After some wet-ball related hijinx at the beginning of the game, conditions settled down and Oregon played at an elite level throughout the game and into garbage time. In the aggregate, the Ducks’ offense had a 66.7% efficiency rate during meaningful play (40 successful plays vs 20 unsuccessful ones, given the down & distance), averaging 7.5 adjusted YPP with 28.3% achieving explosive yardage.
Strategically, I was a little surprised that Oregon used as many passing and toss-based run plays as they did during the worst of the wet conditions, and I also thought they played a bit too much into Cal’s one defensive strength – defending short passes – with the Ducks taking a bit longer than I expected to hit a rhythm of efficiency runs and long downfield passes that the Bears were unable to defend. Otherwise, the only real criticism came down to some sloppiness in execution.
Of the 20 failed plays prior to garbage time, I thought four were due to wet conditions, two were just good defensive coverage plays, four on poor blocking, five on Nix’s decision-making, two weirdly designed plays (though I’m not entirely sure, I’d like the all-22), and three were called back on live-ball penalties (two completely correct, one ticky tack). Other than the (hopefully) one-off conditions and bizarre turnover exchange at the beginning of the game, that’s a fairly normal distribution with perhaps one more sloppy play in each category than would be expected given the fundamental strength numbers of both teams going into the game. So there’s no standout single issue to comment on, only a general need to improve focus.
The passing offense has 64.7% efficient (22 successes vs 12 failures), averaging 9.1 adjusted YPA with 32.3% of passes gaining 15+ yards. A few wet-ball related weird plays aside, #10 QB Nix was typically accurate, and I thought this was the best game he’s played in the long career I’ve observed in terms of making tricky altered arm-angle throws and using the entire pocket to change the window. It was also apparent that Oregon’s receivers had a significant athletic advantage against Cal’s secondary in terms of short-area burst to create sudden separation and acceleration on longer plays, and as soon as conditions permitted it they spent the entire game running away from the Bears.
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 – There’s not much to this play schematically, it’s man coverage (Yogi Roth on the commentary couldn’t decide but there’s a lot of pre-snap motion from the TE I had to cut for length that confirms it), the DB has outside leverage, #15 WR Te. Johnson gets him to bite further with a step out off the line, then burns him and the late safety with superior footspeed and out-accelerates both en route to a 48-yd TD, all as indicated on Cal’s prior film.
- :13 – Tactically, this is just a well played PBU by the corner on a dropback slant, which followed an RPO slant PBU by the other corner the previous down, both being proper reads but better defensive plays. Strategically, I wasn’t wild about back-to-back five yard passes; they’re what Cal’s entire defensive structure is built to eat – watch the rest of the underneath coverage on this clip.
- :21 – Much better – get Cal’s notoriously conservative cover-3 defense to bail deep with lots of verticals, use a rub concept to open #2 WR Bryant down the sideline for a horizontal stretch, clear one LB with the RB in the flat, and let #3 TE Ferguson run into the resulting enormous open grass defended only by the remaining true freshman linebacker.
- :36 – Payback for #11 WR Franklin on the corner with that breakoff. Nix on the half-roll was just about perfect on Saturday, this is an NFL throw in terms of angle and placement to beat coverage.
The rushing offense was 69.2% efficient (18 successes vs 8 failures), gaining 5.4 adjusted YPC with 23% of designed runs getting 10+ yards. While pass protection grades have been near-perfect from the beginning of the season, it’s been steady improvement each week in run-blocking – this was the offensive line’s best aggregate performance to date in 2023, with a cumulative run-blocking error rate at about 10% on my tally sheet, just a point away from the Oregon standard in past Rose Bowl and other championship years of single digits.
Here’s a representative sample of the rushing offense:
- :00 – This looks like split flow but I think Ferguson is in the wrong gap. #58 C Powers-Johnson chips and moves to the boundary backer and #74 RG S. Jones is turning the field DT outside (great block), so I’m pretty certain Ferguson’s assignment isn’t to help Jones in the B-gap but to lead block through the A-gap and hit that field backer. #0 RB Irving sees the unblocked ILB in his lane and bounces out, but the DB makes the play.
- :11 – Here Oregon is taking advantage of Cal’s reluctance on film to switch away from their 2-4-5 even when opponents are in heavy sets by running out of 12-pers. That puts the NB on the backside of the play, lets #81 TE Kelly make the key block against the backer, and gets #88 TE Herbert up to the safety for more yards after #20 RB James clears the second level. Freshman #72 RG I. Laloulu played two long meaningful drives with good grades but he needs to be controlling the DT better here with a bit wider first step to gain leverage.
