On the first play of the fourth quarter, Oregon scored a touchdown to expand its lead to 22 points, which is beyond the cutoff most advanced statistical systems use for defining a game as no longer competitive with that little time remaining. Since I watch film I can use more custom-tailored criteria for garbage time and otherwise non-representative play, but in this case that’s the point I used as well. Both teams had two more possessions in which the character of both offenses and defenses qualitatively changed – USC with desperation passing on offense and playing for turnovers on defense, Oregon killing the clock on offense and backing out to soft zone to force long drives on defense. As always, the statistical profile of the competitive part of this game is best understood by simply excluding those drives … and it serves any observer’s mental health to set aside some of the obnoxiousness in that quarter.
About a third of all snaps in the Ducks’ FBS games to date have been garbage time, due to making quite a few contests non-competitive fairly early. That film remains in my library and I still have the play-by-play of those snaps, so examining it should make for a good offseason project on how Oregon finishes games once they’re out of reach and gives developmental time to young players.
Prior to garbage time, Oregon’s offense in the aggregate operated at 67.5% efficiency (31 successful plays vs 15 unsuccessful ones, given the down & distance), averaging 8.3 adjusted YPP with 22% of plays achieving explosive yardage. These are all elite figures, beyond championship caliber.
To control for field position effects, I cap all gains at 40 yards for the purposes of calculating average yardage. In this game, doing so had dramatic effects because of the most salient matchup issue of the night – Oregon has perhaps the fastest receivers in the conference, and USC has doubtlessly the worst coached defensive backs – and so the Ducks hit several enormous plays against a Trojan secondary that might as well not have been on the field. If the cap is removed, then Oregon’s raw YPP would jump two and a half yards to 10.8, which is nearly incomprehensible.
Here are the plays that rendered the rest of the game almost irrelevant; I’ll forgo narration as I trust the reasons for the defensive breakdowns are obvious, and apologize that I had to cut off crossing the goalline so I could fit this video in the one-minute allotment of the hosting service:
(Reminder – you can use the button in the lower right corner to control playback speed)
Much of the rest of Oregon’s offensive possessions, although not truly clock-killing garbage time, was an exercise in methodically driving the field to keep the ball away from USC’s Heisman winning quarterback. After their first two possessions, which scored two touchdowns in five total plays, the Ducks’ five remaining meaningful drives averaged nine plays per possession. In fact my biggest strategic criticism of the Oregon coaching staff was their redzone play selection at the end of their fourth possession, which took too little time off the clock and allowed USC to run a successful two-minute scoring drill before halftime.
The passing offense therefore wasn’t entirely or even mostly those enormous plays, but rather intermediate and RPO plays to march the field. As has been typical this season, Oregon was highly efficient in the passing game behind #10 QB Nix’s excellent accuracy, with a 61.5% per-play success rate on called passing plays (16 successes vs 10 failures). The Ducks averaged 10.1 adjusted YPA (14.4 unadjusted!) with 23% of passes gaining 15+ yards.
The reasons for unsuccessful passing plays are the usual smattering of mistakes with no spikes in any particular area – receiver error, miscommunication, bad QB decision, OL giving up pressure, screen blocking failure, a thought-provoking penalty flag.
Here’s a representative sample of the passing offense:
- :00 – USC has the numbers to contain this as a short pass, the double slant in with a rail out vs zone is designed to isolate the slot corner and create another shot play to #15 WR Te. Johnson on the sideline and it does. But Oregon at this point is content to march the field so takes the harder yards with #3 TE Ferguson going through the field safety and the linebacker.
- :14 – The Trojans are disguising their coverage here, one of two changes they made with the coordinator switch. This wheel is meant to work against man as their leverage initially looks like, but when it’s zone the corner stays put and #0 RB Irving doesn’t have empty grass. Nix should have gone to #11 WR Franklin behind him or Ferguson in the middle, those are the zone beaters.
