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Duck Tape: Film Review of Week 5, 2023 at Stanford

Oregon v Stanford Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images


Oregon’s offense had 47 meaningful snaps before garbage time, exactly as many as the previous week. As in previous games, the offense was fairly balanced though somewhat tilted towards passing, and there’s enough play data for run-pass splits, but aggregate statistics still probably capture the performance more robustly. Those are a 70.2% efficiency rate (33 successes vs 14 failures, given the down & distance), 8.9 adjusted YPP, and 23.4% explosiveness rate.

There’s no pattern I can find to the slow start of Oregon’s first two possessions, or any noticeable correction in playcalling, personnel, or execution that enabled the offense to perform differently in what would become a blowout win – that is, there were some mistakes made in those six plays, but the same sorts of mistakes also happened sporadically later in the game and in previous games. Given how rare those mistakes are overall – the Ducks are performing well over championship caliber in all metrics – the only thing concerning or unusual at all is that they happened to stack up at the beginning of the game, which is the worst time to have a run of bad plays (some sports fans maintain individual plays at end of a game are the most crucial to the outcome; such fans need a refresher in the concept of path dependence and the fundamentals of linear time). As far as I can tell, it’s just random coincidence.

I thought #10 QB Nix played a pretty sharp game, with his only two poor decisions in the passing game both coming in those first two drives – a missed deep shot on 3rd down that would have been better reserved for 2nd down, and breaking the pocket for no good reason instead of throwing to either of two open receivers past the line to gain. Otherwise he was his usual highly accurate passer with good protection, threw very well on the rollout, and picked up two 1st downs with his legs – one designed run and one scramble. The passing offense had a 70.4% efficiency rate (19 successes vs 8 failures) on called passing plays, with 9.3 adjusted YPA and 18.5% of passes gaining 15+ yards. Here’s a representative sample:

(Reminder – you can use the button in the lower right corner to control playback speed)

  1. :00 – I don’t have a problem with an early shot play, I just think this should have been called for 2nd & 4 not 3rd & 4. Nix overthrows it after rolling out, something he does every once in a while, even though #15 WR Te. Johnson has burned the coverage. The protection from #3 TE Ferguson isn’t great – his blocking grades were mediocre throughout this game – but Nix has time to set his feet here.
  2. :16 – I’d wondered how Oregon would deal with what I suspect are a couple of pretty decent corners in this game (the replay angle on the above clip shows them covering well). To the extent the Ducks challenged them directly this was it, rather than sideline go’s – several comeback routes with #11 WR Franklin and another later with #2 WR Bryant, all wins through just a bit better athleticism. Tight coverage, but that break back on the ball is elite, and Nix’s form throwing on the hoof is incredible.
  3. :31 – Oregon is in 12-personnel here, and between that, the blitz, and play-action they’ve pulled eight into the box with both ILBs down low, so nobody is covering midfield. The throw is a bit low since Nix is slightly off platform under some pressure (blitz pickup on the left side was rough), but Bryant makes the catch look easy.
  4. :43 – Stanford’s zone coverage rules assume the QB doesn’t have the arm to hit the soft spot between the short and deep quarter from the far hash, which is wrong.

While pass protection continues to be nearly perfect, run blocking from the offensive line is still on a week-by-week improvement trajectory but not yet at the same level – each lineman is making about one more run blocking technique mistake per game than the customary Oregon standard of single-digit error rates on my tally sheet. As in previous games, #72 OG I. Laloulu spelled #74 RG S. Jones on drives 5 and 7, but interestingly he stayed in for drive 8 as well, and on drive 9 he switched over to the left side and replaced #55 LG Harper while Jones returned to the right side. On the final possession of the game, well into garbage time, the line switched out entirely, and we saw four familiar players: #75 LT F. Laloulu (who got one non-garbage-time rep in the jumbo set of an I-formation, though it was a surprise touchdown pass) and #73 RT K. Rogers on the outside, #70 C Pickard snapping, and #52 RG Iuli who got meaningful play the previous week, but notably for the first time all season #50 LG Strother took the field.

During meaningful play, the Ducks had a 70% designed rushing efficiency rate (14 vs 6), with 8.4 adjusted YPC and 30% gaining 10+ yards. The same oddness with the passing game appears here too: by far the worst run of the game was on the very first snap, and then apparently having gotten that out of their systems they proceeded to be extremely efficient and explosive the rest of the game. Some examples:

  1. :00 – Okay what the heck is this? There are seven in the box vs six blockers so Nix has to keep if that’s the read, but he doesn’t. Jones isn’t moving up to the second level at all. And where is the hole supposed to be? If it’s not a live read then Ferguson should be kicking out the end; if it is then he should be lead blocking … somewhere? The left A-gap, logically, but then why isn’t he there, and why are the combos backwards?
  2. :08 – But this is sublime … Johnson is aligned as the H-back, and the fake RPO toss play to him gets both the field ILB and boundary safety to bite and clear out. The rest is gorgeous one-on-one blocking from all five linemen to spring #20 RB James for an untouched scoring run.
  3. :27 – No manipulation here, they know Stanford will be in 3-4 against 12-pers, so Oregon just blocks all of them with the tight trips of Bryant, Ferguson, and #88 TE Herbert. Nice stiffarm from #0 RB Irving.
  4. :45 – Good stabbing footwork that maintains his balance for such a young lineman out of Laloulu here getting up to the second level. Either Harper or #76 LT Conerly should be climbing to the second level as well, but I think #58 C Powers-Johnson is crushing the DT so hard he’s actually preventing it.

