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Duck Tape: Film Review of Liberty vs Oregon in the 2024 Fiesta Bowl

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Liberty at Oregon Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Offense

Oregon posted its highest aggregate offensive metrics of the season in this game: 73.3% per-play efficiency prior to garbage time (33 successful plays vs 12 unsuccessful ones, given the down & distance), averaging over 9.5 adjusted YPP with more than 33% of plays achieving explosive yardage.

The run-pass splits were a little odd: there were several run plays which the official scorekeeper recorded as passes, a one-minute drill after a turnover just before halftime to get a touchdown consisting of all called passing plays (including a scramble), and once again Oregon waited until the third possession to establish the run, with 75% passing over the first dozen playcalls. Over the 45 standard plays prior to garbage time, the Ducks settled into their usual 40/60 run-to-pass playcall ratio.

The passing offense was highly accurate with #10 QB Nix well protected and Oregon’s typical distribution of horizontal stretch plays, deep throws, and defensive manipulation to generate yards after the catch. Passing efficiency was over 70% (19 successes vs 8 failures), with 10.0 adjusted YPA and 29.5% of passes gaining 15+ yards. The eight failures came on two drops, two batted balls, a PBU, two protection breakdowns, and a poor screen block, which is a pretty standard distribution with high level QB and OL play. Most notably, the opposing defense which had led the country in interceptions had no takeaways or even opportunities for them.

Here’s a representative sample of the passing offense:

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

  1. :00 – This play takes advantage of the defense’s man/zone split with #5 WR Holden running off their boundary corner in man while the field side stays put in zone and so doesn’t chase #15 WR Te. Johnson on the drag route. The backers bite on play-action and are already up close against Oregon’s heavy look, and the single-high safety can’t get to the soft spot in time. UMass hit them for a big gain with this same play on the first snap of their fourth possession.
  2. :17 – The first drive ended in a swatted ball, I think that’s on Nix’s mind when he double clutches after #74 RG S. Jones gives up some pressure here – he doesn’t want to throw to Johnson immediately off the break when he normally would, and instead waits for him to clear the backer and so the placement is low and away just before the rusher gets to him. Still, it’s a catchable ball and I record this as a drop.
  3. :31 – Here’s the switch release that ATQ’s Tristan Holmes noted after doing the preliminary spadework Liberty never seemed to be able to defend – Johnson just outraces the field safety and breaks his arm tackle.
  4. :38 – Unlike most of Liberty’s opponents which stayed away from the boundary corner (whom I thought was the more talented of the two starters) and tried to pick apart the field side, Oregon went right at him all game and enjoyed the benefits of a win against single coverage – beat one guy, as Holden does here with a nifty set of moves on the comeback, and get a lot more after the catch with no safety help.

With Oregon’s all-time leading receiver Troy Franklin sitting out this game to prepare for the NFL draft, each of three remaining primary receivers of this season’s lineup took turns catching touchdowns and deep shots:

  1. :00 – Great extension on this sideline route by Holden on the free play, and gets the double toe-tap in. The protection’s a little wonky due to the jump by the defense but #0 RB Irving picks it up.
  2. :24 – #2 WR Bryant cooks the coverage down the sideline and has plenty of room to work before the safety gets over; this play was nearly identical to one in Liberty’s conference championship game and this exact bite on the double move was one of the few coverage breakdowns by the boundary corner.
  3. :40 – Nicely feathered NFL throw between the layers of safety coverage and over the backer, and Johnson weaves through the rest of the secondary for a huge play with some help from an improvised block by #3 TE Ferguson.

Personnel availability affected both Oregon’s offense and Liberty’s defense, and that was clearest in the run game. With center Jackson Powers-Johnson, who consistently had the best grades of any lineman on my tally sheet, preparing for the draft, the Ducks turned to true freshman #72 OG I. Laloulu who’d previously rotated at the guard spots. He had no troubles snapping the ball, and blitz pickups were mostly fine (though there was one communication problem) in the passing game, but naturally his run-blocking error rate just isn’t at where Powers-Johnson’s has been the last two seasons as a starter, with about three more problems on run plays in this game than I’d have expected from the usual starter.

I also think that Oregon had a plan for some defensive manipulation of Liberty’s dime personnel package and two vs. three linebacker substitution rules, which went out the window due to an unfortunate late scratch by their nickelback, who himself was replacing a starter who’d transferred out after the regular season. The defense being down that many DBs kept them from ever playing their dime package, and their usual flex/dime safety (who’d also transferred out but decided to play) then became their nickel. Their best defensive tackle, somewhat unexpectedly, recovered from the injury that kept him out the last month of the season and also decided to play despite him too already transferring out, and as a result of all this Liberty changed their substitution rules – instead of going to a 4-3 against 12-pers or heavier, they would either stay in nickel or use a 5-2 or even 6-2 on the goalline. I think it took Oregon OC Stein a few drives to observe these things and adjust gameplan regarding tight end usage and run plays.

