The narrative that emerged during and after the game — Oregon moved the ball at will outside the redzone, stumbled there in the first half, then fixed those problems in the second – is essentially correct. In fact, the issue can be entirely isolated to first-half snaps in the low redzone (inside the 10-yard line), in which Oregon failed on all eight plays. On the remaining 67 meaningful snaps of the game, the Ducks had a 66% success rate and gained 9.3 yards per play on average, which are championship-caliber numbers.
With one obvious exception, #10 QB Nix had an excellent raw statline that’s born out in the advanced numbers as well: the Ducks were successful on 27 designed passing plays vs 17 failures, given the down & distance, over 61%. They averaged over 10.4 in adjusted YPA, and fully 25% of passes gained 15+ yards – and that includes redzone plays. The line gave up no sacks, and Nix had a couple of scrambles on the ground for 11 and 12 yards which both picked up 1st downs. 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 – Wazzu’s speed on this blitz is pretty impressive, and #56 LT Bass doesn’t widen fast enough to pick it up, while rookie #55 LG Harper doesn’t get the memo to slide over and get the DE who had been Bass’ assignment before the blitz came. Nix displays some elite body control to avoid the sack and get rid of the ball.
- :15 – As noted in last Friday’s article, the deep hole in the middle of Wazzu’s secondary is enormous. Oregon played about half of the game in 12 personnel and often kept both TEs in to block, I believe because they were more concerned about the pass rush than the secondary in coverage, and it paid off.
- :30 – Only 12 yards per catch for #23 WR Cota’s seven receptions, but all for good solid gains to keep the chains moving. Here Nix is simply filling in the void created by the blitz, and Cota turns a 5-yard hitch into an 18-yard gain.
- :39 – Wazzu initially brings seven but then backs out the ends into coverage, but no problem for this o-line with some help from the back. The Cougs’ zone coverage gave free access to the sideline for a lot of quick completions, which is a weird choice when that many defenders are occupied in the box.
The rushing offense also had a good game overall, with 17 successes on designed runs vs 14 failures, or 55%, with an adjusted 5.2 yards per carry average, and an outstanding 22.5% gaining 10+ yards. The rushing offensive statistics took the brunt of the first-half redzone problems; excluding those plays from the dataset would boost the numbers to 74% efficiency, 7.1 adjusted YPC, and over 30% explosiveness, which would each be well beyond championship caliber. The offensive line and tight ends in run blocking all graded out exceptionally well on my tally sheet, and the two primary backs used on standard downs, #0 RB Irving and #22 RB Whittington, both showed great cuts and burst. Here’s a representative sample of the rushing offense:
- :00 – Great blocking by the non-linemen here to the edge: Cota, #3 TE Ferguson, and #8 TE Matavao. They get their guys sealed inside so Irving has a one-on-one with the corner, whom he beats.
- :09 – Nice hit by #84 TE McCormick, and Whittington’s crab-like footwork is remarkable, but #71 RT Aumavae-Laulu misses his second-level block and the athletic backer bursts into the backfield.
- :22 – No help this time, just fantastic man blocks from all five lineman in a very elegant power run. Great acceleration by Irving to make the most of it.
- :37 – I thought this was the most poorly blocked run by the interior of the line all day, but Oregon’s size and talent advantage was significant enough to pick up the 1st down anyway (the superimposed line is drawn a half-yard too far, the LTG is actually the 49 and this run made it).
It’s stark how different Oregon’s redzone offense was between the first and second halves. Here are their success vs failure play counts:
- 1st half: 3 vs 12, 20% success rate (low redzone 0 vs 8)
- 2nd half: 9 vs 3, 75% success rate (low redzone 4 vs 2)
Of those dozen failed first-half plays, in my opinion five were appropriate playcalls and the stop simply came down to the defense executing better than the offense, and to an extent that’s to be expected – you can’t win them all, and Wazzu’s defense is well coached. However, I think the other seven were inadvisable playcalls or designs for the redzone against this defense, and OC Dillingham deserves some criticism for those decisions. Some examples:
- :00 – Notice the different alignment of the defense here compared to the first clip in the last video – they can bring the safeties down in the redzone and are pretty sure the play is going outside, so none of the TEs here can get outside leverage.
- :11 – A QB sneak from two yards out is a strange decision, but more to the point look how low and quick off the snap Wazzu’s small defenders can get. They know what’s coming, have a bunch of bodies right on the line, and the one advantage that was clear from all previous film is that they’d get under and defeat this kind of thing.
- :22 – This play design is the same as what worked perfectly outside the redzone, and the blocking is all fine as well, but when the field is compressed like this the safety can come down and there’s nobody to account for him in the blocking scheme.
