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Duck Tape: Film Review of Oregon at Utah Week 9, 2023

Oregon v Utah Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images


The Ducks’ offense played at an elite level, well beyond the championship threshold, in all per-play metrics I track through charting on Saturday. In the aggregate, their efficiency prior to garbage time was 71% (32 successes vs 13 failures, given the down & distance), averaging 7.9 adjusted YPP with 26.5% of plays gaining explosive yardage.

Oregon’s overall gameplan was to quickly jump to a double-digit lead and then sit on it, correctly surmising that Utah wouldn’t be able to play their way out of a deficit. The way they achieved that quick lead involved a pass-heavy attack, with only nine of their first 25 playcalls being designed runs — a 36/64 run/pass split — even then many of those runs were reserved for close to the goalline when the defense compressed. That required neutralizing or just ignoring the threat of Utah’s pass rush, which Oregon did in a couple different ways, and then picking apart the vulnerabilities that the opponent’s pass coverage had shown on film all year.

The Ducks had a 68% success rate on called passing plays (19 successes vs 9 failures), averaging 8.6 adjusted YPA with 25% gaining 15+ yards. It was a particularly impressive game for #10 QB Nix, who showed not only his typical excellent accuracy and proper reads of the field, but some extraordinarily decisive throws and command of the offense in a hostile environment.

Here’s a representative sample of successful passing plays:

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

  1. :00 – This motion into wheel by #15 WR Te. Johnson both reveals and exploits man coverage – the box safety has his back turned to the play covering the TE instead of with his eyes in the backfield as he would in zone, and the athletic advantage Johnson has over the CB gets him a big cushion for the 1st down and then six more yards after the catch.
  2. :07 – Watch how the rest of the offense is completely set while #58 C Powers-Johnson seems to be casually surveying the field and the defense is taking a beat, then instead of settling in he fires the ball off immediately. The offense did this cadence-less snap several times to buy themselves a little extra time with the pass rush. I think the defense also blitzes too hastily and without considering their alignment here, they’re shorthanded on that side of the field now and Nix properly reads the field to find the easy in-route to #11 WR Franklin.
  3. :16 – The defense changed alignment here, bringing a linebacker down onto the line of scrimmage with the box safety over him, so it’s a field blitz, and showing that the boundary DE opposite him is going to bail into coverage. That’s going to leave the midfield vacant and the DE can’t hope to match #20 RB James’ speed, so Nix changes the play and has James switch sides to run this Texas route for a TD. Nice improvised hip check by Johnson at the end.
  4. :35 – Utah is in cover-1 here for the blitz. This is a fast, accurate read of the defense without any real pre-snap clues, and he’s under pressure because #76 LT Conerly is beat by the end. Nix makes it look simple but this is very high level QB play.

Reasons for failed passing plays run the usual gamut, with no one issue standing out as unusual. The things that occurred more than once were a couple of frustrating drops by Franklin, a few problematic reads by Nix, and pass protection having some trouble with Utah’s top pass rushers. Some examples:

  1. :00 – There’s no pressure on this play, and there are better throws available. The comeback to Franklin has an open lane with the linebacker firing down on the back, for example. Nix has time to get deeper into his progression here, there’s such a thing as too much confidence in your receiver to make a play.
  2. :15 – Given how tight to the formation the TE and WRs are, this has to be an RPO and not a called screen since they can’t know how the backer will play it. Assuming so, it’s a bad read by Nix, he should have handed the ball off when end stayed outside and the backer moved off with the cluster of targets, as Oregon now has numbers advantage in the box (five hats). The throw is doomed with the backer going that way, that’s three over three.
  3. :21 – Good protection, proper read of the field, on-target throw, corner giving plenty of space. Just a drop.

The rushing offense was dominant in efficiency, with a 76.5% success rate (13 vs 4), though it wasn’t really used between the 20s other than on the third and seventh possessions. The Ducks averaged 6.7 adjusted YPC and 29.5% of designed runs gained 10+ yards. The biggest criticism I had for the rushing performance was that on a couple of instances the running back didn’t follow the blocking design and instead improvised something unnecessarily on the backside of the play, although on two of those three plays he still got significant yardage due to breaking tackles.