None of these things affected the bottom line – Oregon rushed at a 78% efficiency rate (14 successes vs 4 failures), averaging 8.8 adjusted YPC with 39% gaining 10+ yards, which are astronomical numbers. If anything, Oregon should have been rushing more and earlier, and arguably could have avoided the stallouts on the first two possessions had they done so, though I think it’s worth considering that both teams’ personnel issues discussed above constituted a curveball and it understandably took some time to adapt to.

Here’s a representative sample of the rushing offense:

  1. :00 – It’s 13-personnel but the defense is sticking with nickel – that a DB on the field side of the line of scrimmage in the bear front. The frontside guards are losing their blocks here but a nice cutback by #20 RB James and muscling through the tackles gets five yards.
  2. :11 – Very well blocked gap scheme here, with Irving making the safeties look silly. #99 WR Dickey made his debut on this play, throwing a block on the cornerback.
  3. :31 – Oregon ran several sweeps with this push pass, your faithful film reviewer marked them down as runs of course despite some suspected gamesmanship to get Nix the all-time passing accuracy record. Every one succeeded; the Ducks simply had too much speed to the perimeter both from the back and the blockers. Great pins by Bryant and Ferguson, and really nice hustle by Jones, #65 RT Cornelius, and #88 TE Herbert.
  4. :51 – The Ducks also used this extremely heavy set several times, with all three TEs plus #75 OT F. Laloulu (the center’s older brother) to the left of #76 LT Conerly. The defense has gone to a 5-2 with an extra DT in (their biggest as the nose) over the younger Laloulu, who handles him well. Good lead blocks from Herbert and #81 TE Kelly, and a great cut through the hole by James.


Defense

There were only 32 defensive snaps prior to garbage time, with Oregon winning on four out of six 3rd downs in the first half and preventing Liberty from the explosive outside rushing and deep passing in the high redzone that they’d thrived on all season long. In the aggregate, the Ducks’ defense had a 60% per-play success rate (19 vs 13), allowing 6.0 adjusted YPP and 9.5% of plays to achieve explosive yardage.

Liberty’s only scoring drive was on their first possession, in which everything that they needed to happen did – Oregon lost the outside on the game’s only successful pitch play for 33 yards, followed by the Ducks’ only personal foul, and finished up by the only long throw having crossed the 50-yard line. On every other play, the Ducks operated exactly according to how a team should against the veer – keep a defender outside to force all runs to the inside and then shut those down (or at least slow them enough) with the remaining interior defenders to put the offense in 3rd & medium or long, and then defend the far less efficient and far more predictable passing game to get off the field before they cross the 50 and are comfortable taking shots or going for it on 4th down.

Here’s a representative sample of the rush defense:

  1. :00 – Early in the game, Oregon used its standard two-OLB configuration against 12-pers, with #18 OLB Funa playing a couple yards off the line. The backers are playing this short-yardage run correctly - #2 ILB Bassa is attacking the combo to loosen it fast, #4 ILB Jacobs is widening on the potential QB keep or TE RPO along with #33 DB E. Williams, and #32 OLB Winston is clouding the mesh and then getting in on the back as he turns it to an inside give. The only other thing necessary to stop the play would be #95 DT Ware-Hudson holding his ground against the combo for a second longer.
  2. :18 – Great play by #44 OLB Tuioti to wrong-arm the pulling LG and get inside, blowing up this entire play. The back cuts the other way, right into the unblocked Funa, while #98 DT Rogers and #3 DE Dorlus have worked off their blocks to help.
  3. :29 – In the second quarter, Oregon switched to nickel against 12-pers, correctly reasoning that they didn’t need the extra backer to shut down inside runs (which they could induce by alignment), and the versatility of another DB was more valuable. Funa and #55 DT Taimani alone are enough to shut this dive down.
  4. :42 – Even though Oregon is showing a read for a weakside give (Bassa signals the switch when the slot goes into orbit motion), the QB pulls it to finally try the option again. The Ducks are well situated - #1 DE Burch plays the QB, Tuioti plays wide on the pitch man, and Bassa gets past the RT to seal the potential backside cut. Nice penetration by #9 ILB Hill would have frictioned the handoff anyway.

