Oregon’s offensive production during the 2023 season was elite, putting 11 of 14 games into garbage time by the opening of the 4th quarter or earlier. In their 13 FBS games prior to garbage time, I have about 700 offensive snaps in the dataset for the 2023 season, which is about 70 fewer than in 2019 and 50 fewer than in 2021 when they also played 13 FBS games, and the same number of snaps as in 2022 when they played only 12 FBS games.
Comparing my charts for the last four complete seasons (excluding the covid-shortened 2020), each year has seen a major ratcheting up in one element, while the rest of the per-play success rates, yards per play, and explosiveness metrics I track stayed the same. In 2021, the leap was in rushing performance compared to 2019, vaulting the Ducks to an elite level they’ve remained at for the last three seasons with efficiency rates around 70% and about 6.0 adjusted YPC. In 2022 it was in passing performance, with nearly a 10 percentage point jump compared to 2019 and 2021 to over 60% in efficiency and almost a yard and a half improvement in adjusted YPA to about 9.1 the last two seasons.
The reason that Oregon was putting games into garbage time sooner with fewer snaps in 2023 is that this past season’s major jump was in explosive plays, by around four and a half percentage points – from a little under 20 percent in 2022 to well over 23 percent in 2023, with equal sized leaps coming in both explosive rushing and passing.
This ratchet effect means 2023 was the best offensive season I’ve ever charted for the Ducks. In my history as a film reviewer, the only teams I’ve encountered with numbers this high in all areas were Auburn in 2010, Florida State in 2013, Georgia in 2021 and 2022, Oregon in 2014, Ohio State in 2014 and 2021, and Stanford in 2015, all of which were national title capable teams (I haven’t yet charted some of the Big Ten 2023 teams like Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State to see how they stack up, that’s an upcoming project).
Oregon OC Stein called passing plays on about 58% of snaps in 2023, a departure from the almost perfectly run-pass balanced approach in in previous seasons. #10 QB Nix continued to be extremely accurate, and indeed set an FBS record for completion percentage this year. Efficiency in the passing game was the highest I’ve ever seen from an Oregon team, 63.4% (256 successes vs 148 failures, given the down & distance), with 9.2 adjusted YPA and nearly 25% of passes gaining 15+ yards.
About 8% of Oregon’s playcalls were screens, which is a little below the standard 9% for Pac-12 offenses in my experience. That’s down about two points from midseason, with an increased share of designed rushing picking up those calls. Of downfield passing attempts from the pocket (excluding broken plays), the depth distribution is identical to midseason: about 20% deep, and an even 40/40 split between intermediate and short. The only notable change is that the deep pass completion rate, which in the first five games had taken a hit down to about 40% on a few early drops and misplaced balls, but recovered nicely in the back half of the season and finished at the expected 60%.
The two main factors explaining Oregon’s jump in explosive passing performance compared to 2022 are first, about a 10 percentage point shift in favor of intermediate-depth attempts and away from short-depth attempts (40/40 instead of 30/50), and second, an increase in yards after the catch by about 0.8 per reception, which was just enough to switch a significant number of passing plays from chunk yardage (10-14) to explosive (15+).
Unlike previous seasons, there was no rotation in Oregon’s receiving corps during meaningful play, with only four wideouts seeing the field. Leading receiver (by yards) Troy Franklin set a school record, though with the adjusted YPP number (capped at 40 yards per play to control for field position effects) his yards after catch figure didn’t really change compared to 2022 and he continued to be the same great outside receiver as he was the previous season. The significant change was the addition of #15 WR Te. Johnson at the slot, who exceeded Franklin in number of receptions (he got in one more game by opting into the bowl) and wholly eclipsed his 2022 counterparts in yards after catch numbers.
Rounding out the rotation were #2 WR Bryant and #5 WR Holden, who each had about a quarter the targets as Franklin and Johnson did, though on a per-play basis they had very similar success rates, adjusted YPP averages, and YAC figures.
Tight end usage was a bit of a surprise to me. Stein used 12-personnel, and even 13-personnel, far more extensively than in 2022 when he was the OC at UTSA – it was about 84% 11-personnel with the Roadrunners, but only 65% with the Ducks. In film study I believe I detected week-to-week TE strategies to manipulate individual defenses’ substitution rules to gain an advantage, by getting them out of nickel when Stein wanted to pass or overwhelm those stuck in nickel with extra blockers when he wanted to run.
In terms of receiving targets, Oregon had one fewer than the previous season, but ultimately a similar distribution and set of success rates: #3 TE Ferguson stayed on top with about two-thirds, then #88 TE Herbert stepped up and filled the role that Moliki Matavao and Cam McCormick did last year (and actually at a higher success rate, largely for having a smaller denominator on clutch catches), and transfer Casey Kelly played the reserve role that Herbert did in 2022. There was technically one other who got a couple non-garbage time plays, true freshman #18 TE Sadiq, but too few to evaluate.