- :28 – I generally like creativity and a surprise shovel pass qualifies, but I don’t understand the blocking choices here. Why does the play design have Aumavae-Laulu uselessly chasing a DT backside but nobody to block the safety?
Fortunately for the Ducks, it was just these ineffective playcalls that were largely cut out in the 2nd half. I thought they were replaced by more appropriate ones for the situation, or in a couple cases were similar plays but succeeded because the defense was pretty fatigued at that point and losing its speed advantage against Oregon’s talent. Some examples:
- :00 – This RPO slant is what they should have been running all along, indeed they could have cribbed it from Wazzu’s offense. With all those defenders at the second level crowding the run, there’s no underneath coverage for an easy completion to #11 WR Franklin.
- :12 – Unbalanced to the field with a tight end split out gets a favorable look to the boundary. Great run by Whittington here, the outside step causes the backer who nailed him earlier for a TFL to widen too much, he then cuts inside him for a nice gain and the 1st down.
- :18 – The jumbo I-formation from last game, but with a wrinkle - #76 OL Conerly is at LT, Aumavae-Laulu has flipped spots with #58 RG Powers-Johnson (who split drives with #53 RG Walk), and Bass is over at the far right. UCLA calls tackle-over plays “taco” so I call this play the “taco grande”. Anyway, repeatedly hammering the run causes Wazzu to forget about McCormick for an easy TD toss.
- :32 – This blocking scheme is fairly similar to a failed redzone run from earlier, but with more than 58 minutes of gameclock expired Wazzu’s defense is starting to flag. Look how much slower off the snap they are, and how much more easily Oregon establishes leverage.
Charting this side of the game was a frustrating experience, because the project is about filtering out noise to document fundamental strengths and weaknesses, and there was an awful lot of noise when the Cougs had the ball – trick plays, broken plays, and some extremely peculiar officiating.
Wazzu’s offense scored three touchdowns prior to garbage time. On all three of those drives there was at least one each of a trick play, a 1st down from a penalty on Oregon, and a scramble that switched a dead play into a 1st down. There were no holding flags during the entire game, but there was the curious case of the missing play.
The Cougs ran three trick plays in this game – a flea flicker, a fake sideline check, and a reverse into a double pass. All three worked, with an average gain of 26 yards. Those were Wazzu’s only completed passes prior to garbage time that went more than 10 yards down the field – the rest of their offense was screens, short passes, a rather ineffective run game, and a whole lot of scrambling. Pressure in the backfield was a constant: 41% of rushing attempts ended in a tackle for loss or stuff at the line, and the same percentage of dropbacks for downfield passing plays resulted in sack, scramble, or throwaway.
Oregon had Wazzu’s rushing offense bottled up all game long, and without using heavy boxes to do so. The Ducks were successful stopping 11 designed run plays vs 6 failures, or 64.5%. The Cougs gained only 3.1 adjusted YPC on designed runs, and less than 6% of them gained 10+ yards (that’s just one play, a sweep they hadn’t put on film before). Here’s a representative sample of all rush defenses:
- :00 – Immediate penetration by #3 DE Dorlus, knocking the LT on his heels, spills the back for a long run along the sideline, ultimately slipping right before #4 DB B. Williams can hit him.
- :07 – Somehow Dorlus doesn’t use two arms to try and tackle the back. The defender with the most strikes on my tally sheet remains #33 ILB Bassa, here he’s in position to make the tackle but gets dragged a couple extra yards.
- :14 – Bassa did get in several good plays by utilizing his speed, however, like this one where he just races past the RG for a TFL.
- :19 – Great job destroying the offensive line here, I had six more clips just like this to choose from. This one shows off #55 DT Taimani and #98 DE Rogers teaming up for a big TFL.
If the three trick plays are included in the passing evaluation, then the Ducks’ performance against the pass was 29 successful defenses vs 23 failures, or 56%, a pretty good efficiency number. The Cougs averaged 7.3 adjusted YPA, a middling number for both teams, but under 10% of passing plays gained 15+ yards, which is an excellent defensive performance. If those three trick plays are excluded, the numbers go to 59% defensive efficiency, 5.8 adjusted YPA, and 4% explosives allowed, which are all championship-caliber numbers.
It was fairly clear that the Ducks’ defensive strategy was to back out most of the defense into coverage, mostly rely on a four-man rush (sometimes just three) with only the occasional blitz, and limit big plays. The Cougs’ strategy, as is usually the case with Air Raid teams, is to methodically march down the field, so this amounted to calling the bluff. As a strategy I think this was appropriate and it mostly worked, giving up just 27 offensive points prior to garbage time, and without some execution issues resulting in drive-extending penalties and broken plays miraculously converting 1st downs, I’m certain that would have been considerably lower. The camera angles gave some unusually good shots of coverage across the board, and I thought the Ducks secondary performed pretty well. Some examples:
- :00 – Not only is this excellent penetration by Dorlus, #10 ILB Flowe, and #18 OLB Funa, but they’re maintaining good lane discipline and working the QB to the boundary so he can’t scramble out and instead has to throw it away. Terrific coverage on the replay angle, #11 CB Bridges is pointing for #1 ILB Sewell offscreen to pick up the underneath coverage, which you can see he’s doing on the first angle.
