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Duck Tape: Film Review of Oregon vs Washington 2023 Pac-12 Championship

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 01 PAC-12 Championship Game - Oregon vs Washington Photo by Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Offense

Oregon chose to leverage its passing attack in this game, calling 65% pass plays (compared to 55% in the October game) including all three of its first possession and all but eight for the rest of the first half, maintaining an instantaneous passing rate well into the 70s until late in the third quarter.

The Ducks used their typical horizontal stretch passing game as setup to what would likely be later vertical stretch plays, but UW’s defense was much better prepared for the horizontal game this time around and Oregon’s pass efficiency fell by ten percentage points to 53% (19 successful plays vs 17 failed ones, given the down & distance), with 6.9 adjusted YPA and 17% gaining 15+ yards. Eventually Oregon started connecting on deeper downfield passing, something that in my opinion UW was vulnerable to without the horizontal setup and they should have just proceeded with immediately, but the time cost on four possessions with only three points using a poor offensive gameplan was likely a fatal strategic mistake.

Here’s a representative sample of successful passing plays:

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

  1. :00 – UW is aligned three over three to the field and as soon as the RB moves out pre-snap the LB widens – this should be doomed, and it’s only the high safety taking a poor inside angle and letting #5 WR Holden seal him inside and let #0 RB Irving get to the sideline and run over the corner that turns it into a success.
  2. :07 – No pressure, #10 QB Nix has time to find a longer throw, but with UW bailing everybody deep he takes the quick one to #15 WR Te. Johnson and lets UW defenders fall over themselves collapsing on it.
  3. :25 – Here UW is showing zone blitz; Oregon uses the RPO bluff from #3 TE Ferguson to space the end and the motion into wheel from Johnson to space the corner, so that #11 WR Franklin can slide in behind it where the backers have vacated.

And unsuccessful passing plays:

  1. :00 – UW has seven on the line for this blitz, with just four defenders back and none high, so if Ferguson and #5 WR Holden make their blocks Johnson can get this to the endzone. But in what’s been a problem all season long, Ferguson is slow to set up his perimeter block and the UW’s now-healthy safety corps has anticipated it, blowing up the play in the backfield.
  2. :13 – Nix chooses the underneath throw here and the safety triggers on it fast instead of getting carried deep – the reverse angle shows that would have created some deep downfield options had the protection held up – but #74 RG S. Jones overcommitting left off the snap instead of dropping back on this twist means he’s late to get the backer and Irving has to help, so no one is available for the looper and Nix can’t take advantage.
  3. :32 – This looks like a misread of the RPO to me, Nix is going off the corner biting on Ferguson but the read should be the backer who’s widening on Irving, and so the throw instead should be the crosser to Holden.

Oregon ran the ball at their typical efficiency, 63% (12 vs 7), though at a lower YPC with only 4.2 and just 10% gaining 10+ yards; however with only 19 designed runs in the game the sample is small enough that one play’s difference moves those numbers significantly.

Here’s a representative sample of successful rushing plays:

  1. :00 – This two-back run uses #20 RB James to hold the backside end, and then when the LB as usual jumps down into a non-existent hole Irving takes the middle gap for the 1st down. #76 LT Conerly isn’t getting up to his assigned backer for some reason, though.
  2. :13 – Nix kept the ball on several more read option plays in this game than in previous ones, as UW frequently called it and found out Oregon wasn’t bluffing this time around (the Ducks had seemed to be in some previous games). Ferguson doesn’t look like he was ever going to be a receiving option here, he turns this slice directly into a block on the backer.
  3. :19 – Nice pathing by James gets the backer to bite inside, then when he cuts out Conerly has gotten leverage and sealed the end in.

On reviewing the film, I wound up giving run-blocking grades to Oregon’s offensive line that were basically what I expected from their last few weeks. This wasn’t their best performance of the season and they were finally seeing a healthy DT with the size and talent they couldn’t just push around, and given UW’s previous rush defense rates against a similar schedule the fact that they didn’t bulldoze UW means this should be considered a worse performance than projected.