- :19 – This is the triple-option RPO with the other possibilities being a QB keep and a toss to the H-back, but the read OLB stays wide and the ILB follows Kelly outside so the play design has done its job controlling the box count for this handoff on the proper read. The other ILB gets off Powers-Johnson’s block but Irving just knocks him over, and some DBs too.
- :36 – Later on, the Bears scrounged up a third DL for their … Bear front against 12-pers in the redzone, meaning no nickel in midfield. They’re aligned to the strongside and the Ducks indulge that with initial RB motion that direction, but it’s a counter with Jones and Kelly pulling around, excellent backside seals from Herbert and #65 RT Cornelius, and frontside controls by #76 Conerly and #55 LG Harper. Man coverage means the DBs to the playside have their backs turned, so it’s just left to Irving to outrun the backside safety who’s coming from that alignment over the TEs – a long run even if he weren’t at a footspeed disadvantage.
This game had a several interesting playcalling sequences clearly designed to manipulate the defense. They didn’t have huge impacts on the game, but I thought it was remarkable just how effective they were in getting the defense into exactly the look that the offense wanted on the next play of the sequence … that is, manipulation itself from play design was extremely successful, part of a continuing and increasingly strong pattern each week, regardless of the actual play outcome (which is dependent on execution and other factors). Some examples:
- :00 – Unbalanced formation, tackle over right, run to boundary trips – this was in last year’s playbook and I named it “make a run for the border,” a little obviously. Cal puts three DBs over the WRs (who go into a screen pattern, pulling them farther outside) but bails the free safety deep so when Conerly and Cornelius, both on the right side, wash the first and second levels down respectively, Irving has a big lane to run through.
- :20 – Two plays later, same taco formation, same RPO, but Cal has reacted to the big run by backing out that third DB this time to give him more reaction space. This is a proper screen read then, two over three to the outside with the possibility of a big run down the sideline, but poor perimeter blocking scotches it. Still, the Ducks immediately got just what they wanted schematically. (Later they used the churro play on the goalline, though not quickly enough out of the sugar huddle and Cal realigned at the last second to save the TD by inches.)
- :27 – Later in the game, Bear front against 12-pers in short-yardage – Cal’s learned their lesson after getting bullied playing nickel. It’s not enough though, Oregon just wins eight hat-on-hat blocks on this gap scheme, including Franklin on the corner and Laloulu with a great kick on the OLB.
- :43 – Next play, the Ducks hurry up and don’t substitute (the broadcast barely caught the snap and I had to leave in the graphic). The Bears are stuck with their heavy defense but have to defend a 1st & 10 with a split-out TE, so that’s their biggest OLB up at the second level trying to hustle over to defend this screen pass instead of a DB. Franklin makes the big guy miss and if not for the shoestring tackle by the ILB would have had the 1st down and more.
The defense limited Cal to only 43 meaningful snaps prior to garbage time, almost too few for useful splits. In the aggregate, Oregon’s defensive success rate was an elite 73% (30 vs 11), limiting the opponent to 5.3 adjusted YPP with 17% gaining explosive yardage.
Oregon played a relatively balanced defense in terms of allocating resources to stop the pass vs the run, which I thought was a little curious given that it seemed clear the much bigger threat since the Bears’ new QB took over in week 6 was their passing attack, and furthermore that it required biting on run fakes to activate it. Sure enough, they passed on a 2:1 basis and their yardage gains were at about the same ratio.
At any rate, the Ducks handily shut down that run game with a 66.7% defensive success rate (10 vs 5), with 5.1 adjusted YPC and 13% gaining explosive yardage (if their single outlier run of 20 yards on a curious inside trap is excluded, those numbers fall to 4.3 YPC and 7.2% explosiveness). Even though linebacker play against inside running is usually regarded as the weakness of a Mint front (since they’re recruited to be rangier, pass-defending body types), this was an excellent game for Oregon’s ILB unit.
Here’s a representative sample of rush defenses:
- :00 – Nice job by #95 DT Ware-Hudson and #55 DT Taimani closing the interior run lanes on their own, with #4 ILB Jacobs playing patiently in case it’s play action then taking on the LG effectively. Cal obliges by just running into it anyway as they showed on film over and over.