- :23 – Here’s the other defensive change, a personnel shakeup to give a second chance to some benched linebackers and secondary players. Here the new cornerback is giving #2 WR Bryant a huge cushion, which is typical when they think the QB doesn’t have the arm strength for a fastball opposite-hash throw so they’ll be able to recover in time if it’s a comeback route and want an advantage against the go. He finds out the hard way he’s wrong, and his former teammate will fight him for extra.
- :43 – Now it’s man coverage, and the defense has been cleared out by the deeper routes with their backs turned to the play, so this time the wheel is the right throw. The LB assigned to #20 RB James has bailed out and it’s a footrace to the sticks, which is no contest.
The rushing offense put up its best per-play performance of the season, with a 75% success rate (15 vs 5), 6.0 adjusted YPC, and 20% of designed runs gaining 10+ yards. The offensive line continued its steady week-by-week incremental improvement in rush-specific blocking grades on my tally sheet, and for the first time all year had a cumulative run-blocking error rate under 10%, which is the Oregon standard for their Rose Bowl lines and in other championship seasons.
Interestingly, during the drive #72 OL I. Laloulu rotated in during meaningful play, he replaced #55 LG Harper – he’d done that in previous games, but only later on after swapping out with #74 RG S. Jones. At any rate, Laloulu graded out very well in those reps, remarkable for a true freshman and on a drive that started on the Ducks’ 1-yard line with a bad snap.
Here’s a representative sample of the rushing offense:
- :00 – I was a little surprised that Oregon tried this toss to the field, it’s pretty much the one type of rushing play that a speed defense is built to stop since there’s no cutback or misdirection possibility to take advantage of their aggression, just a contest to see who can get to the blocks faster. Turns out it’s the Ducks.
- :17 – Great burst by James here to take advantage of the hole created when the freshman LB runs into the back of the DT that Laloulu is blowing off the line. Ferguson picks him up as a lead blocker and #58 C Powers-Johnson climbs to the other after chipping, though Jones had their best DT handled on his own.
- :23 – I can’t figure out the blocking assignments here, they seem unusual. The C/LG combo the DT, then each split off to get a different backer and leave the DT for #88 TE Herbert to pickup? I think something is wrong there, but then the tackle is made by the LB that Powers-Johnson isn’t controlling, so maybe Irving is in a different lane than expected, but then given the WR/DB alignment this is the best way to run it. Something is screwy but I can’t figure out what.
- :30 – After a false start flag that provoked some commentary, I’m sure USC wasn’t expecting a run on 1st & 15, so the box is wide open. Powers-Johnson blows up the backer off the bench, isolated when the RPO freezes the other one outside the box, and #81 TE Kelly wrecks the corner.
Oregon effectively had USC’s designed offense bottled up in this game, and moving the ball required some extraordinary measures – an early trick play, some jaw-dropping improvised heroics from the quarterback, a two-minute drill the Ducks shouldn’t have allowed, and nearly triple the assessed penalty yardage. In the aggregate, Oregon had a 64.5% defensive success rate (29 vs 16), limiting USC to 6.3 adjusted YPP with only 13% of their plays achieving explosive yardage.
When confined to the pocket and conducting the designed offense as called, USC accomplished very little. Oregon had the Trojans’ signature RPO offense cracked (the third team to do so this year, which may be a sign of trouble for this team in the future) and they more or less abandoned it and the entire rushing offense by their fifth possession. As anticipated, USC’s offensive line simply couldn’t stand up to Oregon’s defensive front, which blitzed sparingly and mostly played the linebackers pretty far off ball.
In the early part of the game when they were building their lead, the Ducks almost entirely played man and seemed unfazed by the Trojans’ receiving talent, although on a couple of 3rd downs in the opening period they went to zone and played conservatively. Late in the second quarter and into the third, Oregon progressively switched that around as part of their gameplan – primarily zone to slow rather than stifle USC’s offense, but blitzing out of cover-1 on certain 3rd downs.