The oddness of those first two drives aside, it stood out to me while reviewing the tape of this game how many times I recognized Oregon manipulating a defensive tendency in Stanford I’d noticed in film study, and getting a big play out of it. The two possibilities are that I’m getting smarter at picking up on these things, which seems unlikely, or that this staff is more interested than most in designing custom-tailored playbooks each week. Some examples:

  1. :00 – There are two intersecting tendencies here: pulling an OLB off the line and playing a Tite 3-down against empty, and bracketing the remaining single receiver once motion makes it 4x1 rather than realigning the DBs. Slanting #5 WR Holden draws both those DBs inside, and the practically empty box lets Nix run unopposed for a 1st down.
  2. :13 – Oregon has remained in 12-pers after a run play, and the defense is stuck in their 3-4. With both TEs detached on the same side, the defense has put an OLB on Franklin in the opposite slot, which is a really unfair matchup in coverage.
  3. :20 – Film study showed repeatedly that this defense can’t handle unbalanced formations; as soon as the RB motions to the trips side they’re misaligned but never re-adjust. The ILB would be better advised going wide with the passing strength, but his keys say drop back and inside, leaving Ferguson not only open but with plenty of grass to run into, and then defenders to run over. The flag was waved off.
  4. :40 – Here the defense is expecting an inside short yardage push, and everybody is pinching down. James just runs outside of it because film showed they wouldn’t set the edge well in this situation. Great block from Franklin down the sideline.


Oregon’s defense played 52 meaningful snaps, substantially more than the previous week. This was largely due to Stanford’s much greater willingness to play 12-personnel for more protection and to run the ball (including with the QB to gain the RB as yet another blocker), plus a few remarkable conversions to extend drives that by all rights should have been over sooner.

Still, all the extra plays just gave the Ducks more opportunities to pack on their per-play stats. In the aggregate they had a 63.5% defensive success rate (33 vs 19), allowed 4.7 YPP, and only 5.8% of Stanford’s plays were explosive.

The biggest surprise from the Cardinal was the decision to start their running QB, unlike their previous four games when he only came in for packages or in relief. They certainly made a lot of use of his legs in this game, as well as several run plays – a TE jet, a speed option, and a keeper out of a twin H-back look – they hadn’t shown on film before. Those contributed to a couple of early long possessions, but the Ducks adapted pretty quickly, usually by the second time they tried one of the new plays.

Otherwise, Oregon effectively had them stuffed up the middle and spilled them to the outside for long, strung-out, and ultimately fruitless runs most of the time. The Ducks had a 62.5% success rate (15 vs 9) against designed runs, limiting the Cardinal to 2.8 YPC with only one gaining 10+ yards outside garbage time. Here’s a representative sample of rush defenses:

  1. :00 – This is like the mirror of the last clip on offense – Oregon is expecting an inside short yardage push and isn’t setting the edge well, but that’s a mistake, since they love to go outside with the QB keeper. The RB as lead blocker gives them the edge here since he takes one more hit than Oregon can throw. Nice tackle by #6 CB Florence to limit the damage.
  2. :13 – Two plays later Stanford is in the same formation in short yardage again, and they’ve got it figured out. This time the safety, #0 DB Ty. Johnson, fires down first to absorb the RB block, letting both #3 DE Dorlus and #32 OLB Winston dismiss the TEs and make the tackle.
  3. :26 – This is coded “zztop” on my tally sheet, it’s outside zone vs zone coverage and the line over. #18 OLB Funa earns a holding flag beating the TE, but #5 CB K. Jackson had come off his zone coverage because his eyes were in the backfield following the zone blocking and knew where the play was going and blew it up regardless.
  4. :33 – This option pitch out of 20-pers was the second time Stanford ran the play; the first time was also a 3rd down stop but it was in longer yardage and just barely. The adjustment here is the cat blitz from #25 CB Reed, who races past one blocker and blows up another. #9 ILB Hill scrapes behind them after #10 OLB Uiagalelei beelines for the QB to force the pitch, and gets the stop with an assist from #33 DB Ev. Williams.

