The game was over halfway through the second quarter when #2 WR Bryant ran through Arizona State’s entire defense to score on the second play of Oregon’s fifth possession and put the Ducks up 35-0. That’s only 34 offensive snaps, too small a sample size for useful splits. In the aggregate, Oregon had a 73.5% per-play efficiency rate prior to garbage time (25 successful plays vs 9 failed ones, given the down & distance), averaging 10.3 adjusted YPP with 26.5% achieving explosive yardage.
Every element of the offense operated at a high level, and for almost every player in the primary rotation this was their best game in 2023. In F+ advanced statistics, ASU has more than 50 ranks better of a defense than several teams Oregon has played earlier in the season – Colorado, Stanford, and USC – but didn’t grade out as well against, indicating that the Ducks’ cohesion and offensive balance is strengthening over time and this, rather than defensive quality, is the most important factor in output.
Starter #10 QB Nix passed for each of Oregon’s touchdowns before retiring for the day, and as is typical was accurate and decisive. Pocket protection graded out at the usual elite level (going up against one of the better defensive lines in the league), and other than one drop that ultimately didn’t matter the pass-catchers were perfect. Here’s a representative sample of the passing offense:
(Reminder – you can use the button in the lower right corner to control playback speed)
- :00 – Trips to the field will get ASU to switch to zone, since they don’t put both corners on one side of the field. That just leaves Nix to throw over the underneath coverage, and #15 WR Te. Johnson to climb the ladder to get it on this out-pattern.
- :14 – It’s short yardage and Oregon is in 12-pers, so ASU has crowded the box expecting a run but are spinning a high safety back in case it’s a deep shot. They motion Bryant from the strong side to get the CB to spin back, then release both TEs and the RB into a three-level read. The BS and one LB turn and chase #81 TE Kelly deep while the other LB runs out to #0 RB Irving in the flat, leaving #88 TE Herbert open at the sticks for the quick conversion and a few muscle yards more.
- :20 – Watch the pre-snap signal from Nix to the trips after they get the blitz read, this is telling them there’s going to be an opportunity to fill in behind it. Sure enough the safety blitz comes — bad pickup communication between Irving and #76 LT Conerly, this one’s probably on Irving since generally the rule is backs take the inside rush — the read was correct and Bryant is there to collect, but the pressure causes the throw to be too shallow and he has to come back so far that he can’t quite make the line to gain.
- :37 – Safety blitz so there’s nobody over the top, time for a deep shot. Twelve-yard drop to buy plenty of time, nice weight transfer, drops it right in the bucket to #11 WR Franklin on the post who’s got a step on coverage.
There was quite a bit of creativity in this game from both teams, in something of a whiteboard duel. I thought OC Stein had several interestingly sequenced plays to control for ASU’s blitz-heavy defense that gave Nix multiple options whether they were bluffing or not. Here are some examples of well designed plays that caught my attention:
- :00 – The defense is showing blitz here, this is probably a slant to Johnson to get behind it until they back out into zone and buzz a safety to him. Nix changes the play with 8 seconds left on the clock to a vertical stretch – call the counterbluff, get seven defenders to bail in coverage, and swing it to the back away from the last underneath defender with plenty of grass to pick up the conversion. This is a constraint play.
- :22 – Two plays later, the sequencing pays off. Irving goes in motion and the same backer who didn’t get there in time earlier is now sprinting wide on him to prevent another short-yardage conversion, leaving the throwing lane to Herbert wide open on the RPO. If he’d stayed put then Irving would get the toss to run up the sideline, but as it is Herbert gets to knock over some safeties for a touchdown.
- :45 – I teased this one earlier on social media – tackle-over, fake belly-G run to the boundary, then sneaking Bryant out on the smoke screen to the field … what else could it be but taco al pastor? Note how the configuration scrambles ASU’s safeties, so now the slightly slower-footed boundary safety is the one pursuing this horizontal stretch play and getting the shakeoff.
Evidently Oregon had done some film work on ASU’s defensive line, because they seemed to be reacting to the pattern established by the Sun Devils’ previous opponents. Those offenses couldn’t move their starting DTs with basic inside zone runs, but found much more success running gap schemes, split flow, and running to the outside. Oregon adjusted their rushing playcalls accordingly rather than forcing the issue. Here’s a representative sample of the rushing offense:
- :00 – This is technically 14-pers, with #72 OL I. Laloulu as the fourth “tight end” motioning into a slice block on the end, who doesn’t want much of it and the svelte-by-comparison Herbert getting the corner. ASU has eight in the box; this flow lets them seal off both tackles and iso’s the nickel with Irving, whom he runs over.
- :14 – Outside zone here, much smarter than just pounding it up the middle. Five yards before contact on great blocking by Conerly and #58 C Powers-Johnson, good chip to help with their best DT by #55 LG Harper to start but he needs to make sure his hat winds up on the playside of the backer’s who is quickly scraping over.
- :25 – Johnson’s motion pulls one of the backers out of the box and he’s replaced by a safety, easy for Conerly to push out of the way with one hand when he gets up to the second level. #20 RB James follows #3 TE Ferguson’s lead block with a great hit on the LB, after Powers-Johnson and #74 RG S. Jones take care of the DTs. Nice balance to get extra after contact by James.
- :44 – ASU’s wisest DT is doing a good job reacting to this gap scheme, twisting inside the pin while their speediest DE wrong-shoulders the pull. Irving does his best job of improvising out the other way, while Powers-Johnson throws the other DT to the ground. Again, the presnap motion had cleared one of the backers so the backside bounce is open.
