Nota bene: In addition to the usual problem of sacks and scrambles on called passing plays being mixed in with designed quarterback run plays – all of which showed up in this game frequently – the official box score is even more misleading because several rushes that started with a lateral toss were classified by the scorekeeper as pass receptions. As always, the statistics in this article reflect the actual play design from charting the game film.
Oregon’s passing offense was relatively efficient at a 55.5% success rate (25 success vs 20 failures), given the down & distance, though with one notable notable exception it was far more methodical than explosive. The Ducks averaged just 7.1 adjusted YPA and only 13.3% of their passes gained 15+ yards, which is lower than usual for Oregon over the last several years.
There are a smattering of the typical reasons for failed passing plays within normal expectations – a couple of defeated blocks on screens, a blitz that got through and #10 QB Nix threw it away, a tight defensive coverage where the Oregon receiver wanted a flag but didn’t get it, an RPO play to the TE that worked when running over an FCS safety but didn’t against a Power-5 one. Interestingly, I don’t really have any poor pass protections on my tally sheet – new tackles #76 LT Conerly and #65 RT Cornelius graded out nearly perfectly in dropback pass-pro, and there was just one play where a pretty clever interior twist beat the guards.
The two factors that showed up repeatedly, and were totally unexpected given past performances, were first that Nix wasn’t playing particularly sharp with seven failed plays that I attribute partially or wholly to him making a mistake, and second that the receivers dropped seven catchable balls by my count (two plays on those lists overlap, that is, Nix threw an unnecessarily off-target but still catchable pass which was dropped). On top of that, the Ducks’ offense gave up 25 yards on five procedural penalties, three of which came on drives that became three & outs.
But even with those handicaps, the general talent differential between Oregon’s passing personnel and Texas Tech’s pass defense personnel, plus some of the Red Raiders’ tendencies which were apparent through film study and were properly exploited, allowed Oregon to move the ball fairly efficiently when they weren’t getting in their own way. Some examples:
(Reminder – you can use the button in the lower right corner to control playback speed)
- :00 – After a short-yardage conversion on a slant pass in which Oregon went to 12-personnel and Texas Tech finally switched to their heavy defensive package, the Ducks didn’t substitute and the Red Raiders were stuck with putting their boundary rush end split out over the receivers, who has difficulty getting to this screen to #11 WR Franklin in time and has to bring him down from behind.
- :08 – As was the pattern against Wyoming, Texas Tech this year has mostly stayed in their nickel package instead of going to the bear front as they did last year against 12-personnel, and increased the blitz rate to make up for it. Oregon responded by going around the blitz and into open grass several times on RB wheels, this one with a half-roll from Nix to #6 RB Whittington.
- :26 – Here’s the opposite strategy against 12-pers, rushing only three and dropping the backers. The defense kept intermediate lanes gummed up all night, but underneath throws like this dumpoff were almost always open, and got extra yardage by breaking or eluding tackles from the linebackers as #88 TE Herbert does here.
- :36 – This was typical of the defense’s ordinary four-man rushes, a perfectly clean pocket and an easy throw with plenty of room to run against the backers like this mesh-sit concept to #15 WR Te. Johnson which earlier scored a touchdown.
I don’t have any insights as to why the Ducks kept making boneheaded mistakes in the passing game – there are lots of potential psychological explanations I’m sure fans are eager to speculate about – but nothing I saw struck me as structural or permanent. We’ll just have to wait and see if these things were a one-off or last later into the season. Here are some examples:
- :00 – The line is handling the OLB/ILB switch fine, Franklin’s having no trouble with the DB, this is Nix’s typical deep throwing motion. Ball just goes right through his hands. It obviously wasn’t a bad day for Franklin catching the deep ball, either.
- :18 – I just don’t understand what Nix is seeing here that makes him pull the string, one of three times he did so this game. There’s also no reason to panic, start running, and effectively sack himself here since the line is picking up the blitz just fine, but if he wanted to bail he should have flipped out to the left and hit #5 WR Holden, that’s his outlet.
- :25 – No pressure, easy on-target throw, and #3 TE Ferguson had two other catches in this game (one for 30 yards) so he wasn’t having a bad day, just … didn’t secure the ball.
