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Duck Tape: Film Review of Oregon State at Oregon Week 13, 2023

Oregon State v Oregon Photo by Tom Hauck/Getty Images

Offense

This game was effectively over two plays into the 4th quarter when Oregon scored its fourth touchdown and expand the lead to 24 points. At 62% called passing plays, this was a somewhat more pass-heavy dataset than most games this season – the average in the other 10 FBS games prior to garbage time is 57% pass plays.

During Oregon’s first three possessions of the game, the offense was fairly balanced and more methodical than usual, at 53% passing and with the first drive taking up the most time of any all season. But the fourth was a quick-tempo scoring drive at the end of the half that was all called pass plays, and then as the lead grew in the second half OSU’s defense began loading the box to dissuade the Ducks from eating up too much clock by running the ball as they had at the beginning of the game, which led to a significant shift in run-pass balance strong enough to tip the entire dataset the other way.

Regardless of what look the defense gave them, the Oregon offense played both efficiently and explosively. In the aggregate the Ducks had a 65.5% per-play success rate prior to garbage time (38 successful plays vs 20 unsuccessful ones, given the down & distance), gaining an average of 7.7 adjusted YPP with 24% achieving explosive yardage. All are elite numbers beyond the championship threshold, in my experience.

The passing offense operated at 66.5% efficiency (24 successes vs 12 failures, counting one improperly blown dead play as a failure), averaging 9.6 adjusted YPA and 28% gaining 15+ yards. All aspects of the passing offense were operating at a high level – quarterback reads of the field, pocket protection, and pass catchers’ route-running, hands, and gains after the catch. Every unsuccessful play on my tally sheet comes down to the defense simply making a good play (or getting away with something) with very little in the way of criticism for Oregon’s execution or playcalling.

Here’s a representative sample of the passing offense:

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

  1. :00 – The motion into wheel from #15 WR Te. Johnson against vs man coverage puts what’s otherwise an ordinary curl/flat against a walk-on safety. Johnson dips past him after the catch for 10 extra yards.
  2. :16 – The defense is bringing an overload blitz from the field, more than Oregon can block. In the past, #10 QB Nix would have probably spun out to the boundary and looked to either throw it to #2 WR Bryant reversing to the sideline on the scramble drill (there’s no defenders left to that side but the safety on him) or just pick it up with his legs. This year he’s been filling the blitz with immediate throws to preferred targets like Johnson, who doesn’t convert but sets up a 4th & short that does.
  3. :23 – Oregon is in 13-pers, getting OSU’s new 3-LB defense and putting a true freshman CB on #3 TE Ferguson. The defense blitzes six, which #0 RB Irving helps pick up and #88 TE Herbert releasing late after blocking for a hot outlet, but the size mismatch to the outside makes this an easy dozen yards.
  4. :44 – The Ducks used this rollout to the field with a three-level read on almost every drive, though the camera operator botched the angle every time until very late. The defense has it figured out pretty well by now and it takes an incredible throw on the hoof while falling away to hit #11 WR Franklin on the comeback.

This game did quite a bit to showcase Nix’s command of the offense and professional-level ball placement, especially in the fourth through sixth possessions when the demands of the game shifted to require precision passing and chunk yardage plays on every throw. Some examples:

  1. :00 – The defense is showing blitz and Nix gives them a false clap to find out the safety’s bailing to the deep middle. He Nix changes the play — from what had probably been a Y-seam with a crosser under – to a 15-yard dig vs single coverage and with the back realigned to run out the other way and pull the LB off to clear the lane.
  2. :14 – Great protection for a long developing route, and an NFL throw over the backer and under the corner.
  3. :28 – This kind of ball placement is difficult to appreciate without switching back and forth watching film between youngsters showing off their rifles and veterans who spot the ball just where the receiver can catch it in-stride as they turn downfield fluidly and split the safeties so a five-yard crosser becomes a 17-yard gain.
  4. :35 – There were several plays were the line just picked up interior pressure; I’m not positive why but I think because they knew the throw vs coverage would be out before edge pressure would arrive and inside pressure was the only threat. Nix put on a clinic in this game throwing against pressure (whether he should have been asked to is a separate question); this would have been a throwaway by almost any other QB.

Oregon seemed to make a point of running the ball at the beginning of the game, including ten of the first fourteen plays of the opening possession (which nicely set up a swing pass for a touchdown after getting the defense to switch to their heavy configuration in the redzone then ploddingly bail deep on verticals, something they’d done to Arizona State the previous week). I suspect some gamesmanship in doing so since it’s contrary to the surest strategy in a talent mismatch like this, but at any rate when the Beavs played a balanced defense the Ducks tore through them, and then quickly shifted away from running except as to keep the defense honest when they loaded up late.

Overall, Oregon ran at a 63.5% efficiency rate (14 successes vs 8 failures) on designed rushing, with 18% gaining 10+ yards, which are typically excellent numbers for the Ducks. Their yardage was down a couple of yards from the season-long average, at just 4.5 adjusted YPC, however.