Overall, run blocking was excellent, and this was the best all-around performance by Oregon tight ends all year. However, much of the credit also goes to OC Stein in the sense that Utah’s linebacker and safety usage is fairly static and predictable; the Ducks exploited it schematically to leverage their speed advantage most of the day, rather than just running into the teeth of the defense. Some examples:

  1. :00 – Nix had a couple of designed runs in this game, something fans clamor for constantly for some reason. For my part I think this single short zone read keep was ideal: it happened early on, it was the proper read of the crashing end, Nix protected himself and got four yards, and it kept the defense honest the rest of the game. It established the credible threat of running so he didn’t have to actually do it to achieve the box count constraint.
  2. :06 – Great press by #0 RB Irving, it gets both a backer and one of the DTs (assisted by #74 RG S. Jones) to bite, then he cuts back to open grass. The other backer is frozen by the RPO read.
  3. :13 – The Ducks repeatedly lined up in 12-personnel with an additional WR on the strongside to the boundary to manipulate the Utes’ rigid alignment rules – they’ll always switch to this 4-3 look with nine in the box, heavy to the strongside, with no weakside edge containment to the field. The lead blockers simply get to the play faster than the backers can, and the safety is so far off the back can deal with him. Between the static formation and the athletic disadvantage, Utah gave up over eight yards a carry to this play on average. Great blocking by Franklin.
  4. :22 – Oregon is unbalanced to the boundary here, which messes with a lot of defenses but Utah is dealing with it well. But this is how DC Scalley has been getting beat in the redzone for years, speed to the weakside edge – the LB alignment is far too narrow and they react too slowly to the play, expecting it to be an inside run until it’s much too late, and the safety is inadequate to set the edge.


The Ducks had the Utes’ offense effectively shut down, limiting them to one field goal off a short field from a turnover and another on a quick drive at the end of the half. During meaningful play, Oregon’s defense had an aggregate 78.5% success rate (33 vs 9), limiting Utah to 3.8 adjusted YPP with under 2.5% of plays gaining explosive yardage.

Utah’s unfortunate injury situation, particularly at QB and TE, was evident in this game, limiting the range of options the Utes typically have at their disposal from efficiency running to downfield passing to successfully improvised plays. In previous games this year they’d made up for these limitations with some unexpected creativity like intricate motions to confuse and clear out defenses so short passes could go big, and converting a dynamic athlete from safety to be a two-way player.

But speaking purely as a film reviewer, I must admit to the reader I was a little disappointed that I wasn’t treated to any new expressions of this creativity on Saturday – it seemed OC Ludwig had run out of tricks, and DC Lupoi came ready for what he’d already shown. As it was, I think Utah’s long-term structural issues regarding neglect of the wide receiver unit and questionable management of the offensive line were laid bare.

Oregon’s defense had a 75% success rate against designed passing plays, limiting Utah to 5.2 adjusted YPA with only 4% of passes gaining 15+ yards. The Ducks played man coverage on almost every meaningful snap, betting that the opposing QB wouldn’t be able to take much advantage of any coverage lapses (the relative disadvantage compared to zone) and freeing up more personnel for pass pressure, run support, and to deal with unusual play design. The bet paid off – Oregon’s secondary had Utah’s receiver corps mostly well handled, and the line was quickly overwhelmed on nearly every play, with over 35% of dropbacks ending in a sack, scramble, or throwaway. Some examples:

  1. :00 – Excellent speed on the blitz by all three backers - #2 ILB Bassa, #4 ILB Jacobs, and #17 OLB Purchase. Between the C, RG, RT, and RB they have enough bodies to pick up the overload but it’s coming too fast – and Utah’s line communications are too poor – for them to do so. Nice job by #50 DT Aumavae and #1 DE Burch to release at the right time to get the scrambling QB, and #7 DB Stephens to pick up Burch’s TE so the QB can’t throw it to him.
  2. :08 – This might have worked if Ludwig hadn’t shown it twice before. The entire play is designed to get the defense moving to the offense’s left, including the WR’s pre-snap sweep motion, the RB’s outside run action next to him, and the line all sliding that way … only for the WR to slice the other way so he can catch a short pass and wheel down the opposite sideline. Sadly for the Utes #6 CB Florence in man coverage is ready for this play, doesn’t get caught in the wash, and outruns the WR.
  3. :15 – Here’s a blitz out of man coverage with the offense running a mesh-sit, which are often tricky for defenses because of all the crossing pieces but the Ducks handle it fine. #33 DB Ev. Williams picks up #5 CB K. Jackson’s receiver on the cat blitz, which blows past the RB just as #18 OLB Funa beats their best lineman on an inside move.
  4. :31 – This play in which #3 DE Dorlus beats the LT earned Oregon’s first holding flag against an opposing o-lineman since week 4. Evidently the trick is to wave one’s arms about like a raving lunatic. Perhaps theater classes for the d-line are in order?

Other than a couple of expected and acceptable occasions when the QB found a gap in that aggressive approach, the few pass defense failures were mostly long running low-level issues that the Ducks have been working on all year: perfecting the Mint defense’s coverage of quick hitches and properly bailing the young defensive players on sims into the right coverage. Some examples:

  1. :00 – The second back motions out of the backfield before the snap which changes the zone assignments here, so Jacobs needs to widen to get to this hitch faster. Jackson and #0 DB Johnson are playing zone on the go/flat combo properly but they can’t help until after the catch without Jacobs in better position. Nice recovery and tackle by Johnson to prevent the 1st down.
  2. :08 – Good blitz here, both ILBs rush and the RG and RT can’t handle it. True freshman #44 OLB Tuioti bails per his assignment onto the RB in coverage, but he gets turned around instead of backpedaling smoothly and he’s way off when the flushed QB makes the throw.
  3. :16 – Here Jackson is in man, of course, and just expecting a deeper throw. He bails deep because he knows he’s on an island in this coverage, and when he slips a bit reversing as the WR instead breaks back on the ball, that’s enough space for an uncontested catch.

Rush defense operated at an 83% success rate (15 vs 3), limiting the Utes to an adjusted 2.0 YPC and no designed rushes of 10+ yards prior to garbage time. There was simply no aspect of Utah’s rushing attack that was working – inside running was stopped dead by the defensive front, outside running did not have a speed advantage against Oregon’s back end, and the creative well had evidently run dry because we saw little that was new and nothing the Ducks didn’t immediately recognize. Here’s a representative sample of rush defenses:

  1. :00 – Utah now has to make extensive use of WRs in run blocking, and as Oregon is in man that means the DBs need to take them on and destroy those blocks. Florence follows his lead-blocking WR all the way around the formation, and Jackson does a great job communicating with Williams to hand off the Z so he can get to the play. Nice work by the backers against the pulling OL too, Bassa getting off the LT’s block and #32 OLB Winston taking on the veteran LG to interrupt.
  2. :08 – This was the closest thing to a novelty in this game – a jumbo set with seven OL and the QB running right into the defense, so still basic Ludwig. Flipping the LT and RT’s usual positions gave it away though, since the latter is so much better than the former it was obvious the run was going to be to the left. Dorlus blows that guy up anyway and the QB bails from the designed gap to go outside, where Funa has beaten the TE and is waiting for him.
  3. :21 – Williams sets the edge against the RB and #9 ILB Hill gets off his block to help clean up so this is contained regardless, but it’s truly stopped by Winston wrecking the pulling LG before he even clears the center, knocking him back into the TE and giving Bassa a free shot on the wildcat converted safety.
  4. :28 – Dorlus’ pre-snap shade is subtle but huge to the play, it totally scrambles the zone blocking assignments and it’s too much for this o-line to handle. The C realizes too late that he’s now supposed to combo Dorlus with the RG while the LG gets Hill; Dorlus is more than capable of splitting the C/RG now and closing the designed B-gap run. The back therefore bounces outside where Burch, having properly set the edge against the LT, takes him down.

Accountability Corner

All predictions in last week’s preview proceeded nominally.