This article examines Oregon’s statistical performance from charting through its first five weeks of the season, using data only prior to garbage time in the four games against FBS opponents per customary practice. The Ducks have played 197 of such snaps on offense and 160 on defense, due to some early blowouts. In a typical competitive game against an FBS opponent I get around 65 snaps on each side of that ball, meaning that this sample is about 60 offensive and 100 defensive snaps smaller than would be expected against a full slate of competitive opponents. The sample is large enough for good confidence intervals on some high level conclusions, unit-level grades, and run-pass splits, but not enough for a more granular examination of questions like down & distance situational performance, formational tendencies, or individual player grades.
Oregon’s 2023 offensive performance to date has been above the championship threshold in all metrics I’ve tracked in over a decade of charting a wide variety of teams’ entire seasons. In the aggregate, the Ducks are operating at a 63% efficiency rate (124 successful plays vs 73 unsuccessful ones, given the down & distance) and gaining 7.9 adjusted yards per play, with just over 20% of designed plays achieving explosive yardage.
Compared to the 2022 full season performance, the passing offense so far in 2023 has improved by about a point and a half in efficiency percentage, to 61.7% (71 successful designed passing plays vs 44 failures). The main reason for the improvement is a reduction in incompletions, which is remarkable because starter #10 QB Nix was already an extremely accurate passer in 2022.
Per-play passing yardage and explosiveness are still well above average, but have slipped slightly compared to 2022, down about half a yard to 8.4 adjusted YPA and four percentage points to 17.5% of passes gaining 15+ yards.
The Ducks have attempted about a dozen deep shots during meaningful play in 2023, which works out to the same 20% of downfield passing playcalls (excluding sacks, scrambles, and throwaways) as in 2022. Last year they connected on about 60% of those shots, and it’s only been about 40% so far in 2023 – that discrepancy explains the entirety of the falloff in YPA and explosiveness, and considering how small the sample is at this point, it comes from only two incomplete deep shots. That is, had Oregon completed, instead of dropped, two of the deep shots that they’ve attempted so far this year, all of their numbers would be precisely in line with their 2022 performance.
While deep passing attempts remain at the same rate as last year, and screen passes do as well (about 10% of all designed playcalls), there has been a shift in intermediate vs short passing. In 2023 it’s been about an even split between the two so far, around 41% intermediate and 39% short attempts, which is a significant jump in intermediate passing at the expense of short passing compared to 2022 when it was closer to 30/50.
The six offensive linemen with significant minutes in 2023 (rotating between two right guards on about a 2:1 basis) have each been excellent in pass protection so far, and as a unit have a cumulative pass-protection error rate of just under 4% on my tally sheet. That’s almost identical to last year’s offensive line, which is incredible given how many of those players are now in the NFL. The sack/scramble/throwaway per dropback rate is 15%, a little higher than last year. That’s entirely due to Nix breaking the pocket by choice (as opposed to pressure getting through) a few more times in 2023, half of which I dinged him for and the other half were smart scrambles into open grass. Oregon has a 60% per-play success rate in 2023 when Nix breaks the pocket for any reason.
The rushing offense has posted excellent numbers so far in 2023. The efficiency rate on designed runs is 64.6% (53 vs 29) at 7.1 adjusted YPC, with 24.5% of runs gaining 10+ yards. Against the full 2022 season numbers, it’s something of an inversion of the passing offense comparison – down in efficiency by about seven points, but up significantly by 1.4 yards per carry and six and a half percentage points in explosiveness.
There are three factors contributing to the falloff in rushing efficiency. First is that last year’s 71.5% rate was astronomical and I would never expect another team to replicate it, so some climbdown was inevitable. Second, the o-line’s run-blocking grades haven’t been as immediately elite as their pass-protection grades (though they have improved every week, with their worst performance paradoxically being in the FCS opener), with a cumulative 15.2% run-blocking error rate that’s about Pac-12 average instead of the Oregon standard of single digits and about six and a half points worse than last year’s line. Third, there appears to be a deliberate effort to reduce the number of times that Nix keeps the ball on designed carries, including several plays that looked like read options where the right read would have been to keep it but instead he hands off for a failed play. Still, at several points higher than 60% the Ducks’ rushing success rate is well above championship caliber in 2023 so far.
I suspect the reason for the higher yardage and explosiveness figures in the run game is schematic, having to do with a greater emphasis that I’ve noticed from this year’s staff on tailoring specific plays to manipulate defensive tendencies and clear second- and third-level defenders out of the way. But it’s too early in new OC Stein’s tenure at Oregon to come to firm conclusions about that yet; I’d like some more data as he matches up against a wider variety of opposing defenses.