Although Stanford’s ground game chewed up a lot of clock and helped them convert on some early possessions, about two-thirds of their yards came through the air. Overall, Oregon was very effective at stopping the pass — with a better than 64% success rate (18 vs 10), and limiting Stanford to 5.9 YPA and only 7% of called passing plays gaining 15+ yards – however their quarterbacks converted more 1st downs than those numbers would predict, using intermediate passing of 9-14 yards.

After reviewing the film I think there are two separate explanations for that phenomenon. One I believe came from starting the game overly concerned with what last week I called “bolt from the blue” giant explosive plays of around 40 yards that their running QB would seemingly produce at random, and the Ducks’ defensive strategy to stop such plays left them open to some underneath throws at first. That can be documented easily, and will be below. The other, however, borders on the supernatural, and almost makes me think the Farm is cursed ground for ranked Oregon teams. Stanford receivers just had some magic hands in this game, and came up with several highly improbable catches. Here they are, I trust they don’t need annotation:

Returning to the mundane, Oregon played their pass defenders fairly deep and had some pretty complicated pass rush schemes to attack those hypothetical long-developing deep shot plays … but then that dog never barked. Stanford never even attempted one of them, and like Oregon’s week 3 game against Hawai’i, they didn’t have a single play that gained 20+ yards, even in garbage time. But defending the pass that way left some underneath throws open, and delayed the pass rush somewhat, allowing quick throws for modest gains. By the 2nd quarter Oregon changed strategy to a simpler one and just attacked the passer with straightforward blitzing and man coverage. That paid off, effectively shutting down their intermediate throws without having to give up any deep ones, while also producing a sack, scramble, or throwaway on 32% of dropbacks. Some examples:

  1. :00 – In my opinion this combines too complex of a rush plan with too soft of a coverage given Stanford’s preference for bog simple quick intermediate hitches, which they showed extensively on prior film. There are two different loops, from Dorlus and #17 OLB Purchase, and they’ve got a layered midfield pass defense to let four DBs run deep. Technically this is a 3rd down stop but Stanford was cavalier this game in more ways than one and picked up the 4th down.
  2. :08 – This is a more salutary passing situation – blitzing against their heavy look to get them in 8-man protection with just two in the pattern, and then just playing man coverage on those guys given Oregon’s athletic advantages. Funa and #55 DT Taimani get through, forcing the fumble (which Stanford fell on every time, naturally).
  3. :25 – This is a draw play, which is a run of course but it’s designed to look like a pass until the last second. The simplified “pass” rush plan works perfectly well here too, with a basic T-E stunt from Dorlus getting home and Funa closing the back door, then #1 DE Burch cleans up with the tackle for loss.
  4. :36 – Oregon used this defensive playcall against an early 11-pers, which turned out to be the right idea all along – they rush four, green dog against the RB or TE staying in to block, and just play man and lock down the multiple receivers in the pattern who are all going to turn and sit down. Johnson’s coverage keeps the TE away from the ball and well done for it, but any of the DBs were in position to do the same.

Accountability Corner

Last week’s preview was full of grumbling about sample size issues, and a few guesses trying to correct for where I thought some stats were misleading due to those issues. One of those was about Stanford’s rush defense, which I thought had improved due to solidifying the interior of the defensive line, but wasn’t actually the massive jump in explosive rush prevention that the numbers indicated – I think that bore out. However, another observation about Stanford’s front regarding lackadaisical play from their edges was completely blown up, as we saw their excellent OLB Bailey playing at his full potential, and backup OLB Tafiti was all over my tally sheet with good plays as well. The same issues at ILB and safety in coverage and tackling were evident in this game, and as expected Oregon spent most of the game attacking them directly. I think my suspicions about the Cardinal’s corners being pretty good got some more evidence, or at least no real counterevidence, in this game – the Ducks didn’t really throw 50/50 balls against them and when we saw them in man coverage on wide shots they were running stride for stride.

I said that it was impossible to predict what Stanford would do at QB, and on the podcast with Jibriel I noted that in each of their previous four games they’d followed a different pattern so the best thing to expect was an unexpected fifth new thing – which is what we got in Lamson starting for the first time. I think my descriptions of their pass catchers and their bread-and-butter passing plays was very accurate. We didn’t see the explosive play attempts that I spent some time hand-wringing about at all, but I don’t think that was a miss since I believe Oregon’s staff saw the same thing and took (possibly excessive) steps to take those away … but I have to acknowledge that this belief feels self-serving. The offensive line had the expected issues preventing the Ducks from shutting down their run game and getting to the QB, and the observation that they’d need to use multiple TEs and the back for protection and thus operate at a numbers disadvantage in the pattern was clear on several plays. The best rushes Stanford had were at the beginning of the game with a couple of new play designs, which by nature I can’t predict, and the best passes came on absurd catches despite great coverage and/or pressure, which is why my eyes are dry that this may be the last game on the Farm for a while.