I charted Oregon’s first five possessions, after which the Ducks had a 29-point lead with most of the second quarter left to play and the game was effectively over. That only constituted 24 meaningful plays, too few for useful statistical splits, so I’ll present them in the aggregate: Oregon’s per-play success rate was 75% (18 successes vs 6 failures, given the down & distance), with an average of 10.8 adjusted yards per play, and 25% of plays gained explosive yardage. Each of these are well over the championship-caliber thresholds, if sustained all season.
There were two unexpected playcalling factors. First, 10 of these 24 plays were conducted out of 12-personnel (actually nine, with the tenth in 13-pers, a goalline run). That’s a lot more tight end usage than I was expecting out of OC Stein, far more than he did at UTSA last year and more even than former OC Dillingham did last season. Since Portland State switched out of their nickel configuration and into their 4-3 defense when Oregon was in 12-pers, it was clear that doing so was taking advantage of going uptempo and not substituting – this forced the Vikings to keep that third backer on the field against the next play which stretched the field vertically or horizontally, and created a mismatch. It remains to be seen if this pattern was just about a particular matchup advantage to this game or if it’s something the staff continues against all opponents.
The second curiosity was the run-pass balance: 9 handoffs to 15 throws, a 3:5 ratio instead of Oregon’s typical 50-50 mix. But film study cleared that up – almost every time the Ducks ran an RPO, the Vikings chose to defend the run element, and so #10 QB Nix responded appropriately by pulling the ball down and throwing it. So the imbalance wasn’t Oregon choosing to pass more, it was PSU choosing to try and stop the run. As it happened, that almost certainly resulted in giving up more yards and shortening the game.
Nix had a very efficient performance in the passing game, with a 211.1 NCAA passer rating that was top ten among Power-5 QBs this past weekend. As expected, his top target was last year’s leading receiver, #11 WR Franklin, with several more throws to the other starting wideouts #2 WR Bryant and #15 WR Te. Johnson in the downfield passing game, and both tight ends #3 TE Ferguson and #88 TE Herbert in the RPO game.
There was no meaningful pass pressure in the game. As anticipated, #76 LT Conerly and #65 RT Cornelius started at tackles with #58 C Powers-Johnson snapping the ball. The injury situation at guard is apparently still not totally resolved, however - #55 LG Harper was back in the lineup as he was for most of last year even though he missed the Spring with an injury, but it seems that both #54 OG Angilau and #50 OG Strother are hurt, as #75 RG S. Jones started for the first three possessions, before the staff tried out true freshman #72 RG I. Laloulu starting on the fourth possession (later in the game he was at center with his older brother #75 OT F. Laloulu on the left side, and redshirt freshmen #52 OG Iuli and #73 OG K. Rogers in during garbage time, then very late in the game Angilau played a few snaps). I didn’t see any real protection issues despite the unfortunate health news, though. Some examples:
(Reminder – you can use the button in the lower right corner to control playback speed)
- :00 – The cornerback just doesn’t have the footspeed to maintain leverage over Franklin when he breaks inside, with plenty of space to come back for the ball well past the sticks, and then this dip out for ten extra yards after the catch is just icing. No problems at all in the pocket, nice balance over the feet and flat backs across the line.
- :08 – The Ducks are still in 12-pers as they haven’t substituted following a big play, and the Viks have three backers over Ferguson as the detached TE, Herbert as the Z, and … well now, this might need a new food-based name (suggestions in comments) Franklin as the H-back. The field safety doesn’t know what to do here when Franklin gets going; the ball is caught behind the line of scrimmage so Ferguson and Bryant get to block downfield, though the latter needs to keep his eyes on target.
- :28 – Nix connects with Johnson on this slant for six yards through the air, and his adoptive brother shows some real toughness fighting for four extra yards and the 1st down through contact. I think he’s added some muscle since I reviewed his film at Troy, nice to see him taking to the training table. Hard to see but good pickup of the twist by Cornelius at the end.
- :35 – This is ordinary play action, I don’t believe there’s an RPO tag (and out of the pistol, for the many rational and articulate Duck fans of that formation). The clip is included for representation purposes; this is a pure talent play with only two receivers in the formation (7-man protection against the blitz plus Bryant on the sweep to pin the backer, good use of film study on PSU’s tendencies) and the DBs can neither cover nor catch Franklin.