The biggest surprise about Stein’s Oregon offense compared to the offense he called at UTSA is a greater use of multiple tight end sets – he was in 11-personnel about 84% of the time in San Antonio, but it’s only been about 55% of the time in Eugene. While in 12-personnel (one RB, two TEs), the offense has been almost perfectly run-pass balanced, which reflects using TEs in the passing game to manipulate defense’s subsitution rules against a couple opponents and in the run game to attack defenses stuck in nickel in a couple of others. Otherwise, the 2023 offense has been tilted a bit more towards the passing side than previous offenses which tried to be assiduously 50/50 in almost all situations and formations – this year Oregon has called passing plays on about 58% of all downs, 61% of 1st downs, and 70% of downs in 11-pers.
Oregon’s defense has seen substantial improvements in their aggregate stats on my tally sheet so far in 2023 compared to 2022, all to championship-caliber levels. The Ducks’ overall defensive success rate is 61.9% (99 vs 61), allowing 5.1 adjusted YPP with opponents getting explosive plays on 11.3% of their snaps. The defense was already pretty good in 2022 at preventing explosive plays so that’s an improvement of just under a percentage point, but in 2023 they’ve tightened up considerably at stopping medium-range plays of 5-9 yards, which has improved YPP allowed by just over a yard and efficiency defense by an incredible seven points.
The reason for that improvement has been the second year of the Mint front defense, and better personnel fits for that system. Philosophically, this defense emphasizes stopping quick and intermediate passing as the primary threats that modern offenses use to move the chains, by converting linebackers to pass defenders, using fewer but bigger bodies up front to spill the run rather than stuff it, and prioritize edge talent plus a variety of simulated pressures so that defenders from every unit get involved rushing the passer. On my tally sheet each of these boxes have been checked, with unit-level grade improvements at the first, second, and third levels of the defense compared to 2022.
The primary driver for the overall statistical improvement has been in pass defense, which has seen an absolutely astonishing jump in efficiency so far. Oregon has successfully defended 66% of opponents’ designed passing plays (70 vs 36), an improvement of eleven and a half percentage points compared to last year. They’re allowing only 5.2 adjusted YPA, an improvement of 1.8 yards on average which mostly reflects a much higher pass breakup and throwaway rate. Only 11.3% of opponents’ passes gain 15+ yards, which is an elite number, though less than a full point of improvement because that was also a pretty good stat for last year’s team.
From watching film, this is the Mint defense in action – converting linebackers into primarily pass defenders and immediately dropping more resources on 3rd downs and short/medium yardage onto quick passing outlets, because that’s how opponents try to convert in modern football as opposed to the ground game. The second half of the equation has also seen a significant improvement, which is a much more effective pass rush - the defense has increased its sack/scramble/throwaway per dropback rate to 32.3% and generated far more havoc plays.
The per-play rush defense has stayed at about the same level on my tally sheet as in 2022: a 53.7% success rate (29 vs 25), allowing 4.7 adjusted YPC, with 11.1% of opponents’ designed runs gaining 10+ yards … all practically identical to last year’s figures.
There are a few things going on here which make me think the run defense is actually better than those numbers indicate, however. First, opponents have simply been running the ball less often at the Ducks so far in 2023 than they did in 2022 – they faced rushing playcalls about 41% of the time last year, but less than 34% of the time this year (two opponents basically didn’t run at all, and the other two essentially quit running in the second half after Oregon figured how to defend some new run plays they broke out for those games).
That means the sample size I have on rush defenses is so low that only one or two plays’ or yards’ worth of difference would affect the per-play rates substantially. In this rare case, the raw stats may be more helpful because they reflect offenses’ unwillingness to select rushing playcalls – the Ducks have improved here from giving up 124.8 rush yards per game in 2022 (31st nationally) to 102.0 per game in 2023 (27th).
Second, Oregon has faced an unusually high proportion of designed quarterback runs, which have been nearly half of all rushes they’ve defended (as always, this excludes sacks, scrambles, and other plays which are instead called passing plays). Against all other rushes — primarily RBs but also a few WR and TE sweeps – the Ducks have a defensive success rate of 62% and are allowing 3.5 YPC, which are great numbers. But against designed QB runs, they’re underwater at a 44% success rate and allowing 5.3 YPC.
The QB run issue can be further isolated by halftime splits – 20 of the 25 designed QB runs the Ducks defended came in first halves, and Oregon defended them at a 40% success rate, but upon figuring them out and making halftime adjustments, opponents reduced QB runs to just five times in second halves, with the Ducks winning on 60% of them.
Given how readily the issue can be confined to a single type of run in a single part of the game, against which Oregon figured out effective defense and then opponents withdrew the opportunity to recover their stats, I suspect that the per-play rush stats here are misleading. I find it doubtful many opponents, especially those with high level offenses, would want to entertain a similarly cavalier strategy with their quarterbacks as some of Oregon’s opponents to date, and as such I expect that by the end of the season these early QB runs will be diluted out of the full sample.