So far this season Cal has faced two opponents that any team would be happy to face in a bowl match up: #3 Ohio State and #16 Northwestern. For the Golden Bears that is just the warmup for a conference schedule that includes #5 Stanfurd, #14 UCLA, #20 Washington and this week's opponent #2 Oregon. Oregon earned that ranking by having only one loss since New Year's day 2012 (an overtime loss to Stanfurd) and putting up 59 points on both Virginia and Tennessee. Lest you think that these 2013 victories were against easy walk overs, the win against Virginia was in Charlottesville the week after the Cavilers beat BYU 19-16 (the same BYU that scored 40 against Texas).
I will look at plays from both the Virginia and the Tennessee games to get an idea of what Oregon is doing on offense and on defense and why it is so effective. Warning: Oregon uniform combinations may cause temporary blindness or seizures.
The key to Oregon's offense is sophomore quarterback Marcus Mariota (#8). He is fleet of foot and strong of arm, but his game consists of more than his physical gifts: he rarely makes poor decisions and he capitalizes on the mistakes of his opponents.
On this play Oregon is lined up in shotgun with Mariota behind center, #6 DeAnthony Thomas (DAT) lined up as a running back to his left, receivers #11 sophomore Bralon Addison and #1 senior Josh Huff at the top of the screen (these two guys are the primary targets in Oregon's passing attack), senior receiver #16 Daryle Hawkins at the bottom of the screen and true freshman tight end #83 Johnny Mundt lined up tight left. Tennessee is in a Nickel look with 5 defensive backs, 2 linebackers and 4 defensive linemen.
At the snap Mariota fakes a handoff to Thomas and rolls left on a bootleg (in this case a naked bootleg or a waggle - which has nothing to do with prohibition, NASCAR or Al Capone): a play designed to get the quarterback rolling to the open field without a lineman to block for him. A good play to call when you have a quarterback as mobile as Marcus Matiota. I have drawn the receivers' routes from where they started to where they are going, all except DAT are heading in the same direction as Mariota. DeAnthony Thomas catches the attention of the linebackers who either freeze or follow him. The tight end #83 is blocking the Tennessee defensive end while the defensive back rushes forward to contain and tackle the quarterback.
This play looks like it is going no where for the Ducks. All the receivers are well covered and Mariota is in danger of being sacked. Most quarterbacks would throw the ball away.
Mariota, however, eludes the defensive back which forces the defensive end to abandon pass coverage to prevent Mariota from running for the first down.
Mariota flips the ball to the least experienced playmaker on the field, #83 Johnny Mundt, who rumbles untouched for a touchdown.
Marcus Mariota was able to make a tackler miss in the open field and find the man who came open as a result. The ball was thrown on target and on time.
If Mariota is the key to the Duck offense, DeAnthony Thomas is the engine. In previous years he was used as a change of pace for LaMichael James or Kenyon Barner (which is some gearing up considering their 40 times at the NFL combine: 4.45 James / 4.52 Barner). This year Thomas is the primary running back and where on some teams his size would be an issue, on Oregon he is a perfect fit.
On this play #6 Thomas is lined up to the left of #8 Mariota and the tight end is lined up on the line of scrimmage. Virginia has four defensive linemen, 2 linebackers and Nickel personnel.
Most teams pull their backside guard to lead block on an off tackle play, trust Oregon to find an unconventional way to do it. Instead of a pulling guard and fullback lead block, the Ducks pull their Center and Right Tackle to lead block. The Tight End winds up with the important assignment of hooking the play-side defensive end so that the whole convoy can get to the outside.
The offensive linemen are actually athletic enough to pull off their blocking assignments and the speed of DAT means that blocks only have to be held for a fraction of a second before he is gone.
De'Anthony Thomas has enough strength and body control to prevent himself from being pushed out of bounds.
Mariota and Thomas can each make big plays happen but when they are combined on a play Oregon gets nearly impossible to defend. On this play Oregon has their usual cast of characters: #8 Marcus Mariota, #6 De'Anthony Thomas, #11 Bralon Addison, #83 Mundt (tight end), #1 Huff and #16 Hawkins. They have Huff and Hawkins to the bottom of the screen with Addison split out at the top and Mundt with his hand down tight to the left tackle. Tennessee has 4 defensive linemen, and I can't tell if it is 5 DBs or 3 LBs because both a DB and a LB wear #46 for the Vols; what do they think this is, a fake punt? (I am going to assume this is a Nickel package because it is Oregon and everyone seems to defend them using Nickel).