Schematically, I was most interested in what exactly new OC Stein would bring to the RPO game. His history at UTSA regarding how, when, and why he introduced RPOs after taking over the Roadrunners’ offense last season was quite complicated, and it took a lot of statistical analysis and conversation with Express-News’ beat reporter Greg Luca to suss it out.
The happy news is that, unlike in San Antonio, he was able to hit the ground running with creative and effective RPOs right away which were a treat to break down. As mentioned above, PSU consistently chose to come down on the run and give Nix pass reads, resulting in something of a pass-play bias though not an inappropriate one, and probably a yardage benefit, though it’s difficult for me to say even after this much film study on both Oregon’s OC and PSU’s DC if this was induced or happenstance. I did notice a few plays, however, where execution needed some polishing. Some examples:
- :00 – I think the zone blitz messed with Bryant’s blocking assignment here. Since he can’t carry the corner in man (as it looked like the Viks were initially set up by leverage) he needs to actually block that guy and just trust Johnson’s speed and Nix’s arm to beat the field safety. Instead he blocks the safety and since the corner has his eyes in the backfield (because it’s zone) he’s free to come back and make the tackle.
- :08 – This is using PSU’s strict field/boundary assignments against them, by motioning the TE to the side with the RB and two wideouts they’ve created an overload to the boundary which structurally the Viks never deal with well. The “rover” fails to follow but even if he had the Ducks would still have a numbers advantage. This is a two-level read; first is the boundary ILB who stays in on the run despite that motion prompting a pull instead of a handoff, then the DE who isn’t following the TE behind the blockers so Nix throws it instead of keeping. Nice blocks by Franklin and Johnson, and Herbert does the rest through contact.
- :29 – There’s a viable run possibility here if the defense had played this differently, but the read DE crashes on the run and the boundary ILB comes down hard on the slicing TE, so that’s not happening. The read shifts to the boundary CB, and Nix does a great job here analyzing his posture – all he needs is that weight shift inside towards #5 WR Holden to know that Bryant is open on the wheel down the sideline.
- :37 – I think the first read here is the correct one, the DE steps inside on the run so Nix pulls the ball. But I think he was too hasty on the second read (or just didn’t do it at all) of the boundary safety, triggering the throw to Ferguson immediately. I believe the play calls for him to start rolling to the sideline to force that safety to make a decision: either come down on the QB keep and then throw, or let him go for the TE and keep it on a run between the hashes and the numbers. The immediate throw lets the safety just beeline for Ferguson, which doesn’t work out for the smaller DB as he gets completely trucked, but FBS play might be a different story.
Oregon had a very good rushing performance outside the RPO game. Oregon’s sort-of not-really new starters at the offensive line had few problems with PSU’s actually all new starters on the defensive line, and the Ducks have an excellent group of running backs including returners #0 RB Irving and #20 RB James as well as true freshmen #24 RB Dowdell and #27 RB Limar, although returner #6 RB Whittington seemed to get dinged up on the opening kickoff coverage and didn’t appear for the rest of the game.
A little paradoxically, the rushing offense is where I have the most negative individual marks on my tally sheet, even as the play outcomes were more consistently efficient and explosive than in the passing game. On the one hand, there are some young players here – for example, James picked the wrong gap on a failed play, Conerly missed a second-level block on another; both were true freshmen last year – combined with Jones continuing to play out of position at guard due to the injury situation and having subpar grades there by Oregon standards for the o-line. On the other hand, the talent of these players and the development from RB coach Locklyn and OL coach Terry (and his predecessors) are extraordinary, and could compensate for a lot bigger mistakes than the ones I noticed. Some examples:
- :00 – Jones’ assignment is the field ILB, but he doesn’t get there in time, so Cornelius – who’s supposed to be going way out to pick up the field safety – has to get him. The TEs and Franklin are getting their blocks done and Irving is strong through contact so this speed toss still gets good yardage, but the safety was the last defender to the sideline and if Cornelius had got him so Irving didn’t have to cut back inside this is a touchdown.
- :10 – Don’t think me boorish, reader, for complaining about the blocking on a 52-yard TD run – it really is a mess here. Conerly isn’t in control of the backer at all, the defensive end gets his hat inside of Jones’ pull, and Bryant gets distracted and doesn’t block the safety downfield until late in the play. But Harper, Powers-Johnson, and Ferguson are doing tremendous jobs, and Irving’s cut through the backdoor is exceptional.