- :37 – I know he’s backed up and it’s 3rd down but this is a three-man rush and there’s plenty of time to make a better decision here. Throwing to Ferguson would have netted more yards on the catch alone and given him a much better chance at running over the nickel (he’d done it before) for a conversion, or at least more breathing room for the punter.
The rushing offense was also above water, at 55% efficiency (17 vs 14) in designed runs, though that’s a big falloff from what fans have been accustomed to over the last several years with efficiency rates in the 60s or even low 70s. They were also significantly below expectations in yardage and explosiveness, at only 4.2 adjusted YPC and just 6.5% of designed rushes gaining 10+ yards.
There were a few things apparent from reviewing the film. First is that the step back in offensive line performance from so many departing starters appears to be real – the run-blocking error rates are still better than average for a Pac-12 line, but they’re not the elite numbers Oregon fans have gotten used to from the 2018-19 group or the 2021-22 group, instead they look more like the 2020 group. Second is that Oregon’s staff took a very mixed approach to film study of Texas Tech’s rush defense personnel and tendencies – the Ducks’ best plays showed a very canny way of neutralizing the opponents’ strengths, but their worst plays blew up from running right into the teeth of them.
Fortunately for the Ducks, their running back room is excellent, and good play design combined with great running kept them fairly efficient. Some examples:
- :00 – Correct RPO read of the overhang backer who’s staying outside on Johnson as the No. 3 receiver. This looks like good enough blocking at first to run the B-gap as designed, but Cornelius is playing a little high and #0 RB Irving checks out of it for the outside, then improvises some moves around the DBs as he tends to do.
- :08 – Texas Tech has eight in the box against this 12-pers pistol look, but they’re still in the nickel (that’s two DBs joining the standard pair of DTs and four backers). As was pretty clear from film study, they’ll make up for the lack of heft with aggression by pursuing the initial blocking laterally and ultimately getting run out of the play when Whittington cuts back inside. Jones whiffs on his block of the ILB but balletically lets the back scootch by him.
- :17 – Oregon went to this lateral toss play several times to deal with Texas Tech’s big DTs and aggressive front – simply running away from it to the outside, which the 2022 charts indicated they were much less able to defend than inside running. Here they’ve inverted their ends and tackles, I’m not sure why, but the blocking is the same – Herbert seals the end man, #81 TE Kelly has the backer, and Conerly swings outside to lead block on the corner. Whittington just beats the bad angles the safeties take.
- :35 – Again Texas Tech is in nickel against 12-pers, relying on their NFL-caliber DTs alone to stop inside running, and this time Oregon does the wise thing and uses outside pathing through the wide B-gap, then cuts inside of it to the A-gap when they overpursue. Nice block by #58 C Powers-Johnson who sets the whole thing up.
We’ll have to wait and see what effects this game has on the staff or the development of the o-line’s run blocking – they won’t face an interior d-line this good for several weeks. But if the idea was to see if they were up to moving mountains, the answer is not yet:
- :00 - Both inside backers are in on the tackle here, which in this gap scheme are the responsibility of Powers-Johnson, who’s chipping the DT instead of hitting the blocking the backer like he should, and #76 LT Conerly, who kind of gets caught up in #65 RT Cornelius’ end and doesn’t hit his backer.
- :07 – Good initial engagement from Cornelius, but he doesn’t take that extra step to turn the end to get him out of the play, allowing him to lean back into the lane on the back. #74 RG S. Jones is hesitant to get up to the backers, and Ferguson on the split flow is held up by Powers-Johnson losing control of the tackle.
- :13 – The replay angle makes it clear what goes wrong here, Herbert wildly throws himself at Cornelius’ man and not only takes himself out of the play and therefore his assigned block of the backer who helps on the tackle, but he dominoes players over into #72 RG I. Laloulu (who rotated in on about a third of drives for Jones) and now that DT is free to make initial contact.
- :27 – It was very clear from film study that this was the one play – inside zone pushing straight up against their massive DTs – that teams were totally unsuccessful running against Texas Tech. This was the first of three failed one-yard runs that resulted in a turnover on downs in the redzone.
The pass defense was above water in terms of efficiency at a 54.5% defensive success rate (24 successes vs 20 failures), and even better at generating havoc plays with 39% of dropbacks resulting in a sack, scramble, or throwaway. All three non-garbage time turnovers came from the pass defense harrying the QB, plus they got a ten-yard holding penalty. That resulted in keeping the overall yardage for Texas Tech low, just 6.8 adjusted YPA.
