Oregon’s rushing attack was once again exceptionally efficient, with 21 successful designed runs vs 9 failures, or 70% given the down & distance. The Ducks averaged 6.3 adjusted YPC (7.2 unadjusted), with almost 17% of rushes gaining 10+ yards. The run game set the tone for Oregon’s entire offense, and I believe leaning on it was the tentpole of overall gameplan to control possessions and keep UNC’s offense on the sideline. Here’s a representative sample:
(Reminder - after pressing play, you can use the left button to slow any video to 1⁄4 or 1⁄2 speed)
- :00 – This is one of the 21-personnel looks, UNC moves a LB out of the box when the second back moves out of the backfield instead of spinning a safety down, making this even easier work for the o-line to open up massive gaps. Nice move by #20 RB James, who got several carries in this game as a vote of confidence for his role next year, to make the CB miss.
- :17 – Back to 12-personnel, with both #3 TE Ferguson and #84 TE McCormick throwing the key blocks on this toss play for #22 RB Whittington, while #23 WR Cota gets to take on a DB instead of a third backer since UNC stays in nickel.
- :26 – Oregon introduced a power read play for this game which they ran several times, with two keeps by #10 QB Nix. Those keeps weren’t very effective as he shied away from contact, and I think he missed a keep-read on this play.
- :38 – But the Ducks were successful on most of their handoffs because Nix’s mere threat to run was enough to keep the defense’s attention. Watch both the tackle and end focus on Nix here, giving four OL hats on four remaining box players, while Ferguson throws another great block downfield.
I suspect that Oregon’s coaching staff realized from film study that UNC stays in their nickel defensive package regardless of the offensive personnel, giving offenses a rushing advantage if they play multiple tight ends. Until the final two drives, Oregon played every snap in 12- or 21-personnel, and restricted their downfield passing to short throws. I think that their strategy was to shorten the game and control the clock so that the Ducks could monopolize scoring opportunities. This basically worked exactly as planned right up until the very end of the 1st half, when UNC collected a highly improbable interception. That turned what likely would have been a drive that scored as time expired in the half and denied UNC another possession, into a free short field on which the Tar Heels scored on their first play.
At that point, the Ducks probably should have switched strategies and started throwing downfield more, but they didn’t, instead having three consecutive empty possessions. They finally switched to an 11-personnel passing offense on the final two drives as time was running out, in which they pressed their advantage against the Heels’ depleted secondary and scored twice to win.
There are three theories as to why Oregon had five empty possessions in a game in which they had nine meaningful drives (their season-long drive efficiency rate, especially against a defense this poor, would have predicted something like seven scoring drives, not four). The first is that UNC had some flukey stuff go their way, like the interception and a very uncustomary sack. The second is that Nix was still injured and his accuracy and running ability was hampered. The third is that the replacement playcallers without regular OC Kenny Dillingham were ineffective. After reviewing the film, my conclusion is that each of those things is somewhat true but doesn’t explain the whole thing.
Overall, the passing offense was as efficient as usual, with 20 successful designed passing plays vs 13 failures, or about a 60.5% success rate. However, the yardage and explosiveness were way down, just 7.0 adjusted YPA and 15% gaining 15+ yards. That reflects how most of the game Oregon was only throwing short passes – moving the chains, but not by big chunks.
My guess is that this was part of the gameplan to control the clock, in which explosive plays would be counterproductive, though I think the staff stuck with it for too long. Keeping to 12-personnel eliminated the breathing room that putting multiple burners on the field and stretching it vertically creates, and I noted several plays in which the defense was more successful than they should have been because they knew it was going to be short stuff to a limited range of receiving options. I also think Nix’s accuracy, which up until his injury in week 12 was one of the best I’d ever seen, was still suffering in this game with four badly off-target throws. Some examples:
- :00 – UNC switched to zone coverage in the second half, and this man-beater crosser isn’t a good selection against it. Intriguingly UNC did something they hadn’t all year long, which is drop the DE into coverage, which freed the ILB for this tackle.
- :08 – Nix’s throwing motion is weird and hurried here, he’s not stepping into the throw and pointing his hips at the receiver properly, and the ball goes wide on him.
