throws, and turnovers, more than is typical for that team (a less charitable interpretation is that Utah has been playing this kind of risky football for a while and this was simply the game in which their luck ran out).
Utah was efficient but not explosive running the ball, setting themselves up with 2nd and 3rd & manageables for most of the night. Oregon successfully defended 13 designed rushes vs 19 failures, or about 40.5%, which is lower than the Ducks’ season average but about typical for the Utes’ rushing offense. Utah never really broke through on those runs, however, with Oregon holding them under 4.5 adjusted YPC and with fewer than 9.5% of runs gaining 10+ yards.
There are a few interesting notes about how Utah ran the ball against Oregon’s rush defense. First, the Utes have a very high “yaco” score on my tally sheet, which are plays that would have been wins for the defense had the ballcarrier gone down immediately but instead he powered through contact to flip it to a win for the offense - these are seldom big plays but they can keep the sticks moving. Second, Utah deployed three designed QB runs in this game, which they hadn’t done at all since week 7 (likely to protect their QB’s health after missing a game), and two of those clearly caught Oregon by surprise.
The third and most intriguing factor is that Oregon generated five tackles for loss in this game, more than either teams’ previous numbers would have indicated – it’s difficult to pinpoint a single reason why, though I suspect that Utah’s extremely predictable rush offense played a large part. I believe that all those TFLs made Utah’s OC Ludwig gunshy about running in short yardage situations despite the fact that their overall efficiency numbers indicated that would have been a smarter call, instead reverting to what I think has been a bad habit in his career of trusting his QB to bail him out.
Here’s a representative sample of Oregon’s rush defenses:
- :00 – Great penetration by #95 DT Ware-Hudson and #55 DT Taimani. This is a yaco run if I’ve ever seen one, the officials elect to make the spot at the 35 yard line, which if the ball makes does so by an inch.
- :14 – Utah had their starting center from the beginning of the year back in action, but still had to play their backup RG who’s had a tough time filling in. #98 DT C. Rogers makes it even tougher on this snap, but Taimani’s is beating the LG who’s played every game for a couple years.
- :37 – A plurality of Utah’s rushes in this game (and many others) look exactly like this – just a katamari ball of humans for six yards. It would be nice if #33 ILB Bassa could hit the center harder to drive him back and deny the space to get moving.
- :46 – Utah’s film makes this 11-pers under-center playcall very clear, it’ll be a strongside run. Oregon apparently does film study too because the whole line is slanting that way, including Taimani and #2 OLB Johnson who win handily and get the TFL.
Oregon’s defense did very well against the pass, though they were certainly aided by a number of forced and unforced errors on Utah’s part. The Ducks successfully defended 25 designed passing plays vs 17 failures, or 59.5%. They limited the Utes to just 4.6 adjusted YPA, which is an incredible number, with only about 9.5% of pass plays gaining 15+ yards.
I think Oregon successfully used Utah’s offensive predictability against them in two ways. First, the QB appears to only be comfortable throwing to two receivers who combined for over two-thirds of all targets, with the TE getting almost 50% (including all three interceptions). The Ducks planned their coverage accordingly, putting their fastest coverage guys (#0 CB Gonzalez on the outside, #13 DB Addison on the inside) over the WR and frequently double covering the TE. On the other hand, this game may also have been an apt illustration of the Utes’ talent issues among their receivers – the entire pool of pass-catchers outside the top two guys had only four catches vs seven incompletions (which was over half of all of Utah’s incompletions).
Second, Oregon seemed keenly aware of the ways that Utah’s formation and QB alignment telegraph the playcall. The Ducks matched personnel in the sense that they brought in a second OLB when the Utes brought in a second TE, but they flipped strong and weakside and often had #18 OLB Funa playing off the line with the ILBs when they perceived (mostly correctly, from the down & distance and whether the QB was in the shotgun or under center) that a two-TE play would be a pass. They also brought a couple interesting blitzes and simulated pressures as well, including one they hadn’t used before, which exploited how the TEs block in pass protection.
Here’s a representative sample of pass defenses:
- :00 – Oregon’s in dime here, with two DLs and three backers on the LOS, and dropping two deep safeties while the other four DBs play man. #3 DL Dorlus is hurrying the QB so of course he goes to his favorite target, against pretty decent coverage by #4 DB B. Williams. Forcing this throw was pretty common in this game, this one goes to the Utes.
- :15 – This coverage really caught my attention - #8 CB Manning is outside on their top wideout, while Gonzalez is inside on a much less frequently targeted guy. Manning legally works his man out (the deep wing’s hat is on the ground) while Gonzalez has an easy PBU against a less talented player. Also note the double coverage on the TE by Bassa and Williams.
- :31 – First time for this blitz, Johnson going wide pulls the LT off while rushing #1 ILB Sewell gets the LG, C, and back (!), leaving Dorlus free to split blockers and get to the QB. The other TE is open but of course this offense is unlikely to get him the ball when the chips are down.
- :41 – Note Funa as an overhang backer to the field (standing on the top left part of the O). The back is heading out so Sewell’s blitz is unblocked, speeding up the timing. It’s man against the other four receivers but the reader should know by now the QB is going to force this ball to his favorite TE, so he gets two defenders. Funa is in position to bump him, the ball becomes a little off target, and Williams is there to collect his second pick of the night.
In last week’s preview, I spent quite some time discussing Utah’s defensive front personnel, all of which played as expected, though the big DT I noted who should be getting more playing time in fact did. I mentioned that their rush defense had declined and they were particularly weak against QB keeps and draws, and those things obviously didn’t pertain to this game. The most salient player was their top box safety who I thought was their key defensive player, and he was the primary beneficiary of Nix’s inability to run. In pass defense, I thought it was bizarre that so many opponents kept throwing against their best corner, and while I continue to think it was bizarre Oregon tried it (even getting picked off late in the game by him), I think the observation that they could throw against literally everyone else was borne out. The biggest miss from my article is the lack of blitzing in this game, I don’t have a good answer for why this disappeared. It would be very convenient for me to simply say it was a bad choice and I can’t predict those, but there’s probably something else going on that I can’t identify.
I think I accurately described the narrowing of Utah’s offensive options that their talent departures and injuries have created, as well as the QB’s tunnel vision problem and the OC’s lack of creativity. Their offense followed formational and alignment giveaways precisely. I noted that despite the QB’s injury he was still scrambling well, and true to form he did so several times this game. I have to take black eye in my description of their designed rushing options, however. I spent some time talking about how diverse the room has become, but instead they handed the ball to the primary back 60% of the time and only 25% to two of the other four backs, with the rest going to QB keeps I specifically said weren’t happening, and an endaround which was the longest play of the day and their only offensive touchdown. I especially regret not mentioning the endaround since they’d run about one of those per game for the last three seasons to that particular receiver – not common enough for it to be a representative run (which is how it got past the formula that suggests clips for me) but frequent and unique enough that I should have mentioned it.