There’s a couple things going on. First, the sample is a bit constrained since it became a pass-dominated game, so the data are a little noisy. Second, four of Oregon’s runs of 4 yards or fewer converted a 1st down or touchdown, and a fifth on 2nd & 5 set up 3rd & inches which was considered successful; those all brought the average down while keeping the efficiency rate high. Third, the effect is entirely confined to the second half after OSU changed their defensive strategy: Oregon was averaging about 6 YPC during the first half, nominal for the season, but in the two second half drives prior to garbage time — when they only ran a few times into a defense determined to stop the run at all costs and keep the Ducks from stalling the clock — it fell to just 1 YPC.

Here’s a representative sample of the rushing offense:

  1. :00 – This is the first play of the game, a gap scheme having no difficulty moving the defense out of the way. Note the defensive configuration with an ILB and the nickel out of the box over spread trips to the field, and trying to stop a power run with just one ILB and the corner at the second level.
  2. :06 – Some bad luck on this one, they’ve got the defensive alignment they want — with man coverage and the safety trapped outside — for this to be a home run to the endzone, but the RT accidentally catches his foot on the RG and it prevents the second-level block that would have sprung it. It wouldn’t be the only trip that cost the Ducks a big run in the game.
  3. :12 – Oregon’s in 12-pers and OSU has switched up which extra linebacker they’ve brought in, from a third ILB to now a third OLB to create a bear front, reverting to the former DC’s structure. It’s just as ineffective as it was then, clearing the two actual DTs out with combos on the initial wide zone and then #20 RB James bending in behind second-level blocks for a 14-yard gain. Note how the backer stays home on the possibility of a QB keep this time, after getting set up by an earlier sequence for a touchdown.
  4. :29 – Now in the second half Oregon’s in 12-pers in a tight formation, and the defense is refusing to let them kill the clock with another run-filled drive. The DTs jump immediately, the OLB disregards the RPO threat to the outside, and the ILBs and safety both come down hard – they’re playing this as a run no matter what (a correct guess, this time), which is a signal to Oregon about what they need to do to in the alternate to move the ball.


Defense

OSU’s offense had only 36 plays on five meaningful possessions prior to garbage time, nearly half of them on a single drive, with two three & outs and two more turnovers on downs. That’s not quite enough for useful splits; in the aggregate Oregon’s defense had a 66.5% success rate (24 successfully defended plays vs 12 unsuccessful ones), limiting OSU to 4.9 adjusted YPP with only 8% achieving explosive yardage.

Oregon clearly made a concerted effort to stop OSU’s run game, and on the first drive brought out its heaviest personnel set I’ve seen all year against OSU’s 12-personnel package, with both primary nose tackles #50 DT Aumavae and #55 DT Taimani, both big ends #1 DE Burch and #3 DE Dorlus, and #18 OLB Funa on the strongside in a modified bear front. The Beavs took the hint and threw the ball more when the Ducks went that heavy, and as the quarter went on both teams settled into their more typical personnel groups.

The obvious emphasis that Oregon placed on stopping the run paid off, as OSU gained practically nothing on the ground all night, recording the program’s lowest total and average rushing in over four years with their longest run of the game at just six yards. Outside of those first few snaps’ show of force, Oregon accomplished this with their typical personnel matching: a 3-3-5 with a weakside OLB only against 11-pers or lighter, and pulling the nickel in favor of a strongside OLB against 12-pers or heavier. They spent most of the night in cover-2 man without any extra back end defenders devoted to run stopping, rather trying to take away deep passing and letting the front handle the o-line, TEs, and dedicated blocking WRs.

Effectively the game was won in the trenches, where Oregon’s depth and talent along the d-line simply overpowered OSU’s well developed but ultimately undermanned blocking. Some examples:

  1. :00 – OSU is in 11-pers to get Oregon’s nickel package, and as they did all year relying on a WR to block playside while having the TE slice backside against #44 OLB Tuioti. It doesn’t help because #0 DB Ty. Johnson massively outmuscles their lilliputian receiver and Burch never had any trouble with their future NFL RT.
  2. :18 – This cutback is OSU’s bread and butter and confounded most of the defenses in the Pac-12, which rely on aggression rather than size and talent on the line and would run themselves out of the play. Aumavae instead stays square and defeats the starting RG while Funa sets the edge to keep it from going all the way outside and Dorlus is wise to the cutback.
  3. :24 – Heads-up defense not getting fooled by the endaround, which OSU tried multiple times, all unsuccessfully. #33 DB Ev. Williams beats the TE, #2 ILB Bassa gets inside the RT to prevent the reversal, and #10 OLB Uiagalelei chases the ballcarrier out of bounds for a minimal gain.
  4. :30 – This outside toss is another staple Oregon was ready for, as Bassa identifies the play and Johnson properly ignores the blocking WR’s release. Bassa gets doubled by that WR and the TE with Johnson so wide immediately, squeezing down the RG’s pull and forcing the run on an inside track. That’s tight enough for Taimani and Burch, who’ve easily defeated the starting C and RT off the snap, to run it down. Newly affianced #98 DT Rogers refuses to be cut by the backup LT and closes down any reversal along with Tuioti and #4 ILB Jacobs.