- :29 – Somewhat inelegant, this is simply a muscle run out of 12-pers pushing the pile nine yards on 1st down. Note that’s the younger Laloulu in at RG for his first play, and James is running to his side.
- :37 – Conerly needs to open his stance more for the get-off necessary to catch that field backer, otherwise great blocking here including several improvised ones – Conerly finds a safety to hit, Powers-Johnson drags James across the goalline (illegally; the NCAA legalized pushing, not pulling, but it’s never flagged), and Herbert takes out the corner crash. James shows great balance getting around it without losing momentum.
Oregon made the score 36-7 after PSU only had four possessions, due to a muffed kickoff reception that resulted in a turnover. I charted the Vikings’ fifth drive anyway, so I would have an equal number of possessions for both teams. That still only gave 31 plays to examine, again too few for statistical splits. In the aggregate prior to garbage time, Oregon had a 67% per-play defensive success rate (21 vs 10), allowing 4.6 adjusted yards per play, with 10% gaining explosive yardage.
Several expected starting personnel on the defense were held out of this game, likely for precautionary reasons. There were other peculiarities as well, such as longtime starter #3 DE Dorlus not appearing until the first play of the second quarter. I suspect that because it was the first week and due to the caliber of the opponent, most of these things were just accumulated offseason matters that will be resolved by this Saturday and won’t be worth commenting on unless they show up in the next game, so I’ll save any remarks that need to be made until then.
The two positions where it appears we did get conclusive information from the opener — and surprised me by contradicting my predictions in my Summer roster preview — were at weakside OLB and nickelback. I thought those positions would go to transfer #1 DE Burch and true freshman #21 DB Martin, respectively, for reasons explained in that article. Instead, Burch really has bulked up (his 290 lbs listing isn’t an exaggeration) and was playing inside the tackle as the weakside 4i, with freshmen #17 OLB Purchase, #10 OLB Uiagalelei, and #32 OLB Winston playing outside. And late addition #25 CB Reed was starting at the nickel position, instead of outside corner where he’d played at Colorado.
Portland St got very little through the air, the pocket simply wasn’t holding up long enough to set up long passing plays and Oregon’s Mint defensive structure is designed to allocate most of its resources against quick passing. Some examples:
- :00 – This quick hitch is PSU’s one of bread-and-butter plays for 3rd down conversions in short- and medium-yardage situations, as it is for most teams. The defense is cover-1 with a “robber” or “rat” over the QB, but the relevant thing is that everybody is expected to be a pass defender – note that the nickel is a converted CB and the ILB coming down quick on the RB is a converted safety. They’re only rushing four for more pass coverage, but Uiagalelei is crushing the LT into the QB and affecting the throw, and #8 CB Manning does a great job in man.
- :10 – This scramble was PSU’s most effective passing playcall of the day, showing some unfortunately familiar lack of lane discipline from last year’s Oregon defense. Nice job by #2 ILB Bassa in reading and blowing up the play, but the leap is unnecessary and lets the QB run free, and #98 DT C. Rogers has left his lane open.
- :29 – This pick play against man coverage works as designed – even if Bassa had gone over the crosser instead of under he’d still probably be behind the play – but as predicted #0 DB Ty. Johnson as the single high safety takes the right angle to beat the ball to the receiver and break it up.
- :46 – This is a simulated pressure notorious to the Mint defense, with Oregon showing blitz and Purchase as the “creeper” pre-snap, but then backing the ILBs out and rushing four in such a way that it overloads and confuses the left side of the line. Watch the center, he starts by trying to help with #95 DT Ware-Hudson to his right, but then when the LT widens to handle Purchase the LG can’t get both Dorlus and Burch.
In the run game, Portland St had both a set of designed handoffs, as well as some RPO plays I’ll examine below. Their only real successful handoff (actually QB keep) came very early in the game on a pretty nifty play design they hadn’t used at all last year, obviously a special they’d cooked up for the big stage, and it was fun as a film buff to get to see them use it. Otherwise the Vikings’ rushing offense was bottled up pretty effectively by the Ducks’ defensive front, especially in the second quarter when Dorlus bolstered the line. Some examples:
- :00 – Oregon is in man here, and when the receiver goes in motion it’s proper for Johnson to buzz down. When all three backs – both halfbacks and the quarterback – align on the hash for that three-way mesh it confuses the man assignments between the backers and the DB. I’m not certain who’s actually supposed to have the QB out of it, but both Bassa and Johnson wind up inside and neither on the QB, and Reed is held wide by the pitch possibility to the slot guy he’s on. The Ducks have all the personnel necessary to run this play, I wouldn’t be surprised if they steal it for the future.
