What happened in the Oregon-USC game last week? What can we learn from it? And more importantly what does it mean for Saturday night?
On November 3rd the Oregon Ducks visited a part of LA famous for the summer Olympics, the Space Shuttle Endeavour, an Oil Baron's Mansion and USC. The result was a mind-blowing 1345 yards of total offense combined, that is 3/4th of a mile. Lost in the historic game by Kenjon Barner, 325 yards on 38 carries and 5 touchdowns (8.4 yards per carry!), was the 119 yards rushing by Marcus Mariota (6.4 yards per carry including 3 sacks) and his 304 yards passing. Watching Oregon this year I was impressed by their defense which gave up an average of 7 points in the first half of their 8 games preceding the USC game (I figure the second half is less relevant because every one of those games was a blow out). This Oregon defense shut out Arizona over all 4 quarters. Yet the same defense gave up 484 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns passing to Matt Barkley. So much happened in this game that it would take several posts to cover everything of interest. Instead I am going to focus on a couple aspects of the game that may be most informative.
Oregon started the game going against tendency, their first possession they threw four passes and ran the ball only once. The drive took only 1 minute and 5 seconds to score a touchdown, but more important than the score was the tone that all the passes set. Early in the season it seemed like the way to slow Oregon down was to stop the run and force Mariota to pass. In this game Oregon established early that USC could not afford to sell out on run defense and the tactic worked as USC's defense was off balance all game.
After the first drive, Oregon resumed their normal run heavy offensive pattern. Although the run game was extremely effective, USC was able to keep it in check when they played assignment football and their defensive front managed to keep contain. On this play Oregon is lined up with Mariota (#8) and Barner (#24) in the back field. De'Anthony Thomas (#6) is in the trips receiver formation to the left and a tight end is tight to the line on the left. USC has four down linemen, two linebackers in the middle and one (#18 circled) showing blitz. USC also has two DBs lined up over the trips receivers and a safety 15 yards deep over that formation with a lone corner left on the side away from the trips receivers. Before the snap Thomas is going to go in motion and the deep safety will follow his motion.
At the snap, Thomas has just reached the left tackle and will be in position for a hand off once the ball reaches the quarterback, Mariota. The blocking accounts for all the players except for the deep safety, the key block will be the right tackle on the defensive end. He is going to try to get a hook block on the defensive end's outside shoulder to allow DAT to get outside where Barner is giving a lead block.
Mariota looks right at the blitzing linebacker, making him think this could be a read option, which holds him in place. While the blocking tells us that this was never intended to be an option play, the look is all it takes to remove this defender from the play. The rest of the blocking is all designed to keep the USC defense from reaching the sideline at the top of the screen, which is where Thomas is supposed to run. The right tackle has established a block on the defensive end's outside shoulder, however the DE has put his left hand on the tackle's chest and extended his arm holding the blocker off.
The DE proceeds to drive into the back field before DAT can get outside. He arrives so quickly that even De'Anthony Thomas cannot get away.
Lets take a look at what happened to USC when they lost contain. On this play Kenjon Barner is supposed to run up the middle. Oregon is lined up with two receivers split out to each side and stacked to make close coverage difficult or impossible. Barner is with Mariota in the back field. USC has four down linemen and two linebackers "in the box" and a corner and safety (safeties are off screen) lined up opposite the receivers. One last USC linebacker is off toward the top of the screen not really covering anyone (I am not sure why).
Lets look at this play from Barner's perspective. After the hand-off Oregon has a lineman blocking each of the SC D-lineman as well as the middle linebacker. The middle of the field is wide open if Barner can get there.
The USC D-Line does a good job denying the run up the middle. Barner sees the linebacker (in red) closing in and decides to try to bounce this run way outside. The defensive end (in yellow) is responsible for making sure that Barner cannot get to the outside.
In this game Kenjon Barner is not going to be stopped, not by anyone...
The receivers do a great job blocking even though the run was never supposed to go near them and one of those receivers blocks two defenders (#7 and #18).
Based on these two plays I would be tempted to think, the answer is simple: don't let Oregon get outside. But Chip Kelly has honed this offense and there are no simple answers. In this next play the Ducks line up with three receivers to the wide side of the field (their left) and one receiver to the short side (right). Marcus Mariota (#8) and Barner (#24) are in the back field. USC has 4 D-linemen, 3 DBs lined up over the most outside receivers and 2 safeties (off the screen) lined up directly behind the linebackers. The key defenders on this play are the defensive tackle (defense's right - circled in yellow) and defensive end (defense's left - circled in red).