- :05 – This is good work by #32 OLB Winston to squeeze down the first puller and #6 CB Florence to get outside leverage on the second to control sideline access, but Jacobs needs to be one gap over – he’s got to scrape over that LT quicker and not be caught inside, that cutback gap is #2 ILB Bassa’s and he needs to be in the actual designed run lane. Bassa recovers and loops around to limit the damage with #33 DB Ev. Williams.
- :13 – Great work by Winston here recognizing the play and getting off the initial block and then stringing out the back, and the quick lateral speed by Jacobs to then beat that back. #5 CB K. Jackson has defeated the WR’s block once it’s gotten to the sideline and forces him out.
- :20 – Cal tries it again, but Jacobs reads it right and the LT has no chance. #18 OLB Funa squeezes the puller, Jacobs forces the back outside, and Bassa and Williams are there to clean up.
Pass defense was phenomenal from an efficiency perspective: a 77% defensive success rate (20 vs 6), limiting Cal to 5.2 adjusted YPA. Oregon forced a havoc play of some kind – sack, scramble, throwaway, turnover, pass breakup, or deflected pass at the line – on nearly 50% of Cal’s designed downfield passes.
The one red mark in the entire game on the metrics I track was in explosive pass defense, which was 19.2% for Cal. That’s mostly a product of the small denominator – so few passes got off that it only took four passes gaining 16-30 yards to hit that percentage. I thought it was a bit odd that #0 DB Ty. Johnson played the entire game defending the new QB’s favorite target (from when they were scout team partners), because I would have thought #25 CB Reed’s skillset would fit covering him out of the slot better … and yet we barely saw Reed, and Johnson’s man caught a couple of flag routes for 20+ yards apiece. (I met up with Write for Cal publisher Avinash Kunnath and we discussed it; Avi thought it was weird too and had spotted Reed during warmups looking fine.)
Those pair of passes aside, throws were the expected screens and over-the-middle stuff, and well defended. Here’s a representative sample:
- :00 – Cal attempted eight screens in this game, probably too many. Oregon successfully defended all six of them that were quick outside throws like this (the others were a little bubble that barely got enough, and a very clever double screen that got the backers to bite on the fake smoke) with proper fundamentals – Williams has outside leverage on the blocker to control the sideline, Florence darts in and wraps up, Bassa and the rest of the defense swarm to the play.
- :17 – The fun stuff happens at the line, but reader, watch the back end first – excellent man coverage across the board from #9 ILB Hill on the primary read (the RB wheel) as well as Bassa and Johnson on the mesh (I don’t know why Florence is off the sit-down, but #7 DB Stephens is over it). That buys time for #98 DT Rogers and #3 DE Dorlus to get to the QB while #44 OLB Tuioti is somehow penetrating a triple team, and Taimani recovers the fumble.
- :36 – The LT gets a close look at the back of Funa’s nightmare green jersey as the QB slides left to make this slant pass. There’s no underneath coverage here because Jacobs has come up on the run fake, and Williams has worked himself out of the throwing lane – Cal’s previous film with this QB indicated this was going to be a slant 100% of the time and he needs to be drifting inside with it, not outside and upfield.
- :44 – I think switching to zone was probably more appropriate given the preponderance of inside routes. Nice handoffs here on the back end, while Rogers, Funa, and #1 DE Burch penetrate the line to force a quick and errant throw.
In last week’s preview, I talked quite a bit about how Cal can’t play a third defensive lineman and that’s been killing them against the run. In this game, they did start out playing a nickel, but after getting killed (predictably), they spent the rest of the game in a three-down front pretty much whenever Oregon went heavy. That really surprised me, especially since it’s not like they suddenly got healthier (in fact periodically they’d have different defensive front personnel out for parts of this game after getting shaken up). I don’t understand what that was about at all, they’ve always had this many d-linemen and they’ve played plenty of run-heavy offenses (more so, like OSU and Utah) while sticking with nickel. I’ve reached out to my friends at Write for Cal to see if they have any insights but we’ve all been in our cups about the conference breakup and it might be awhile (Avi invited me to come down to Berkeley for the Miami-Cal game next year, perchance to see Coach Cristobal blow it to a Bay Area school one more time …) Otherwise the defensive observations were all perfectly accurate, including the DBs matching sitting on most short passes with giving up enormous explosives.
The offensive section was all spot-on: the QB and his route and receiver preferences, the porous offensive line and the need for a quick passing game, the need for play-action fakes, and the relative merits of the pass vs the run threats. I spent quite some time parsing the different running backs, which was then heartbreaking to re-read due to Ifanse missing the game with injury and the scary immobilization to Thomas (with encouraging recent news of his release from Sacred Heart).