- :09 – Textbook Mint run defense here, with Uiagalelei setting the edge, #50 DT Aumavae collapsing into the B-gap, and Bassa (along with the rest of the defense) staying back in potential pass coverage as late as possible until it’s clear it’s time to come down for the tackle.
- :15 – And the Mint against inside running, simply clogging the interior with enormous bodies like #55 DT Taimani. Dorlus sets the edge to keep the back from escaping that way, Rogers penetrates through the backside gap, and when the back “spills” out the other way, converted outfielder #28 ILB Boettcher and #11 CB Bridges come down to “kill” the play.
- :24 – This is what Mint front proponents want to see, one backer playing pass defense and the other staying conservative, allowing the defensive line alone to achieve penetration to stop the play, here Taimani and Burch.
The only area I saw that needed tightening up from Oregon’s defense was eye discipline on RPO plays. It was mostly very good and cleaned up considerably after PSU’s second possession (there seemed to be some sideline conversations about it), but to the extent that the Vikings got anything at all that wasn’t a one-off, this was it. Some examples of RPO defense:
- :00 – This is how it’s supposed to go; first, always force the run by having the nickel and wide ILB stay outside on the trips so the QB doesn’t get a pass read, and second, the line and middle backer stay sound and don’t overcommit, so when this cutback happens (because of course the big d-linemen are winning the interior gaps) Burch and Bassa can knife over to stop it.
- :05 – But this is the very next play on the second drive. I don’t know what the call is for #9 ILB Hill to blitz, or why Bassa is now lined up two yards outside the hash. The offense ran the same play to the same side and Oregon overcommitted to it, and when they cutback to the same place they weren’t in position to stop it.
- :20 – Back to sane defense on the fourth drive. Coverage stays outside on the trips formation so the QB hands off, the front is squeezing down the B-gap between Rogers and #90 OLB Shipley (filling in, presumably, for #19 OLB Funa on the strongside), Bassa does not overcommit and get stuck on the downfield OL, and only when it’s clear it’s time to do so does Hill come down to clean up.
- :29 – This is not very “Minty”, having the wide backer step down and inside on the run mesh and giving the QB a pass read on the RPO, without anyone in the throwing lane. Good cleanup by Johnson and #14 DB Terrell but this ball shouldn’t have been thrown in the first place.
Last week’s preview of the Vikings had quite a few details about their defense which turned out to be relevant – the field/boundary structure and its exploitation, the quality of the backers and secondary compared to the all-new d-line, the propensity for giving up explosive plays, and their blitz patterns all showed up on Saturday exactly as expected. Two issues that I brought up as negatives for PSU’s defense, however, I don’t really think we saw: secondary players abandoning their assignment to try and do someone else’s job, and failure to wrap up and properly tackle. Instead, when they were in position to end the play, they did so pretty consistently – that was usually after a significant gain for obvious reasons, but they weren’t allowing “cheap” yards, and in that sense I would think that the Vikings may be looking at an uptick in defensive performance this season (strange to say after giving up 81 points, I know, but they were in the cellar last year and there’s nowhere to go but up).
I think calling PSU’s QB their best athlete — and his ability to run their most effective weapon against better defenses — turned out to be accurate. The relative strengths of the Vikings’ rushing and passing games was also borne out, although their pass game was more conservative than I was expecting. I’m not sure if this is a miss or not, but I was surprised that PSU went to their tight ends as much as they did on Saturday; those guys didn’t play much of a role for them last year and I’d written that the possession receiver role was more likely to go to the experienced transfer wideout they’d gotten from San José St, but he only got one catch all day. I thought they might have an issue replacing their longtime starting center; of course the blocking was hardly a brick wall but there weren’t significant snapping problems and they’ll probably be just fine with the new guy … again this is strange to say about a team that only scored once, but they resolved the biggest single concern about the offense I would have had as a PSU fan and this could be a better season for them.