This play is an inside read option. It is the defensive tackle who will be unblocked and who Mariota will read. If we look at the other defenders, we can see that the defensive end (red) is fighting up field in a contain position and that the left defensive tackle (green) is occupying two blockers leaving the linebacker unblocked (it appears that the right offensive guard was responsible for blocking him). These defenders are in good position to stop Barner if the ball is handed off on the option. However, the most important defender is the DT in yellow and he has turned his shoulders toward his left and moved left toward Barner.
Mariota makes the read and keeps the ball. He shows off his speed as all the defenders can do is dive at his heels...
The Oregon offense is potent but we already knew that. They are certainly more polished than at the start of the season but they played like we would expect them to play. What I didn't expect to see was what USC did to the Oregon defense. Barkley, Lee and company have been putting up big numbers but Lane Kiffin discovered something midway through the second quarter and I believe it is what allowed USC to keep the game close. Lets take a look...
Here USC is lined up in a power formation: both tight ends are on the line, only one receiver is split out to the left of the formation. There is a fullback (#31) offset to the left and a tailback (#22 Cutris McNeil). Oregon has four D-linemen and a linebacker on the line. Two linebackers are in the middle and there are four DBs (two on each side) lined up a few yards behind the linebackers (off screen except for the corner at the top of the screen).
At the snap the offensive line blocks down and the right guard pulls (in yellow). The right guard makes the key block, he nearly over runs the linebacker and then nearly holds him but the block allows McNeil to get outside.
When your fullback has to go 15 yards to find someone to block you are going to gain lots of yards...
USC ran the ball to the left four times in a row gaining 9 yards, 15 yards, 20 yards and -3 yard in that order. That drive ended in a touchdown. Kiffin saw a weakness on the right side of the Oregon defense and pounded it until Oregon's defensive coordinator, Nick Aliotti, was forced to make an adjustment to stop it. Why was this so important? Because it made Oregon defend the run and allowed USC to keep passing the ball. USC only had 131 rushing yards and none of their backs ran for 100 yards but just like Oregon's opening drive with lots of passing, this rushing attack "kept the defense honest" (or made them defend the run as well as the pass).
Oregon's offense is dangerous. Marcus Mariota is a much improved passer, De'Anthony Thomas and Kenjon Barner are big play guys and the Oregon receivers block almost as well as Cal's receivers do. If there is a weakness it is the workload Barner had to carry against USC. Barner used to be prone to injuries and while I never like to see a guy get injured, another heavy workload this week may be too much. Chip Kelly leans heavily on his big time players in close games, if Cal can keep it close these players may wear down.
Oregon loses games when Chip Kelly is tentative: when he runs lots of check-with-me plays, when he punts instead of going for it on 4th down, when he settles for field goals. When Oregon and Chip Kelly are aggressive they steam roll opponents. On defense Cal has to dominate the battle in the trenches, disrupt Oregon's back field, play sound assignment defense, make sure tackles, force turn overs and stop the Ducks on 4th down. On offense Cal has to score touchdowns, avoid short drives that end in punts, establish the run and the pass and did I say score touchdowns?
Oregon's offensive rhythm has to be disrupted. If time outs have to be burned in the first half, then it should be done. Challenges will help as well. These things frustrate Chip Kelly and his players. But the strategy I think Cal should really employ is not buckling their chin straps. The question has always been, how does a defense substitute to stay fresh against a high tempo offense and I think that the NCAA has handed teams an answer: lose your helmet, get a play off. So, if you really want to frustrate the Ducks, forget injury-gate, employ helmet-gate.*
Oregon is coming off their biggest win of the season and they have Stanford and Oregon State to look forward to. Could they overlook the Bears? All Cal has to look forward to is playing the spoiler. If Oregon stumbles out of the gate the Bears need to jump on the Ducks and do their best to pile on points before Oregon wakes up. That is my one ray of hope and it is a dim one...
*While I advocate for safety, I think that many of the recent rule changes are reactionary and not empirical. I would like to see records kept about which plays caused concussions so that appropriate safety measures can be taken. Ear-hole hits, helmets to the chin, targeting receivers in the air, driving quarterbacks into the turf, knees to the helmet; these are the things I have seen cause concussions, not helmets falling off. So while I think that a helmet should never fall off, I am not sure that when one does come off that it causes harm to that player.
**Oh, and lets stop celebrating by slapping the helmet of a player who just made a big hit or who made a big play, if he was concussed that player does not need to be hit again. And if that player isn't concussed, why do something that may injure him after the play?