However, the chief culprits in failed run plays that I tallied weren’t greater than usual o-line defeats, they were repeated recurrences of ongoing issues from other aspects of the run game, namely the TE getting blocking assignments wrong and the back not following his blocks. These were survivable issues during blowouts but in a tight game with so few runs their importance was magnified. Some examples:

  1. :00 – Here the o-line has the d-line handled pretty well with #58 C Powers-Johnson and #65 RT Cornelius turning their side, Jones pulling to kick out the end, and Conerly and #55 LG Harper combo’ing the biggest threat of a DT. One backer widens on the threat of Nix keeping it wide, and the DBs are being blocked pretty well by the receivers, so this just needs a lead block by Ferguson through the hole even just to glance off the backer, but instead he … does something else? Irving gets met by the unblocked backer and gains nothing.
  2. :07 – Conerly loses inside to the end this time, otherwise it’s well set up effectively getting most of the front to run the wrong way and then sealing them backside. But the gap’s not there because Conerly doesn’t get inside leverage, and then UW’s only smart backer scrapes to the play instead of biting aggressively and is there to take on Irving’s improvisation.
  3. :14 – This play’s failure is partly about the return to the fulltime lineup of UW’s best run defender, a sixth-year senior that two freshmen o-linemen are having difficulty digging out. But it’s largely about Irving just not following his blockers through the hole, as Jones has knocked out the end and Cornelius has cleared out the backer, so there’s a big gap to run through for big open grass if he’d waited half a tick longer instead of running straight into Conerly’s backside.


Defense

Oregon’s pass defense had virtually identical per-play numbers to their October game against UW, with a 44% success rate (19 vs 24) and allowing 8.1 adjusted YPA with 18.6% gaining 15+ yards. (The change, if worth noting at all, amounts to one more efficiency pass allowed but one fewer explosive.)

It was certainly a surprise, compared to UW’s last six weeks, to see their starting QB with his full complement of receivers back to early season form, while Oregon was down starting corner #6 CB Florence and, very early in this game, starter #1 DE Burch, but ultimately it just produced the same results as last time.

Given that this was the only passing offense which had put Oregon underwater in defensive efficiency, I was expecting to see some adjustments to the gameplan the second go-around, in particular regarding personnel assignments in coverage. I was surprised that those changes weren’t forthcoming, and I think UW enjoyed some mismatches as a result. Some examples:

  1. :00 – UW is in 12-pers with both TEs to the boundary, and Oregon has its best corner in #5 CB K. Jackson over them. To the field, UW initially lines up their Biletnikoff-finalist inside, and so #0 DB Ty. Johnson is over him in man, and then when the outside receiver motions in #8 CB Manning doesn’t switch coverages. This is a coaching choice Oregon has been making for a while now which I’ve thought is a mistake.
  2. :22 – The center takes down #55 DT Taimani with the head referee staring at it, and the QB pulls off a pretty remarkable throw under pressure. This is good intermediate coverage on the sim, but with #25 CB Reed at outside corner instead of slot, they have Johnson down low and #33 DB Ev. Williams deep instead of Johnson. The long-developing route has to be covered by Williams out of a boundary safety spot and #4 ILB Jacobs retreating from underneath, which is a bad matchup.
  3. :38 – Here UW has gone to an 8-man protection to survive the pass rush, with just two in the pattern. Oregon has a numbers advantage in coverage, but #7 DB Stephens lets the receiver – who hadn’t caught a ball in weeks — cross his face and then he freezes in zone despite nobody else being in the pattern to that side.

Here’s a representative sample of successful pass defenses:

  1. :00 – The initial read is the slant on the switch but #9 ILB Hill has that read by staying wide in the throwing lane and Jackson right on top of the curl. The pressure is home, as was typical, by blowing up the interior protection immediately, this time getting home despite UW’s best efforts before the QB could find the third progression.
  2. :19 – Here’s the blitz working as intended and as the data over the last several weeks showed a flip in the decision point – despite a seven-man protection they can’t combo #50 DT Aumavae who collapses the center into the QB’s lap and just immediately fires a deep shot into double coverage, meanwhile Oregon actually has good on good to the other side.
  3. :38 – About 26% of UW’s passes were swings and screens in this game, which Oregon shut down pretty well. Most weren’t even well designed; I have no idea how this one was meant to succeed against either man or zone.

UW’s major strategic change compared to last time was leaning heavily into its rushing offense. They had been doing so over the last six weeks and their rush rate in this game at 40% was in line with the back half of their season (although given that this seemed to be a response to problems in their passing game which suddenly cleared up on Friday, it’s an interesting strategic choice that they still stuck with it).

