The Ducks performed at an elite level in their aggregate per-play efficiency and explosiveness statistics against the Cougars, with a 66% success rate prior to garbage time (37 successes vs 19 failures, given the down & distance), gaining 9.9 adjusted YPP and 27% achieving explosive yardage.
I thought the tape showed Wazzu’s defense playing a pretty disciplined game, avoiding some of the overrunning problems that they’d shown in earlier games and not falling for a couple of misdirection and RPO plays that Oregon often finds to be reliable against less well coached defenses. The Ducks altered their approach as the first half went on to rely less on manipulation and more on their outright talent advantage, and by the fourth possession were brutalizing the Cougs with power runs that they couldn’t stop along with some passing plays in which they simply outran the coverage.
The passing offense was incredibly explosive when it connected, averaging 11.7 adjusted YPA with an astonishing 41.5% of passes gaining 15+ yards. Some examples:
(Reminder – you can use the button in the lower right corner to control playback speed)
- :00 – Excellent job in blitz identification here from everybody on the o-line, then #10 QB Nix signals #0 RB Irving to motion out of the formation which re-aligns the backers. The free safety spins down to fill for the blitzing nickel, now that the backer has to go out on Irving, and #15 WR Te. Johnson cuts across him and into the now-vacant zone.
- :14 – The pass rush is winning here but Nix doesn’t need much time with #11 WR Franklin’s ability to beat press man from Wazzu’s best corner off the line.
- :26 – The backer is clued into the RPO here and the timer is ticking with #58 C Powers-Johnson getting downfield for what might have been yet another IDP flag, so Nix needs to clear him out of the throwing lane quickly. He does so with his eyes, looking off that backer by seeming to lock onto Johnson on the smoke screen to get him to step upfield, then switching and firing downfield to Franklin at the sticks.
- :39 – Johnson is one-on-one against Wazzu’s more coverage-oriented nickel (he got a pick-six against UCLA’s Dante Moore, though who hasn’t?), and the confidence expressed by Nix in his adoptive brother is remarkable here – the ball is released before he’s turned his head or even out of his break. Placement is perfect.
However, the passing offense was slightly under championship caliber in terms of efficiency at 58% with 14 successes vs 10 failures, needing a play or two more to connect to get over the threshold. The biggest culprit in failed passing plays was pressure getting through, with both #76 LT Conerly and #65 RT Cornelius recording one additional bad play apiece over their expected rate coming into this game, and true freshman #72 OG I. Laloulu – who played his most extensive game yet, almost half of meaningful snaps, rotating with both #55 LG Harper and #74 RG S. Jones – getting run over a couple times. A distant second was cornerback coverage, which was highly aggressive all afternoon and even got a DPI flag to my absolute amazement.
Here’s a representative sample of failed passing plays:
- :00 – Just a great defensive playcall here, trusting their best edge rusher to beat Cornelius on his own so they can back out eight including the other edge to the strong side – that blows the whole play up, Nix has nowhere to go with the ball and no good scramble options either.
- :14 – Baffling blitz pickup; they have plenty of time to see it coming, and there’s no advantage to Conerly helping with the DT and letting the end get a free rush on Nix.
- :21 – I think this is a pretty well designed play and I like the selection given the down & distance. They get exactly the reaction they want out of both backers and the nickel on the RPO, but the corner drops from his man disguise into zone and figures it out, and then shows the short wing how to make Johnson try a one-handed catch.
I thought this past Saturday demonstrated quite a bit of gamesmanship from OC Stein, both in terms of analyzing and exploiting weaknesses in Wazzu’s defense as well as putting on tape up to eight new plays (depending on how you count a certain RPO) that Oregon had never shown before, no doubt to give opponents in the back half of the season more to chew on. Here are some examples in the passing offense:
- :00 – Zone assignment errors like this are fairly predictable from Wazzu’s backers, here both of them follow the back out into the flat and leave #3 TE Ferguson undefended.