This play is interesting because it has two separate yet equally important groups, I have marked their assignments in green and yellow.
In yellow the wide receivers are blocking the defensive back across from them and the Right Tackle has the key block, he has to work to the defensive end's outside shoulder to allow the running back to get to the outside.
In green the tight end has the same job, block the outside shoulder of the defensive end. The Center and Left Tackle pull (still weird for me to be typing that) to lead block for the quarterback while the receiver fakes a route and blocks the safety.
Traditional thinking is that a run will always follow the pulling linemen because the offense wants as many blockers at the point of attack as possible. Oregon uses this to create misdirection and confusion. The hesitation by the linebackers is enough to allow Thomas to leave them in the dust.
Here is the same Duck formation against Virginia who are in the same defense as Tennessee above.
The blocking for this play is identical to the one we just looked at.
Once again the quarterback looks to his left for the "read" but i don't see any difference in the defensive reaction. This time Mariota keeps the ball. Notice the middle linebacker (#44 circled) reacts to the possibility that DAT has the ball and removes himself from the play.
Same play, different ball carrier, same result: first down. Again, the misdirection removes the linebackers from the play. They have to respect De'Anthony Thomas but they have to respect Marcus Mariota too, the play is going both directions and this is a lose-lose situation for the defense. The only way to stop this play is for the defensive end to win their 1 on 1 battle and force the run inside. Even then the play will probably gain 3 to 4 yards.
Oregon's number one target in the passing game is #1 Josh Huff. Fast with good hands about the only thing that the senior does not do well on a consistent basis is block. On this play Oregon is in spread formation with Trips (3) receivers to the bottom of the screen (including #1 Huff, #16 Hawkins and a mystery WR - cut off by the camera) to the top of the screen #7 Keanon Lowe is split out by himself. De'Anthony Thomas joins Mariota in the backfield (Thomas will pre-snap motion to the other side of Mariota). The routes of the receivers have been added. Tennessee has Nickel personnel in the game.
At the snap Mariota does a play-action-fake handoff to Thomas. The Volunteer defensive backs appear to be in Man-Free coverage, where all the defensive backs except the free safety (circled in white below) are in man-to-man coverage.
The play action fake freezes both linebackers (circled in orange) and it draws the free safety in a few steps making it impossible for him to help in pass coverage over the middle... right where Josh Huff is heading.
Worry too much about De'Anthony Thomas and Oregon makes you pay. Worry too much about Marcus Mariota and Oregon makes you pay. Forget about Josh Huff and Oregon makes you pay...
What about when De'Anthony Thomas is not in the game? Well, things don't get much better. Third string running back is the true freshman Thomas Tyner, #24. Injured for the first game all he has done against Virginia and Tennessee is score 3 touchdowns in 12 carries (6.7 yards/carry).
This is the 4th quarter of the Virginia game, Tyner is in at running back and I'm not sure who he is sharing the field with. On defense Virginia is still in Nickel with 4 D-linemen and 2 linebackers.
This is a straight forward power run by Oregon. The Virginia defense is playing gap control, below I have attempted to label the gaps and which defender is responsible for each (based off of what the linebackers do during the play). The gaps are between offensive linemen: A-Gap between Center and Guard, B-Gap between Guard and Tackle and C-Gap outside of the Tackle. The defense seems to have assigned the defensive ends C-Gap, the linebackers B-Gap and the defensive tackles A-Gap. Plug all the gaps and the defense stops the run game.
Before the run starts the defensive coordinator believes it to be well defended. The Ducks believe differently... The Left Guard and Left Tackle double team block the defensive tackle in front of them (circled in white below) while the Center and Right Guard double team block the other defensive tackle (circled in yellow). The linebackers move to fill their assigned Gaps only to find it full of defensive tackle.
Who is in A-Gap? No one...
This week's comment contest, fill in the blank: _________________ could fit through that hole!
Back to the play. Once the hole is opened the speed of Tyner does the rest, watch the safety get burned.
I don't think the Ducks blocked anyone except the defensive linemen. They tried but Tyner was long gone before they even reached anyone on the 2nd level.