Where the major collapse in Oregon’s performance compared to their October game is located is in rush efficiency defense, down in this game to a pathetic 36% (10 successes vs 18 failures). The yardage was a little more at 5.0 YPC, but explosiveness even lower at just 7% gaining 10+ yards – these were almost all muscle runs for just a few yards, but Oregon wasn’t stuffing them dead. Combined with the revitalization of UW’s passing game meaning that they couldn’t use any additional assets to help stop the run, and Oregon’s early offensive struggles putting them into a hole, UW used constant efficiency running to eat clock and limit possessions.

Examining the question of why Oregon went from shutting down the conference’s best rushing attack in OSU the previous week to effectively losing the title by being unable to stop the run the next, there are a few things going on. First, losing Burch hurts. Second, unlike OSU which needs chunk rushing as the driver of their offense, UW was content with shorter gains that just kept the clock and chains moving as a supplement to their lethal primary passing attack. Third, Oregon’s Mint defense is built to have precisely this – inside short yardage running — as the thing it gives up to reallocate resources elsewhere (as I’d said on a number of podcasts, I wouldn’t want them to play Navy). Fourth, and most importantly, UW back #7 RB D. Johnson played a heroic game, and quite a different one from his career performance against USC in which he largely ran untouched, instead going into hard contact and fighting for one or two more yards more than a dozen critical times.

Here’s a representative sample of the entire rush defense:

  1. :00 – Great pathing on this counter by Johnson, Jacobs gets out of position and then blown up by the RT when he tries to correct. Aumavae gets off the center’s block and Williams off the TE’s to catch the back after a couple yards, but he powers through for several more.
  2. :07 – This toss play is stopped by #18 OLB Funa properly setting the edge by wrecking the strongside. Manning cuts off the sideline and Taimani has his hat on the playside of the lineman so no one can get up to Williams who finishes it off.
  3. :16 – Same toss play, but Oregon’s blitzing up the middle and #32 OLB Winston is getting trapped inside while Manning retreats. The safeties are aligned to the weak side of the play, which is strange because UW’s tendencies showed this strongside toss out of this formation in the redzone was something like an 80% likelihood.
  4. :26 – Oregon’s got two freshmen on the edges and an end in #3 DE Dorlus on the inside in on this short yardage play, where a heavier package might have been called for. Dorlus gets combo’d into the designed lane by the RG/RT, true freshman #44 OLB Tuioti beats the senior TE and Jacobs is crushing the WR to seal the cutback. But Johnson runs through his own man and the linebacker to pick up the conversion.

Accountability Corner

Reviewing last week’s updates about UW is a weird experience. The general performance level of the team we saw over the last six weeks of the regular season simply doesn’t match the team that showed up on Friday. My job as an empiricist is to report on what’s happened and extrapolate on trends, so games like this are always going to defeat me, and as such watching the game live was quite a shock. And so I was ready to re-read that piece and find a bunch of stupid things in it. But, actually, I think it holds up pretty well – everything that did in fact show up in UW’s offensive performance was recounted in my preview (or by inclusion the one before it): their increased reliance on the run game between the 20s and the character of it, the structure of the passing offense, how the ball needs to be out quickly within that system for big plays, and why the QB’s apparent physical ailment and to a secondary extent the receivers’ issues had been the big problem for the second half of the season. I think I could have made it more explicit that if those issues suddenly cleared up that they’d be back to nominal, and so I somewhat regret not saying so directly, but first of all I think that’s a fairly obvious implication, and second no one from Seattle to Las Vegas thought that was a realistic possibility.

UW’s defense benefited, compared to much of the season, from three players getting much more play than they had: #91 DT Letuligasenoa, #42 LB Bruener, and #13 DB Fabiculanen. All three are discussed in my article as potential impact players that had been held out due to injuries, or in Bruener’s case wasn’t cycled in until an injury knocked some sense into UW’s coaches. The defensive section has a lengthy discussion about not expecting to see much of Letuligasenoa because I didn’t buy that holding him or the other starter, #68 DT Ale, out was a strategic matter but rather a pitch count one. I think I was half right about that given Ale’s status and that they still stuck with their speed package and ineffective DTs for most of this game, but Letuligasenoa played more than I was expecting – either he made another full and just-in-time recovery, or on this occasion the coaches weren’t telling tales and I should have believed them. Otherwise, UW’s defense performed just as described, and I think Oregon waited much too long to take advantage of well documented tendencies.