- :17 – Oregon is unbalanced to the boundary with four receiving options to that side, which Wazzu’s coverage rules and devotion to cover-2 mean they’ll have to give up a pass rusher and leave Franklin in single coverage with no safety help or any other defender protecting a huge swath of grass.
- :24 – Empty formation, multiple verticals to drive the secondary deep, then cross the backer’s face with the biggest speed mismatch on the field.
The most intriguing new plays came in the run game, some of which didn’t work out (a bit surprisingly, the Cougs broke their slanting tendencies and didn’t fall for one I was sure they would have) early on which slowed a couple drives. But most were successful, simply because of the mismatch between Oregon’s rushing offensive efficiency and Wazzu’s rushing defense. Some examples:
- :00 – Here’s a new tight-in endaround by #2 WR Bryant out of 12-pers, with a very fancy counter twirl by #88 TE Herbert before heading out to lead block. Powers-Johnson sprints out and Supermans the free safety.
- :17 – This is a counter toss to the boundary which I’m floored Wazzu sniffed out and had the discipline to stay home on, given their tendency to aggressively slant. Because of the G-T pull the other way (for misdirection) there’s nobody to block the DE when he figures it out – nothing to be done about it but tip the hat to a well coached defense.
- :25 – That’s Conerly to Cornelius’ right and #81 TE Kelly in his usual spot, making this 13-pers formation the first tackle-over play of the year. “Taco Toss” is the obvious name choice, but because they went under center out of a sugar huddle, I’m going with “Churro”.
- :31 – Nice counter step by Kelly before the backside pull, which really messes with the defense after eight consecutive power runs behind the pullers. That just leaves #5 WR Holden to block the nickel to create a one-on-one with the free safety, which Irving wins in the hole.
Of course, most of what Oregon ran were their bread-and-butter gap schemes and zone reads, and they exploited the fact that Wazzu always sticks with their nickel structure even in the redzone by putting in three tight ends and just pounding it when they got close to the goalline. Overall, Oregon was 72% efficient on designed runs (23 vs 9), averaging 8.5 adjusted YPC with 19% gaining 10+ yards, all elite numbers. Some examples:
- :00 – Great hat-on-hat blocking here, this gap scheme requires no misdirection but rather simple sound assignment play. Switching the end for a backer on the rush just makes this easier, Powers-Johnson has nothing to do.
- :15 – Here’s 13-pers, but true to form Wazzu is still in nickel. Oregon pulls a guard and the third TE over to the strongside and just overwhelm the smaller defense with bigger and more bodies, and #20 RB James runs through a DB’s tackle for extra yards.
- :23 – This zone run is meant to go to the strongside, but Irving is good for a couple improvised runs a game and this is no exception, bouncing to the weakside B-gap and getting an assist from Conerly for some extra yardage.
- :31 – Just a nicely blocked toss play (which the scorekeeper marked down as a pass, something I think is tripping up box score watchers on Nix’s air yards average), with James finishing with a broken tackle and a stiffarm. Wazzu typically has a speed advantage on wide plays like this so beating them to the edge is quite a feat.
Wazzu called passing plays on over three-quarters of their snaps. Of those, over 48% ended in a sack, scramble, or throwaway, which is the highest single game rate I’ve ever charted. 60% of those broken plays were wins for Oregon’s defense, so from a per-play efficiency perspective the pass rush was getting the getting the job done. However, from a yardage perspective the Cougs were actually more effective when they broke the pocket – including sacks and throwaways — increasing their overall YPP by 0.74 compared to the rest of plays that went as designed. Put another way, 36.5% of all their non-garbage time yards came from just seven broken plays.