Oregon successfully defended 61.5% of called passing plays, limiting USC to 7.5 adjusted YPA, with 11.5% of passes gaining 15+ yards, which are all significantly better performances than USC’s previous opponents. Here’s a representative sample of successful defenses of the designed passing attack:
- :00 – Here’s the Mint defense doing its thing, dropping the backers into zone coverage after showing blitz and taking away the easy blitz beaters USC had planned on. The four-man pass rush is more than capable of getting through the line when the initial read isn’t there, with #3 DE Dorlus and #1 DE Burch baffling them on a basic twist and #50 DT Aumavae and #10 OLB Uiagalelei showing good discipline to close escape lanes to the left and up the middle.
- :22 – USC’s in its RPO alignment, unbalanced to the field with the H-back. Evidently Oregon has watched some film on this team because they’re all over it – Burch clouds the read, #9 ILB Hill flies wide to force the toss, and #0 DB Ty. Johnson stays outside the slot’s block so he can come upfield and shut down the TE.
- :30 – Great man coverage across the board here. The initial read is the post covered by #5 CB K. Jackson, then the RB under it covered by #2 ILB Bassa who backs out of the blitz look, then the mesh which Johnson and #25 CB Reed are handling, and finally the flat which #6 CB Florence breaks up.
- :38 – Excellent physical coverage using the sideline as his ally by #11 CB Bridges here, working the receiver against it so he has no cushion to adjust. Good hurry to affect the throw by #44 OLB Tuioti.
USC succeeded on very few passing plays from the pocket; so few that there’s no pattern I can detect to any of them. Here are a handful with some useful factors to discuss:
- :00 – Oregon constantly mixed up where its pressures were coming from and went with a variety of sims rather than blitzes in this game. That diversity is probably for the best, but this one dropping the Jack OLB and rushing the boundary safety is the least effective – it just takes too long, even though it does produce two guys in the backfield. That’s time for the QB to come off the initial set of reads and find that Florence has lost his footing on press man.
- :09 – No schematic or execution complaints here, it’s a 50/50 throw that Jackson plays well and has a great shot of breaking up, but the ball slips in anyway and the receiver (the brother of Oregon’s #95 DL Ware-Hudson) just makes a great physical play to hang onto. An offense with this much talent is just going to win a few of these.
- :29 – Looks like Uiagalelei has found a fan of Oregon’s lightning yellow jerseys on this cover-1 blitz. For the last several weeks the Ducks have been playing #33 DB Ev. Williams at safety and Johnson at nickel, which is a good configuration for run-stopping but I think a mistake for teams and situations (like this one) where a pass is obvious. I don’t know why they haven’t instead used their solution at the beginning of the year with Johnson as the single-high and Reed as slot corner, which in my opinion would have given them a better chance of covering this route.
Oregon’s pass rush caused a sack, scramble, or throwaway on over half of USC’s dropbacks, which is the highest rate I’ve ever seen in a single game. Most of that was well earned, though I think on a few the quarterback abandoned the pocket for his own improvisation pretty eagerly. As well he might: just six out-of-structure plays produced over 59% of all yards USC gained outside of garbage time. Still, as explosive and mind-boggling as he can be when improvising, on a per-play basis Oregon’s defense was successful at containing the quarterback when he broke the pocket or they got into the backfield at a 61.5% rate. Here’s a representative sample of such plays:
- :00 – This blitz adds Williams but the twist with #98 DT Rogers occupies both the RT and C so they don’t see him. That frees Tuioti to come right through the middle with terrifying speed. Uiagalelei has beaten the LT to close the escape had the QB spun out, but he doesn’t even have time for that.
- :20 – Here #17 OLB Purchase is the only defender to the boundary so he can’t be taken for a ride like this, the freshman needs to bend under the tackle to get to the QB and if he can’t then stay put to close the escape lane. With the amount of space the QB now has to run into this play can be extended so long that there’s no reasonable hope that #7 DB Stephens can cover a full-field drag, as that’s what it’s specifically designed to do.
- :31 – The first thing they teach you in QB school is not to do this. Hill and Dorlus have flushed the QB, Bassa is over him but not over aggressively. Williams isn’t violating zone rules by staying on his side of the field, though maybe with a QB willing to break this many rules he should have broken off and followed that receiver, that’s a tough call. At any rate he comes in fast to make a hard hit and sure tackle.