- :16 – Second very pretty PBU in as many weeks by an Oregon DB.
- :30 – I can’t imagine why Dorlus runs with his hips first past so many offensive linemen. Nice twist by #95 DL Ware-Hudson (usually an end but here playing 0-tech since he’s big enough), swatting the ball down. Since Wazzu is the Auburn of the West it lands back in the QB’s hands, but Sewell has run all the way around the play to be in position to shove him to the ground.
- :39 – Interesting d-line alignment here, none of Dorlus, Rogers, or #91 DL Riley are typical nose tackles and they’re all stemmed over, with Riley as the 1-tech. He works his way outside of the LT and provides contain while Funa drops into coverage, he’s who prevents the QB from scrambling away. Another replay showing great coverage.
Other than trick plays (and penalties), Wazzu really only gained ground on scrambles, short slant passes, and screens. The short passes were expected, it’s what the Air Raid does, but Wazzu’s QB played by far his best game as a Cougar in turning the frequent pocket drama of the previous three weeks into productive gains. Some examples:
- :00 – I thought Wazzu’s previous weeks of film were very clear that this RPO slant is their best play and so blitzing Sewell from this spot seemed like a bad choice to me.
- :06 – Sewell misses the tackle here but I think the real problem with Oregon failing to turn these into sacks is the lane discipline. In this example #21 ILB K. Brown needs to stay on the RG’s outside shoulder. Even though Rogers is on the ground he’s creating enough of a mess of bodies that the QB is unlikely to make it through that way, but by going inside Brown is letting the QB out through the outside gap.
- :16 – I believe this is supposed to be just a three-man rush with Flowe acting as a spy, but I think his eyes get too big and he goes for the QB. If he’d stayed in underneath coverage he might have deterred this slant.
- :24 – The craziest thing about this play is that it’s not even the craziest scramble of the game. There were no illegal block in the back flags thrown in this game.
The Ducks had a tough time defending screens to start the game, with a failure given the down & distance on four of the Cougs’ first five. But they made some adjustments to how the OLB lined up and reversed their fortunes, successfully defending six of the remaining seven, and culminating in a game-sealing pick-six on an attempted tunnel screen. Here’s a representative sample of all screen defenses:
- :00 – Why, another one-armed tackle attempt, this time by Williams after destroying that WR block so effectively. The block destruction by #7 DB Stephens is pretty amusing. #11 CB Bridges is playing with proper outside leverage, it looks silly for him to be on the ground but his entire job is keeping the receiver from getting to the sideline and trusting the rest of the defense to make the tackle.
- :10 – The fake sweep to start this play works, it draws Sewell out of the box where he might have helped on the tunnel. Again Bassa has beaten a block but has difficulty with the tackle.
- :19 – Interesting 2-4 structure here now that Wazzu has gone 4-wide. Nice job by Bridges getting off his block and the rest of the defense rallying to the ball.
- :28 – It’s clear that the staff trusts true sophomores Bassa and Brown’s speed enough to play them this far outside. Again a nice job winning leverage and making the tackle.
I think last week’s preview struck an appropriate balance between noting all the ways that the Cougs’ new staff has improved their defense’s fundamentals with better tackling and leveraging their speed advantage in a 4-down front, and expressing skepticism that their effectiveness on paper would hold up in conference play due to many notable problems with their opponents to date. But I didn’t predict that the way this tension would present itself would be in such stark redzone disparities. I think I was right to note the vulnerabilities of the linebackers and safeties in coverage, and most of Oregon’s big passing plays went against those defenders rather than the corners. I also documented a real vulnerability to counter runs and other rushing playcalls that cause the front to aggressively slant one way and then the back bends it the other way, which certainly showed up, but many of the Ducks’ effective run plays simply came on brutally powerful gap schemes which outperformed my expectations.
Given that Wazzu gained yardage only on short first-read throws, trick plays (which by definition don’t involve going through a progression), and scrambles, I think my description of their QB was pretty accurate. But film led me to believe that frequent pocket breakdowns would result in more interceptions and defensive wins than actually happened, and so Coug fans may be right that he’s getting up to FBS speed which I was skeptical of. He was also more accurate on screen passes than he’d been in the past, though ultimately the same mediocre efficiency at them showed up. The offensive line giving up pressure and not opening holes for the run game went just as predicted.