The Beavs were more effective moving the ball through the air, aided by some once again asymmetrical officiating as well as a few personnel decisions in the safety and nickel groups that are constrained by current availability and the emphasis on run-stopping.

Oregon rested starter #6 CB Florence in this game, original starter #13 DB Addison and backup #14 DB Terrell are still unavailable, and Williams was playing with an almost comically oversized club on his hand. Since mid-October I’ve been confused by the absence of #25 CB Reed from much of meaningful play, since I think having him play slot corner as they did the first six games would be an elegant way of balancing the greater depth at corner vs the multiple absences at safety, as well as shoring up some pass vulnerabilities in the middle of the field that have been the only real way teams have moved the ball at all against the Ducks.

Here are some representative examples of failed pass defenses:

  1. :00 – Burch’s pressure is getting through despite quite novel blocking technique from the LT so this needs to be a quick throw. #8 CB Manning is expecting this to be a scissors concept and is preparing for the coverage switchoff with #7 DB Stephens, after #17 OLB Purchase delays the release of the No.2 receiver slightly with this sim. But he’s let his hips rotate much too far in anticipation so when the actual receiving threat, the No.1, surprises him on the out cut, he’s flipped around and out of position.
  2. :13 – As all longtime Oregon fans know playing the Ducks grants opposing QBs probability-defying powers to connect on low-percentage throws. Here Aumavae dismisses the RT’s rude inspection of his jersey, Burch tracks the QB through the TE and takes a good angle but slips just as he sets up for an arm-angle throw, and it connects on the crosser a microsecond before Manning’s hand gets in for the PBU.
  3. :32 – This sim has Oregon rushing Jacobs while bailing Dorlus. The benefit is that it closes off the immediate lane to the TE release, which means there’s no point in Stephens flipping his hips 270 degrees and running inside with him as he’s practically begging for the TE to go outside. The whole offensive play is built to set that up, with the No.1 pulling Manning inside and the No.2 living up to his dedicated blocker role and initiating contact with Johnson (who then doesn’t let him go and, ironically, is the one who gets flagged).

If OSU wasn’t getting back end mistakes or other forms of good fortune, Oregon’s pass defense had them effectively bottled up. While they have a couple of speedy slot guys and a redzone TE, overall the Beavs didn’t bring enough effective pass-catching options to populate a full downfield passing offense and allowed the Ducks to take away their screen game by correctly identifying several players as blockers only and undercut them before they could set up. And as with the rushing offense, the o-line simply couldn’t withstand the d-line’s pressure. Some examples:

  1. :00 – This might look like a blitz but really Oregon’s focused on the back as a run play first or a possible screen, with Uiagalelei bailing to follow him out after engaging the LT on the initial play action. The play design has done its job and OSU has gotten the single coverage it wants with the QB who has the arm to make this throw, but their former coach neglected to find or develop any receivers who could actually beat Manning in that coverage.
  2. :13 – Burch continues to surprise me with his abilities as a pass rusher; on this twist he hits the QB as he throws while inventing a new form of attacking by running at him crouched over and hips first, meanwhile Taimani is invited join the LT on Rich Brooks field. The ball comes out wobbly and while it makes it to the WR, the extra time in flight gives Johnson enough time to poke it out.
  3. :34 – Approaching the redzone, the Ducks clearly did their film study as they know the primary read is going to be the TE on this post, so they have Manning over him and Jacobs bailing to the underneath lane and then Stephens coming on top of them. Everyone else is in single coverage and has their guys locked up but they don’t need any assistance with the minimal threats – Williams on the back, Bassa and then later Jacobs on the No.3 crosser, Johnson on the No.2 and #5 CB K. Jackson on the No.1, whom the QB eventually chucks it to as the pressure gets home.
  4. :47 – Oregon is showing blitz but the bail out of it into a smothering Mint coverage of all this short stuff on 3rd & medium, really only needing Dorlus to defeat the blocking and blow up the passer.


Accountability Corner

Last week’s preview was both harsher on OSU’s rush defense and praised more highly their pass defense than watching this game made seem appropriate. But on doing film review I think the analysis in the preview held up fine – Oregon picked apart the positions in the passing game that were most vulnerable and made a strategic decision to play methodically at the beginning of the game for reasons that probably didn’t have to do with capabilities, and the run game limitations really only came in the second have again due to strategic choices (and the officials swallowing their whistles). Otherwise the Beavs’ defensive personnel was exactly as predicted, down to the precise linebacker usage in different formation and field position situations.

The fact that Oregon would be especially eager to shut down OSU’s run game would be obvious to anyone who knew the history of this series, but I’m pretty pleased with the detail with which last week’s article broke down the exact types of runs, the efficiency rates over time, and how the diminishing tight end room and the need for blocking WR supplements and disguising run plays in 11-pers worked. In particular I think I was farther ahead than anyone else in calling out OSU’s offensive line as the best place to attack, which I think ran strongly against conventional wisdom and yet was borne out in Oregon’s effective strategy to shut them down.