Arizona State’s first four possessions lasted 17 plays, only two of which were runs. Their fifth possession took place after the score was 35-0, and there were some clear qualitative differences in how both the offense and defense operated – ASU switched to a lot more methodical plays to march the field about four yards at a time, Oregon played back in cover-2 zone and was content to let them try.
Typically that would recommend exclusion from the dataset as non-representative play. But in this case I’ve made an exception and included the 15 plays from ASU’s fifth drive simply to expand the sample to something approaching a meaningful size, especially as otherwise we’d have practically no rushing plays to consider at all.
In the aggregate, Oregon had a defensive success rate of 72% (23 successes vs 9 failures), allowing 4.0 adjusted YPP with fewer than 10% of them achieving explosive yardage. On about a third of the sample someone besides the starting QB took the snap, and on about a fifth they used an unusual distribution of the offensive linemen, which gave Oregon’s defense a lot to think about pre-snap.
However, the actual plays ran out of these looks were fairly typical to modern college offenses – a spread option run game, some wildcat plays, a couple endarounds, a lot of outside screens, and ASU’s normal passing pattern – so defending them was simply a matter of quick recognition and playing sound assignment football. None of the eye candy of these unorthodox personnel packages or pre-snap alignments gave the Ducks much trouble.
I was somewhat surprised by ASU’s gameplan in that they came out throwing which has not been the strength of their team, and because it’s generally the underdog’s strategy to go for a low-possession, high-variance game rather than risk several quick punts and getting deep in the hole before halftime as in fact played out. As such this game was effectively decided by Oregon’s pass defense, which was stellar. Here’s a representative sample:
- :00 - #3 DE Dorlus is waving his arms about like a raving lunatic for some reason on this tunnel screen when he ought to be on the inside lane, how curious. #5 CB K. Jackson, #0 DB Ty. Johnson, and #2 ILB Bassa have their leverage correct here, they’re keeping this from going to the outside. But #7 DB Stephens needs to be that inside help, and he initially approaches it from the outside which is what lets that downfield OL knock him over when he tries to cross. #33 DB Ev. Williams cleans up.
- :14 – The RT lunges for #1 DE Burch and so he easily steps over him and gets a mitt in the throwing lane. Bassa’s doing an excellent job as an ILB in a Mint defense, playing the short pass for a 3rd down conversion (rather than the run fit first, as in traditional defenses) and knocking it down.
- :27 – ASU has two TEs on the field, even though one is lined up as the halfback while the usual RB is taking the snap. So Oregon is down a DB in coverage while in their three-down bear front with #18 OLB Funa in as the strongside backer. He beats the blocking H-back and flushes the passer to the outside, who heaves it deep to their best WR in single coverage, only for Jackson to knock it out of the sky.
- :49 – Here’s a cover-1 blitz against four-verts, so #6 CB Florence is in single coverage down the sideline against their other tall receiver. He’s effectively worked him out of the play in close coverage, in fact at one point the big WR must have stepped out since the deep wing has thrown his hat.
Rush defense numbers are somewhat skewed by the distribution of almost all of them in a single drive during what should probably be considered non-representative play, but nonetheless had ASU bottled up. Some examples:
- :00 – Good lateral reactions and speed by the entire defense on this toss play. A lot of physical progress in evidence here – #4 ILB Jacobs missed the last year and a half with injury but looks great, and Burch looked much slower in the opener after bulking up to his present playing weight but is now speedy enough to make this play even as the unblocked defender.
- :06 – Dorlus just sticks his arm out and clotheslines a back that an entire army of other teams’ defenders couldn’t bring down. Jacobs and #98 DT Rogers have gotten off their blocks to help with plenty of time, but it’s not even necessary.
- :19 – This is an unusual personnel usage with a TE taking the snap and a WR as the third player in the backfield, but otherwise it’s just a normal outside zone read. Good play by Bassa to string it out, Stephens to cut it off, #10 DE Uiagalelei to chase it down and prevent the inside cutback. Also, note #26 ILB D. Jackson, who got extensive play in this game – he’s running all the way through the formation, tracks the ballcarrier down from behind, and is the first in on the tackle … this is the second week in a row he’s caught my attention with impressive footspeed.
- :30 – Other than barreling through the line on a wildcat with the big TE, most of the direct snaps to non-QBs resulted in plays like this – harmlessly running into the scrum for a couple yards while #55 DT Taimani and #95 DT Ware-Hudson shut it down.
In last week’s preview, I spent some time trying to solve the puzzle of ASU’s pass defense numbers and concluded that a team just needed to hold up to their pass rush in order to devastate their secondary, which proved to be quite accurate given the quality of Oregon’s offensive line (one wonders why any other team with a pass-first offense and putatively high quality pass-pro wouldn’t be able to score against them). I also think the description of ASU’s rush defense was on-point regarding how good their starting tackles are as well as the dropoff from there to the depleted backups and how different kinds of rushing would have varying levels of success. I came down pretty hard on the linebackers and much of that was borne out in this game, but in one aspect they played better than I gave them credit for given their previous tape, which was lateral movement across the formation in run support – that let them limit a couple of runs that otherwise would have broken big.
I debated with myself for a while about how much of ASU’s swinging gate and other unusual formations from the previous week against UCLA to include in my preview. I decided against putting in video documentation because it wasn’t representative of the entire season and there were several reasons to think it was a one-off. That turned out to be mostly but not entirely true – compared to week 11 ASU toned down it down significantly, both in frequency and in weirdness, but still kept in enough that I regret not showing a bit of a primer. Ultimately I suppose it didn’t matter much for reasons explained in the article, though I wouldn’t be surprised if Coach Dillingham was reserving the really wild stuff to shock the Wildcats with in the Territorial Cup.