The Ducks run some plays that will look very familiar to Golden Bear fans. I noticed two plays that were nearly identical to ones I wrote about in my Scouting Cal post last week. The first is a Jail Break screen to sophomore #11 Bralon Addison. Addison is number two on the Ducks in receptions (11) and yards (174) after Huff. The only difference between this play and the one that Kodiak wrote about in detail is that Cal runs the play out of a Spread formation with 2 receivers on each side while Oregon runs it with a Tight End lined up as an H-back instead of a Slot receiver who blocks the corner over the primary receiver.
The result is the same as the one Chris Harper obtained against Ohio State.
The other play that is similar is this pass pattern combination, run from a different formation than the one I highlighted. On the Cal plays one was a flare pass to Brendan Bigelow (#5) and the other a curl route to Bryce Treggs (#1) from this formation with the routes below.
Here is how Oregon runs it: they have a tight end #83 instead of a slot receiver (Cal #89) right who runs the Drag route. Wide receiver #1 runs the Flare route instead of the running back (#5 Cal). And De'Athony Thomas runs a play-action-fake to the right, where the outside receiver for Cal (#6) runs a slant route.
Once again the result is effective. (In case you are wondering Tennessee is in a base 4-3 defense where Ohio State was in Nickel).
While over the last fifteen years Oregon has seen many offensive coordinators and 3 head coaches, there has been just one defensive coordinator, Nick Aliotti. Even though the Aliotti has been with the Ducks longer than, I think, any other Pac-12 assistant coach has been with the same team, the defensive scheme is relatively new. Reacting to the offensive trend that Chip Kelly helped start, Oregon switched to a 3-4 hybrid defense in 2010. You can learn all about it here from some well done videos (about 5 minutes each) by an Oregon hyper-fan (who also has a news article about Fishsticks - yes, I just lampooned the name he chose but if you really want to understand Oregon check out the first link in this paragraph long run-on-sentence).
The general idea of this 3-4 hybrid defense is to be able to bring 5 pass rushers / run stoppers on any play. The advantage of 3-4 over 4-3 in this sense is that the offense never knows where those two rushers in the 3-4 are going to come from where in the 4-3 it is much more predictable. The other advantage of the 3-4 is that it allows the defense to get more speed on the field.
Tennessee was kind enough to run quite a few plays out of the spread formation so we can get an idea of what Oregon's defense will look like on Saturday.
The first play is a Tennessee run. Oregon has a rush linebacker (#91) who is listed as a defensive end on the depth chart and a linebacker set to bring pressure.
The designated blitzers settle into run defense when they recognize the play.
The next play is another run. Again the circled defensive end is #91. He and the circled linebacker are showing blitz.
#91 holds gap intregity during the read option like a defensive end should, the blitzing linebacker opens a huge hole on his side of the line as he heads straight to the quarterback but Tennessee isn't as good at running the read-option as Oregon.
Now lets look at some passing plays from the Spread versus this defense. Here Oregon is showing full house blitz with all four linebackers practically standing on the line of scrimmage.
At the snap, however, we see the Ducks drop eight into coverage. The UT running back stays in the back field to help block what turns out to be 3 pass rushers and down field the Oregon pass defenders out number the wide receivers two to one.
When Oregon brings pressure on the passer it will be designed to confuse and overload the offensive line.
Here three players rush the Left Tackle and the Left Guard. The O-line acquit themselves admirably as the left tackle peels back to block the outside blitzer, the left guard blocks the defensive end then passes him off to the running back (who sees the blitz and slides over from the far side) so that the guard can ultimately block the blitzing linebacker.
The quarterback finds an open receiver but over throws him.
I don't like to write proclamations of doom it is going to be very hard to provide any positive spin on this week's matchup. I don't think it will be like playing Doom with Thulsa Doom and Victor von Doom on Mount Doom. But Cal will be playing their toughest opponent of the year in one of the most hostile stadiums in the country. The Bear defense is going to have to force some turn overs and even a couple punts while Jared Goff is going to have to have a record setting game for Cal to have a chance. I am going to tune into the Pac-12 Network (on DishNetwork, happy coincidence that my provider signed up with the network but I would have switched to any provider who carried the network - which in my area would have been no one) to see how this game plays out.