However, the pass defense let the Red Raiders connect for five explosive passes of 15+ yards, plus they were flagged for three 15-yard pass interference penalties, so even though the Ducks repeatedly had their opponents in 3rd downs and were ready to get off the field, explosive yardage from the passing game would continue the drive.
It was very clear from watching this tape, Texas Tech’s game from the previous Saturday against Wyoming, and their 2022 film that they’d kept quite a few plays under wraps in week 1 which they then debuted against Oregon. In fact they even kept up the ruse by displaying similar tendencies in terms of pass placement – short throws and flanker screens, to the sidelines instead of over the middle, and seldom to their 6’9” tight end — against the Cowboys as they did last year, only to flip them around against the Ducks. Some big passing plays out of the new playbook resulted in a couple of 1st and 3rd quarter touchdown drives, though apparently they’d run dry in the 2nd and 4th quarters because they reverted to the older playbook which the Ducks were better prepared to stop.
Some examples of successful pass play defenses:
- :00 – The guard’s stance and the QB’s signal for the TE to motion are a dead giveaway that this is one of their 2022 staples, a tunnel screen behind a gap scheme run. #2 ILB Bassa catches it immediately and directs the defense to be ready - #44 OLB Tuioti stays square and #95 DT Ware-Hudson disengages from run pursuit, so they’re free to reverse and catch the receiver along with #6 CB Florence who knifes in between the blockers.
- :08 – Only rushing three here, dropping #10 DE Uiagalelei into man coverage on the boundary slot man who’s the outlet when #9 ILB Hill has the other hitch to the TE covered. #55 DT Taimani crushes the center into the QB’s lap and he bails. Nice coverage across the board here.
- :23 – Good coverage here, and there’s no way the long-developing drag is going to break open before the pass rush collapses the pocket. The LT probably should have committed to just holding #3 DE Dorlus once he was beat, given how the play turns out.
- :45 – This is was the most frequently run pass play of the old playbook, multiple hitches out of these wide spread formations. Hill is ready for either the flanker screen or just to get this PBU on the stop route to the slot on the quick throw; they even have #98 DT Rogers backing out in coverage in case it’s a draw.
And unsuccessful pass defenses:
- :00 – First possession of the game, and first opportunity for Texas Tech to show some surprises. Here the Ducks are expecting another set of hitches on 3rd down as usual, but the slot man instead runs to the pylon after surprising contact with #0 DB Ty. Johnson leaves him flat-footed.
- :12 – I don’t need to explain all the ways this is a painful play, right?
- :30 – Schematically the Ducks are playing this screen properly, with Florence in proper outside leverage denying the sideline and Bassa inside denying the cutback, so #7 DB Stephens just needs to close and secure the tackle for minimal gain. But he gets run over by their bruising back, a recurring problem with safeties #13 DB Addison and #33 DB Williams as well in this game.
- :38 – Texas Tech fans spent most of last year moaning about how their team never took advantage of throws to their enormous, undefendable tight end over the middle. Looks like OC Kittley finally heard them with five targets on Saturday. Johnson’s coverage is pretty good here, this is just what 5’10” vs 6’9” means.
Some of the same patterns obtain in Texas Tech’s rushing performance as well. They certainly changed up their tendencies, largely abandoning the off-tackle power running that they hadn’t been able to execute last year or in the opener against Wyoming, and massively increasing the frequency of QB power and QB draw plays compared to the previous 14 games I reviewed. And it was also the case that Oregon had the opponent bottled up on a yardage basis outside of a few big plays – 121 of Texas Tech’s 180 yards on designed run plays came on just four snaps.
So when Oregon figured out how to stop the QB runs and Texas Tech found the game getting tight late, they switched their run-pass balance to heavily favor designed passing plays, on almost a 3:1 basis over their last six possessions. That’s a caveat against the per-play stats here, which is the worst quadrant of football from scrimmage for the Ducks, but also the least populous: 43.5% defensive success rate (10 vs 13), 7.4 adjusted YPC, and 17% gaining 10+ yards. The final nine designed runs of the game for the Red Raiders combined for only 36 yards, however, as the Ducks made some appropriate adjustments and weren’t given many opportunities to even out their rush defense stats.