- :14 – This is a weird play design, the RB as the Z isn’t taking the top off and the only burners on the field are running hitch routes. It would have been better to have #1 WR Hutson run a drive route underneath #23 WR Cota’s flag. Nix is hesitating on #11 WR Franklin in the flat or Cota’s deep route, both of which would have been better throws than the double-covered Ferguson.
But neither the “Nix is hurt” nor the “interim playcallers stink” theories can account for the highly effective scoring drives Oregon did have, especially the final two drives which constituted 14 passes to two runs (of which one was a QB keep), nor how well Nix moved outside the pocket on bootlegs and adjustments. Nix was given an effective passing tree on most plays, and on most plays he put the ball right where it needed to be to generate yards after catch, with his best and deepest throws coming at the end of the game. Some examples:
- :00 – Most of the big plays early in the game while they were in 12-personnel were to tight ends who just smashed the undersized DBs in nickel coverage.
- :07 – The most common play of the 12-pers part of the game was a shallow crosser. UNC spent the first half in man coverage and had the ILB take off early against the RB wheel so there’d be room for Ferguson on the mesh to turn downfield and gain more, but they bump into each other and Nix finds Franklin before the free safety can come up.
- :19 – This is what I was expecting to see all game long but didn’t until the final two drives – play action sucks down the over-agressive backers and boundary safety, while the STAR over Cota in zone drops to the flat/curl. Franklin running the deep post has pulled the CB out (and he falls down). That only leaves the free safety to stop this deep shot, and he’s on the wrong side of the field over Hutson’s 15-yd square in. Perfect throwing form and spiral from Nix, certainly doesn’t seem troubled at all.
The Ducks only allowed one play of over 25 yards in this game (though it was a shocking one that gave the Heels the lead they maintained for most of the second half), and considering the only matchup advantage that UNC had over Oregon on either side of the ball, that’s a pretty good result.
Oregon’s defensive strategy was to play a fairly light box and trust their interior defensive line to shut down the run without help, and blitz much more frequently than they had all season long against the pass. Even though Oregon hasn’t had an effective edge rush for most of the year, against UNC’s offensive line they correctly figured that they could simply overwhelm it with numbers and force the QB into bad throws.
UNC was without their top two receivers in this game, one of which was expected but the other was a surprise at game time. I still think they have a very talented group of receiving options, but on the outside it meant Oregon’s corners were working against a true freshman playing his first game and an experienced player with a drop problem, and so they didn’t feel the absence of NFL draft opt-out #0 CB Gonzalez very much. Young backups #6 CB Florence and #8 CB Manning held their own on the outside along with starter #11 CB Bridges, and Oregon’s veteran safeties got tested the most on throws over the middle.
The Ducks successfully defended 22 designed passing plays vs 18 failures, or a 55% defensive success rate, which is about in line with their own yearlong average but about five points better than UNC’s other opponents performed. The most important figures in this game were the yardage and explosiveness numbers in the passing game, in my opinion: UNC only gained 5.5 adjusted YPA with only two passes, or 7.5%, gaining 15+ yards. That’s 2.7 yards and 13.5 percentage points better than UNC’s 12 other FBS opponents, a vast change to their passing effectiveness. I think being out their top receivers contributed significantly to this, but the Ducks had a strategy to limit explosive plays and force quick throws against the blitz, and they covered the deep ball well. Some examples:
- :00 – I watched UNC’s QB try this exact throw by CB leverage two dozen times over the last month of film study, he’s totally confident that Florence is going to fall for the inside move or fail to recover from the stutter and be out of position when the WR goes for the corner. Instead Florence’s mirror is perfect with soft quick steps and proper hips, his eyes track the ball and his hands are legal. Beautiful CB play from the true freshman.
- :07 – A six-man blitz this time, with former walk-on #35 ILB Roth smashing the RB into the QB’s lap. Predictably he tries to run for it against man, but #3 DE Dorlus and #18 OLB Funa have their heads up and get off their blocks to get the sack. The reverse angle shows good coverage across the board from the DBs in cover-1.
- :26 – Blitzing reliably got the QB out of the pocket, as #55 DT Taimani’s penetration against the weak LG does here, and he did succeed on several scrambles, but Oregon forced more throwaways with dogged coverage like #19 DB Hill’s and Dorlus tracking the QB.