Blocking from the tight ends was good but not great, with about 70% effectiveness grades on my tally sheet for all three when they had the key block on a play. As I grade things, for TEs with their level of experience that’s about ten points lower than it should be for really elite performance. With Ferguson and Herbert confirming their return for 2024, they both could improve their draft grades, and Oregon could diversify their offense with more RPOs and outside screens, with better blocking consistency here.
The rushing offense maintained the same championship level performance as Oregon fans expect, with a 69.2% efficiency (200 success vs 89 failures) at 6.4 adjusted YPC and 21.5% gaining 10+ yards. That’s essentially the same success rate as the previous two years, a bit of a bump in yardage, and more than a four point jump in explosiveness.
With the injury to #6 RB Whittington after four games, the rotation during meaningful play for most of the season was just two backs, Bucky Irving and #20 RB James. Irving had more explosive potential and was more of an improvisational runner, but didn’t have the same consistency that James did and was clearly dinged up towards the end of the regular season. In terms of personal per-play success rates, James finished more than 12 points ahead - nearly 76% of plays in which he touched the ball were successes, while it was a little under 64% for Irving. Both numbers are exceptional, but between playing within the offense more consistently and staying healthy, James was actually more valuable to the offense as the offensive line gelled and blocking performance steadily improved over the course of the season.
Offensive line performance in pass protection started the season very strong and ticked up slightly over the course of the year, consistently meeting and then exceeding the Oregon standard. But in run blocking there was substantial room for improvement, with three of the starters having rush play error rates on my tally sheet in the mid-teens during the first half of the season, which while normal for most Pac-12 teams is not the standard at Oregon. However, each week the line made incremental improvements in their cumulative run-blocking grades and for the second half of the season they came in at just under 12%, which is comparable to the elite Duck o-lines of past years. Here are the season-long numbers:
Oregon 2023 final offensive line grades
|#76 LT Conerly
|#55 LG Harper
|#58 C Powers-Johnson
|#74 RG S. Jones
|#65 RT Cornelius
|#72 OG I. Laloulu
Individually, in pass protection the only player with substantial improvement from the beginning to the end of the season was Conerly, who started out just over 10% but finished almost three points better in the second half of the season. He also improved a point and a half in run blocking (he had the strongest initial grades of the new 2023 starters), while Harper improved two points in that area, Jones almost three and a half, and amazingly Cornelius had nearly a nine point improvement as the FCS transfer adjusted to Power-5 play and gelled with his teammates in blocking the run.
What’s very curious is that Powers-Johnson, who had a fantastic 7.8% rush error rate in 2022 and 8.9% in the first half of 2023, slipped noticeably in the second half into the teens – it’s possible there was a nagging injury here and this may have informed his decision to sit out the bowl game. That effect alone is the only thing responsible for the full-season 2023 rush grades not hitting the sub-12% threshold I consider to be the Oregon standard; if he’d continued at the same pace in the second half of the year as in the first then the entire group would have hit the mark. That’s quite an accomplishment for a line with two new starting tackles and a true freshman in the younger Laloulu rotating in on about 38% of available snaps.
Once I have a full season’s worth of data on a team, be it Oregon or any other team, usually the statistical regression engine finds some interesting correlation with down & distance, formation, field position, play selection or type, and success rates, which can be used to explore a vulnerability or tendency in that offense. But Oregon in 2023 had nothing of the sort – the Ducks were just uniformly good at everything, and didn’t tip their hand with the situation or how they lined up.
They had a bias towards passing (in my personal opinion, this was counterproductive at times when running the ball would have been a better strategy), but that bias was persistent across all situations and formations and so opponents didn’t have any particular insight into play selection. Likewise, they were almost eight points more effective in running gap schemes than inside zone, and probably should have been doing that more, but nothing about their alignment (for example, the TE in-line or split out) gave away what type of run it would be.
One significant deviation from most teams’ down & distance patterns concerns 2nd & short, in which there’s typically about a 70/30 skew towards efficiency running to pick up the conversion. Oregon however was at 50/50, passing much more often than most teams do, and completely unpredictably regarding all other inputs like field position. But their success rates on run vs pass were identical on 2nd & short, 73% for both, so there was no analytical reason to do anything but split it evenly between a near-guaranteed conversion and a shot play for big yards with the 3rd & short safety net (75% success rates) if it didn’t work.
The only thing close to a disappointment was 2nd & long rushes, which were called just often enough to produce a valid breakdown. Oregon was just 36% successful on these plays, their only actually bad situational area (3rd & medium/long, usually a sore spot for teams, was pretty decent for the Ducks at 48%). I don’t really have an explanation for why so many 2nd & long runs went wrong, there’s no spike in the failure causes or cluster for any one game or set of games, and the sample for the successful runs in this situation has the same profile of inputs (and, subjectively, a lot of really great looking runs, several clips of which made my write-ups over the season) … there are just twice as many failures as would be expected. It’s also strange that defenses would be so ready to pounce, since most teams are looking more for a pass in long-yardage situations. I’m stumped as to why this should be, it just seems like a weird thing that happened. Fortunately for the Ducks a failed 2nd & long run just left them in 3rd & medium most of the time, and as already mentioned, they were fairly good in that situation.
More reading: 2023 Defensive Statistical Review