On several of the completed passes during scramble plays, it’s impossible for me to tell how the coverage on the scramble drill went because of ESPN camera operators’ maddening habit of zooming in very tight on the QB as soon as any pocket drama begins. There are a couple I was able to see in which I thought zone coverage could have handed off better for a receiver who was crossing from one side of the field to the other, but mostly I don’t blame coverage when plays get extended that long – no coverage stays perfect forever and against a QB who’s made off-schedule play his calling card. The chief issue was lane discipline within the rush plan – it started the day almost passive it was so conservative, then swung totally the opposite direction to verge on outright sloppiness, and finally settled into an appropriate approach.
Here’s a representative sample of broken passing plays:
- :00 – This is going pretty well until #2 ILB Bassa decides to loop around. #55 DT Taimani and #1 DE Burch have their lanes locked up, #3 DE Dorlus camps on top of the point, and #4 ILB Jacobs in his first game this year is staying wide to close the frontdoor. But when #32 OLB Winston breaks through the back’s pass pro and the QB has yet another magical sack escape Bassa is nowhere to be found and the backdoor is wide open.
- :20 – Bassa correctly identifies the play design here, which is the delayed RB wheel, and Jacobs is on it, running stride for stride with him down the sideline with impressive footspeed. With nowhere to go, the QB breaks the pocket, and Oregon shows much better lane discipline - #50 DT Aumavae is punching through, Bassa doesn’t get trapped deep by the guard, and Dorlus doesn’t let the LT engage him.
- :30 – Given how often the QB was hooking up with this WR it would have been nice if the backers had managed to track him across the field, but really the issue is the inside instead of outside rush plan from Winston. When the RT straightens Winston’s retro uniform after he gets past, his path to the QB is so shallow that it lets him out to the sideline to make the throw.
- :39 – Another win for Winston, and Burch commanding the double team frees #17 OLB Purchase to loop around from the inside spot, where Oregon was lining up in an interesting 33-stack variation for much of the afternoon, earning a throw to the fans.
Broken or not, Oregon’s defense against called passing plays had a success rate of 59% (23 successes vs 16 failures), allowing 7.2 adjusted YPA and 15% to gain 15+ yards. Other than improving their ability to contain the QB in the pocket, the other factor that would have helped the Ducks’ numbers would be operating at full strength in the secondary. #5 CB K. Jackson and #13 DB Addison didn’t play in this game, and #6 CB Florence missed the first half and seemed to be on a limited snap count. That shuffled around several assignments, not just bringing in a few second stringers but moving #0 DB Ty. Johnson and #25 CB Reed away from their usual spots as boundary safety and inside corner respectively to fill in against outside receivers in close coverage.
This game also saw a broader use of inside linebackers than any so far this season, with Jacobs making his debut and rotational players #28 ILB Boettcher, #26 ILB D. Jackson, and #22 ILB Soelle continuing to get meaningful reps. There were a couple of passing plays from the pocket in which I thought these guys needed to work on their assignment discipline.
Here’s a representative sample of failed defenses of non-broken passing plays:
- :00 – Reed is over the Z where the corner Jackson would normally be if healthy, and so Johnson is down over the trips where Reed would be and #7 DB Stephens is back where Johnson would be. I think Reed would have covered this better than Johnson, it’s what he did all of last year.
- :15 – The linebacker Jackson here is a redshirt freshman and making a freshman mistake, widening on the RB in the backfield (that’s Johnson’s job in zone) instead of carrying the slot man on the slant. Johnson tries to communicate that but it’s too late.
- :23 – This is just a Mint defense 101 whiff – cover the quick throw immediately. #18 OLB Funa legally sends the inside receiver to the turf so that’s one down, and #6 CB Florence is mugging the other hitch so that’s two. Johnson, Jacobs, and Reed have a fairly tight triangle but it’s still enough for the QB to fit the ball in to the third with no one in the lane and nobody close enough to hit the receiver immediately, which has to be the case given the down & distance.