The well orchestrated rush defense meant Liberty’s passing offense was constantly where Oregon wanted them – in obvious passing 3rd downs with limited options, and they just had to stay disciplined to shut down the inevitable QB scramble. On the remaining passing plays a mix of good coverage and pressure kept the opposing offense behind the chains if they tried passing on early downs. Some examples:

  1. :00 – The sim here gets Rogers through as Tuioti drops out, and the ball is underthrown. Great coverage by Reed, stepping up as both of Oregon’s starting corners were out in this game. Liberty fans wanted an interference flag but this is clean – no restriction as both hands are free, and he works the bigger receiver to the sideline and away from the ball.
  2. :12 – This is a double screen and the Ducks have both of them covered - #8 CB Manning takes the sideline away while #7 DB Stephens hustles over to absorb the block and clear the path for Williams, and on the other side Bassa and #17 OLB Purchase have the smoke screen cut off while Reed just knocks the back down legally. Hill, Winston, and Williams then show some great moves getting back inside to the QB to prevent the conversion, and the offense blinks with the choice to punt.
  3. :30 – Even though the center knows it’s coming, Bassa beats him badly on the blitz and flushes the QB. Dorlus and Winston are also through, despite the LG being hooked by the latter’s retro jersey, and Manning almost gets the pick.
  4. :45 – Good contrast here between #10 DE Uiagalelei bending around the LT and getting past him while Purchase still has work to do. Rogers just bullrushes the RG and forces the checkdown, whom Bassa fairly mauls.

My biggest criticism for Oregon in this game came in how they used the safeties and backers to defend slant passes, which is somewhat ironic because one of chief reasons to employ the Mint defense is to stop exactly this kind of quick efficiency pass and the Ducks had gotten pretty good at it over the last two seasons of implementing this structure. But all three times Liberty went to it, and to the same receiver each time, it was there. I thought each was a predictable play because of the formation and how constrained Liberty’s receiving corps is. Here are all three:

  1. :00 – The defense is misaligned here, I have no idea why #0 DB Ty. Johnson is running over to the weak side of a 3x1 formation and leaving a two over three situation, especially given the sim in which Tuioti is dropping out on that side and Bassa is crashing from the strong side. The No. 2 and No. 3 receivers are effectively undefended — there’s no way Stephens in cover-2 can get down fast enough, this isn’t his fault, it’s on the alignment error — though the poor tackling is embarrassing.
  2. :22 – Now the Ducks are properly aligned, but Bassa is stepping upfield and inside on the RPO, contrary to Mint defensive principles – he should be providing underneath pass defense first and foremost, and only attacking the run once it’s clear there’s been a handoff. Without anyone in the throwing lane this is an easy completion, and a predictable one when they’ve lined up their big primary receiver as the No. 3.
  3. :37 – In empty, this is either a slant or a draw, and neither one is serviced by blitzing Bassa. As it is he bumps around fruitlessly behind the twist, and there’s no chance in the world that Stephens is going to defend this throw on his own with no underneath help against their primary receiver.


Accountability Corner

In last week’s preview, I think the description of the structure of Liberty’s offense and where they generate their yardage – outside runs on the veer and explosive passes in opponent territory – was spot-on perfect, and the Ducks were kind enough to provide one and only one example of each just to prove it. I also think I nailed the strategic prescription for stopping the offense regarding forcing inside handoffs and then playing sound pass defense on 3rd down, though I was still surprised Oregon was as effective as it was at neutralizing their QB at scrambling. It may have been a self-defeating prophecy, but it was very clear on film to me that the game was going to turn on the elite legs and improvisation of the QB such that I put two whole clip compilations about it in my preview, and perhaps that now seems like overkill. I think my observations about the strength of the connection with their primary receiver and the size of the offensive line, compared to the weaknesses of the chemistry with the rest of the targets and line technique, were also borne out.

In terms of statistical production, everything described about the defense played out exactly as expected, with one major exception – no interceptions. I spent a lot of time describing defensive structural matters that wound up being irrelevant, however. We didn’t see the dime package or the 3-4 defense at all, for reasons explained above, and I was pretty sure they would attack the corner I thought was weaker but instead they went after the stronger one on an island (although I did describe the structure which made that a viable choice accurately). Much of this comes down to the inherent unpredictability of bowls – it’s very difficult to tell who exactly is going to be available, and teams that are this isolated from each other in terms of common or even neighboring competition are personnel matchups to evaluate. Still, I think it was fairly clear from my preview that Oregon would face no real difficulty moving the ball, and that was just so.