Oregon also replaced opt-out #1 ILB Sewell with #21 ILB K. Brown, who played very well against the run but still has some work to do in pass coverage, and most of UNC’s successful throws targeted the short interior of the field against those ILBs and safeties. Forcing short throws and getting the QB to scramble instead of set up in the pocket for deadly accurate deep throws was the gameplan and it was an effective one, although it still meant giving up some efficiency plays. Some examples:
- :00 – This was something else I watched constantly over the last month of film study, UNC’s QB is a Heisman-caliber performer and he gets off last-microsecond accurate throws like this even when he’s going to take a chest crusher from Brown. Blitzing means lots of man coverage and vulnerabilities to quick in-breakers like this; at least a couple of DBs are in position to prevent the explosive, per strategy.
- :17 – And he’s faster on the scramble than most of your defenders too. Somehow #33 ILB Bassa is delayed from disengaging with the RG to try and run him down.
- :27 – The umpire really got a workout in this game. The mesh as man-beater worked for UNC as well, and this TE had become their replacement go-to guy by the end of the season with their top WR missing time.
The rush defense was a strength-on-weakness matchup in the Ducks’ favor. UNC didn’t run very well or often going into this game, and Oregon didn’t let them change that in this game. Oregon successfully defended 20 designed rushes vs 7 failures, or a 74% defensive success rate. The Heels gained only 3.5 adjusted YPC and only one designed run (a QB draw, holding with UNC’s pattern) gained 10+ yards.
Running was never going to be a big part of UNC’s gameplan and they don’t really run to set up the pass, so the important thing for Oregon was to not overcommit resources to stopping it, which they did. Here’s a representative sample:
- :00 – Evidence of proper film study from Oregon’s defense here, with Dorlus widening the instant the QB signals the TE … he knows this means the TE is going to come under to block the run and he needs to maintain outside leverage. Of course, with the RB staying inside he’s going nowhere against #91 DT Riley and #95 DT Ware-Hudson – effective run-clogging with just six in the box, per Mint front philosophy.
- :08 – Great job flowing to the play from the opposite side with square shoulders by Roth, and #12 DB David comes down perfectly from 12 yards out to help, beating the X-receiver’s block.
- :15 – Brown has to stay outside on the possibility of the QB keep while Funa is getting to the inside gap, so this play requires Roth to fire upfield the instant the TE starts blocking Funa and he has no pass coverage responsibilities. It’s impressive recovery for Brown to even attempt the tackle since the QB should have eliminated him from the play, but Roth is a beat slow to hit the back.
- :20 – Unlike UNC, Oregon did personnel match when they went to 12-pers, and knows from film study that this is going to be a run 83% of the time with this formation, down & distance, and field position. Technically this is a 4-3 since #90 DE Shipley is a lineman, but he’s playing stand-up like a backer (probably because every OLB besides Funa and the true freshmen has now transferred out) so this is more like their usual 3-4. Dorlus gets off his block and Funa is setting the edge properly, and the surprise run blitz by Bridges produces a big hit in the backfield.
I think Tuesday’s preview pretty accurately sold the QB’s capabilities as well as what the pass-catchers could do. I was surprised by one of their receivers being a scratch, but our podcast guest Isaac correctly alerted us to the true freshman playing and he got a couple big catches including a TD. I described rollouts as common to this offense, but UNC didn’t really try any in this game and I don’t know why, but I suspect it’s related to the Heels also being out their usual OC and as such this was likely unpredictable. Describing deep throws as setting up underneath ones, instead of using the run game to set up deep throws, was certainly very accurate to this game. UNC’s poor OL play predicated Oregon’s blitzing strategy so it seems I detected the same things as the Ducks’ staff, though I was surprised they so rarely rushed three and kept back a spy since that was the other successful strategy I’d seen ACC defenses use. UNC’s rush vs pass situational tendencies were exactly in line with season-long observations.
UNC’s defense, at least on the scoreboard, overperformed their F+ ranking, and I think I was right to describe them as more talented than that opponent-adjusted ranking (which likely stemmed from the lousy offenses they played) implied. Naturally, the ILB I described as the weaker of the two got a game-changing miraculous interception, as kismet decrees I must be embarrassed like this at least once per bowl game. Otherwise the defense performed exactly as described, with nickel personnel choices, tackling issues, and only having one effective pass rusher all played out as I documented.