- :50 – Here Oregon is blitzing out of a dime package, which is very interesting. Purchase is crushing the RT into the QB while Burch and Dorlus penetrate the pocket. The QB takes off and the coverage sticks to their guys on the scramble drill; when Bassa retreats on the back the QB decides to run and Williams cuts him off hard.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in the game was the effectiveness of Oregon’s defense against USC’s rushing attack, given that these teams’ fundamentals going into the game would have predicted the Ducks would be underwater in efficiency but better than average in stopping explosives. Instead it was the other way around: Oregon had a 66.5% defensive success rate against designed runs (12 vs 6), allowing just 4.9 adjusted YPC, but with 16.5% of them gaining 10+ yards.
Those figures might just be an artifact of the small sample size as USC abandoned the run so readily, since each run either way is worth more than 6 percentage points. Still, qualitatively the game featured mostly stuffs at the line, punctuated by attempts on the first play of each drive at big runs by breaking out novelty calls that had disappeared from the playbook for weeks:
- Drive 3, play 1 – power sucker option pitch from 10-pers, not used since week 1, 19 yards
- Drive 5, play 1 – wildcat to QB to WR reverse, never used, 3 yards
- Drive 6, play 1 – outside power read, not used since week 4, 2 yards
- Drive 7, play 1 – zone read keep into endaround pitch, not used since week 5, 21 yards
Other than that bit of blue-sky schematics, the run game wasn’t getting USC anything between the 20s and only became useful for a few short yardage goalline situations. Here’s a representative sample of rush defenses:
- :00 – First play of the game, good tone-setter. #55 DT Taimani shuts this down, and #18 OLB Funa is crunching the LT to prevent any chance of a bounce.
- :06 – Burch is playing this RPO the smart way, staying wide and trying to get USC to run, which the Ducks are aligned well to stop with five other defenders in the box plus a safety vs just the OL since the H-back is leaving. Dorlus and #4 ILB Jacobs have the LG and C beat badly and Williams comes upfield fast to clean up.
- :21 – Man coverage means the DBs’ backs are to the play, Hill is getting too deep going for the mesh instead of setting the edge, and #26 ILB D. Jackson is late scraping over to replace him – they’ll get burned for a touchdown on a similar issue later in the game. Stephens needs to take an outside instead of an inside angle here to force the play back to his help. Impressive speed by Jackson to catch up and make the tackle.
- :37 – This power read is pretty rare in modern football, and going outside with it even rarer (there’s a QB keep to the inside off the same play later in this drive on 2nd & long which Oregon defended successfully). Johnson comes off his coverage to make the tackle in a pretty savvy move, though if he hadn’t Burch had strung this out enough and Stephens was taking a better angle so this would have gotten minimal yardage.
Last week’s preview accurately described the structure and declining effectiveness of USC’s RPO offense, and the increasingly predictable tendencies which Oregon exploited in this game. The personnel vulnerabilities at OL and WR (or at least, comparative weakness to previous Trojan teams), as well as the strength of the running backs and the incredible improvisational gifts of the QB all showed up as described. While USC’s run-pass balance over time did follow the pattern described in my preview, I was still surprised at the novelty of those first-play rushing designs – not that Coach Riley was capable of them, I think that’s his best attribute, but that he’d actually stick with that plan that late and that far down. As much as I try to resist popular narratives about coaches, I think I still gave in a bit to thinking him callow in a way that let him surprise me with that move, which I regret.
Defensively, there was little work to be done that wasn’t already in my earlier work on USC which had thoroughly indicted the roster management, scheme, and DB coaching of this squad, and so in that sense this game was the satisfying culmination of early predictions. That said, while on the podcast Alicia and I ran down some possibilities for trying out some different personnel (because former DC Grinch may have been protecting certain players and disfavoring others), I didn’t venture out much in my preview to make guesses as to how that might play out. Instead, the article is a rather static description of how USC had performed to date and an observation that they won’t be able to change much – accurate as far as it goes, but I still think I could have served the reader better with additional speculation or digging out past film on previously benched players who in fact did play in this game.