On balance, however, the Ducks were doing a good job of shutting down the Cougs’ bread-and-butter Air Raid passing plays. Much of that comes from the Mint defensive structure, which in many ways is built precisely to stop quick-passing offenses like this. Some examples:
- :00 – This is how most of Wazzu’s multiple quick-hitch routes were laudably covered, a bit of a cushion to help with reaction timing and inside/outside decisions, but quick triggers and coming down hard for PBUs as Johnson gets here.
- :06 – Oregon corners, here #8 CB Manning but also Reed and #11 CB Bridges on other outside screens, were doing a great job of playing their blocks with outside leverage to keep the receiver from getting to the sideline and forcing the play back to the rest of the defense, as #33 DB Ev. Williams cleans up with a sure tackle on this play.
- :13 – An effective blitz here, #9 ILB Hill gets through to hurry the QB, #44 OLB Tuioti reads the QB’s eyes and gets the swat, and Williams dodges the rub in man to be in position to make the 4th-down stop even if the ball had gotten through.
Wazzu’s rushing habits and effectiveness were in line with their previous games – they never got any significant yardage from designed runs, nor did they really ever try, instead reserving rushing almost exclusively for short-yardage situations and an occasional long-yardage surprise, but never treating it as a reliable part of their plan to get ahead of the chains. Since that rushing profile is both a small sample and skewed from a typical bell curve, the numbers are a bit weird – Oregon was 50/50 in stopping them (6 vs 6), though given the down & distance profile of the sample that’s significantly better than expected. The Ducks limited the Cougs to 3.3 YPC on designed runs, and none gained 10+ yards. Here’s a representative sample of all rush defenses:
- :00 – This isn’t particularly sophisticated blocking and would never spring the back for a big gain, but it’s leaning on the d-line pretty well for a couple yards.
- :07 – Excellent work by #95 DT Ware-Hudson against the RG collapsing one A-gap and Aumavae taking on the C-LG combo to close the other side, which pushes the back off his path. Jacobs flows to the play properly with square shoulders and hits the B-gap it’s going to hard to get the 3rd-down stop.
- :13 – I’m not sure if this little twist between Aumavae and #10 OLB Uiagalelei is planned; it might be appropriate with a little longer yardage situations but there’s too much runway for the back with the angle of the hit to arrest his momentum entirely on 4th & 1.
- :20 – Here’s another play in the unusual 33 look with Tuioti between Burch and Dorlus and a little off the line. It seems to confuse the LG who lunges at him, using improper off-balance blocking technique which the savvy freshman shrugs off en route to making the tackle.
Last week’s preview described Wazzu’s defensive system, as well as each of the structural habits like the perpetual nickel, cover-2, and vulnerable underneath players that Oregon exploited in this game. That article broke down the effectiveness of the edges and cornerbacks in pass defense in a way that I think was reflected on Saturday – good but beatable, dangerous in long-yardage but open if the offense is on schedule and the quarterback is competent. Wazzu’s rush defense performed nominally. I’ve said this in many other articles and podcasts about Wazzu over the years but was surprised on re-reading last week’s preview that I didn’t repeat it there, so let me say it here: I think Head Coach Dickert runs a smart defense that gets the most of his talent, and the fact that his guys sniffed out several of Oregon’s tricks should be attributed to his good coaching.
I think the preview, in spending so much time hand-wringing about the puzzle of the Cougs’ recent offensive woes, was correct in its essential argument: they weren’t nearly as bad as recent games made them look, but rather a series of individually manageable problems had conspired to devastate them … and by implication, that if they could be relieved of a couple of them they’d bounce back. That’s what happened on Saturday – they recovered the ball both times they put it on the deck (putting them back at even on recovery luck on the year), OC Arbuckle quit calling an excessively conservative gameplan, and the QB really stepped up his focus and ball security. Of course, one of their problems wasn’t fixable in a week, the o-line, and the Ducks predictably devastated it, with the ball really only moving on some off-schedule plays. Otherwise, the Cougs’ offense proceeded just as described in terms of run-pass balance, designed pass play selection, and short-yardage rushing.