Here’s what the failed rush defenses looked like:
- :00 – This QB power run might remind Oregon fans of a Joe Moorhead play, it’s certainly new to the playbook and it solves their usual power-running problem by making the defense account for one extra player – Williams has to choose between staying outside on the back or inside on the QB, though he still trips him up from behind.
- :07 – Texas Tech quickly lined up in this overload diamond formation to try and get the defense out of alignment, I think there’s an RPO component if they are. The Ducks have the throw covered but now there’s a five-man box and the QB runs a draw out of it. #28 ILB Boettcher as the sole backer in the box has been pulled towards the strongside and the QB runs weakside into open grass, it’s close footrace but just enough space to make the line to gain.
- :22 – Still in the first half and Oregon hasn’t adjusted to all these QB runs yet. #22 ILB Soelle is again gravitating towards the strongside because of the pass threat and the QB moves him that way with a little juke, but the defense needs to understand this run is always going to be to the weakside B-gap and he needs to stay disciplined to that lane.
- :34 – This TE motion reversing into a split block on an outside zone is so new I don’t even know what to call it. I’m not sure who’s supposed to set the edge here, Dorlus or Hill, but neither does and the back gets outside of them, then there’s some comedy in the defensive backfield.
And here were the adjustments the Ducks made later on, plus some of the old playbook stuff the Red Raiders reverted to that the Ducks always had shut down:
- :00 – This is just winning against a traditional inside zone read. Uiagalelei plays the QB read properly on the outside and the DTs win on their own.
- :07 – Unlike the new power or RPO plays to get hat advantages, this is the typical QB keeper from last year’s playbook with their heavy set in to block. It goes nowhere, as did two other such plays on Saturday.
- :34 – Here’s the diamond formation again, but now it’s the 4th quarter and the Ducks have figured it out. Bassa plays it cool, knowing this won’t be a throw with the personnel aligned properly and he needs to wait for the QB to commit to a lane. Penetration by Dorlus and Taimani spill the QB into Bassa’s arms.
- :40 – To me this seemed like nothing more than Kittley having run out of novelties and going back to his favorite off-tackle power run late in the game, which they still can’t execute and Oregon was clearly prepared for. Textbook squeezedown of the puller by Uiagalelei.
In last week’s preview, I think the time spent (re-)acquainting Oregon fans with DC DeRuyter’s scheme, especially those who’d somehow talked themselves into thinking he was a mediocre or even poor coordinator, was well worth it. The Ducks clearly picked up on the fact that they wouldn’t (maybe couldn’t?) go to a bear front anymore in response to heavy sets except in short-yardage when they felt it imperative, and used that in a variety of ways on Saturday – that’s something that was detailed and predicted extensively in Friday’s article and which I grilled Macon about on the podcast. I was skeptical about their new pass rushers and linebackers, which was borne out. The article outlines what manner of rushes would and would not be successful, and the Ducks were and were not successful in precisely those ways, which is gratifying as an analyst though obnoxious as a fan. I essentially punted on the question of whether Texas Tech’s deep pass coverage had improved, and I think Oregon’s performance against them still leaves it as an unknown (a question that’ll need to be resolved using later game film by their return trip on the home-and-home in 2024) since the Ducks burned them deep repeatedly but only connected once, for a variety of reasons.
I was shocked and more than a little embarrassed that I didn’t see the playbook changeup coming from Kittley. Fans of teams with week 1 underperformances love to say they were just keeping things “vanilla” … I’m always a skeptic of such excuses and I would never think a staff would be so committed to maintaining the veil that they’d be willing to take a loss rather than break out the good stuff. But I said repeatedly, breezily, on multiple podcasts, how much of a carbon copy their Wyoming playbook was, with no changes in tendencies or personnel use despite obvious drawbacks and mismatches between frequency and effectiveness, and I feel haunted now that the coin never dropped. I’ll never step in that hole again, but I can’t believe any coach would ever risk such a thing again … right? Otherwise I think the predictions and descriptions in last Friday’s article hold up – when it came to the old playbook their personnel still couldn’t do the things they couldn’t do last year or against Wyoming, their QB got them in trouble at the ends of games due to rookie mistakes for reasons discussed at length in the article, and the offensive line couldn’t hold up for long developing plays.