Who are the Oregon Ducks? Playoff Contender, Pac-12 North Favorite, Explosive Offense, , Heisman Hopeful Quarterback, Highly Recruited Bunch of Plug and Play Play Makers... Yet for two games this year they were human, beatable, just one of the very good Pac-12 teams in a conference of parity. The difference between National Elite team and good conference team has been just one player: not Marcus Mariota, not Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, not even Arik Armstead, Byron Marshall, Royce Freeman or Devon Allen; no the difference has been Left Tackle Jake Fisher.
Against Wyoming Jake Fisher suffered a left leg injury (apparently something with his knee). He missed the following two games against Washington State and Arizona. In those two games, the Ducks scored the same as their opponents (62 combined by Oregon and 62 combined by not-Oregon), they gave up 12 sacks, and they suffered their only loss. With Fisher, Oregon has only yielded 6 sacks over 5 games: 3 to Washington and 3 to Michigan State, who are ranked 3rd and 4th respectively in the nation for sacks so far this year.
Here is what the Ducks' offensive line looked like without Fisher
Oregon is lined up with trips receivers towards the top of the screen, one receiver split out towards the bottom of the screen and one running back in the backfield. #8 is Quarterback Marcus Mariota and #73 is true freshman Tyrell Crosby pressed into duty at Left Tackle due to the injury of Fisher as well as other offensive linemen. Arizona is in their 3-3-5 defensive personnel.
Oregon hopes to flood the deep zone at the top of the screen by the sideline with a route combo Fly pattern and Out and Up pattern, the inside receiver runs an in pattern at the first down marker. The running back releases to a safety valve in the middle of the field and the receiver at the bottom of the screen tries to beat 1 on 1 coverage deep before safety help can come from the middle of the field.
Arizona rushes only 3 while dropping 8. There are four defenders for the three receivers at the top of the screen, a linebacker covering the running back, the other linebacker covering the middle of the field as well as spying on Mariota and safety help on the way towards the bottom of the screen. Mariota pumps but no one is open. He steps up to wait for a receiver to come open but the pocket collapses from his blind side as #73 gets beaten in pass protection.
This next play was a disastrous failure by the Oregon Offense
Arizona once again rushes three and drops eight into coverage. The matchup between #73 and #90 on the right side will be critical.
Mariota, feeling pressure that is not there yet steps up and #90 puts an inside move on the Left Tackle. After 3 steps #73 is in no position to make a block to the inside and the Defensive End gets an easy sack which forces a fumble and turn over.
The blocking on the left side of the offensive line presented problems in the running game as well.
On the next play Oregon is going to run the triple option. This is similar to the play that was the mainstay of the Air Force offense,Navy Offense and now the Georgia Tech offense but with a read option twist. FishDuck has his own breakdown of the play here.
Oregon lines up with two running backs in the backfield, two receivers to the bottom of the screen and one towards the top. Arizona has a Dime or 3-2-6 package in.
Mariota will run a zone read on the linebacker (in white) first, deciding whether or not to hand off to #21 Royce Freeman. Once he keeps the ball he will head around the end of the line with #9 Byron Marshall keeping pitch relationship (4 yards wide and 1 yard behind) with him. The key block is by the Left Tackle #73 who has to seal the edge.
We can see that with everyone blocked the Safety is the only one who could stop a long touchdown run. Byron Marshall will keep pitch relationship all the way down the field in case someone actually does tackle Mariota.
But a failed block by the Left Tackle ends this play before it can begin...
There were other mistakes too: the left Guard did not block the back side linebacker and Mariota should have pitched the ball the moment he saw the Defensive End had beaten his block.
What this flock of Ducks look like with Jake Fisher on the left
This is another Pitch Option play. Oregon is on the goal line with 4th down to start the 2nd quarter. Leading by just one point this game has not yet turned into the 45-20 blow out of Washington that it was to become. A stop by the defense here could have really have been a game changing play.
Oregon has 3 wide receivers (2 at the top, one to the bottom), a Tight End on the left and Running back #21 Royce Freeman. Jake Fisher is #75, his assignment on this play is to hook the Defensive End #93 and seal the edge.
Linebacker #42 is left unblocked as he is the man who will be optioned. We have grown used to seeing this in a read option hand off: if the linebacker moves to tackle the quarterback, the running back will get the ball; if the linebacker moves to stop the running back the quarterback will keep the ball. The difference is that instead of a hand off, this play uses a pitch (the ball is tossed backward and lateral by the quarterback) to the running back.
The Tight End is in position to help Fisher seal the edge but Fisher needs no help at all and the Tight End is able to stop any second level pursuit. Mariota pitches to Freeman for an easy touchdown.
It is 3rd and 1. Oregon again has 3 wide receivers, 1 Tight End and 1 Running back (#9 Byron Marshall). This play is a quick pass to Marshall. He is the only intended receiver.
#8 is Hau'oli Kikaha who leads the FBS with 12.5 sacks. It is up to Jake Fisher to block #8 one on one. The Tight End and the Wide Receiver to the bottom of the screen run pass patterns directly at linebacker #25 to occupy his attention and possibly to pick him. The cornerback is too far away to stop a 1 yard gain (and backpedaling to boot). Kikaha, however could disrupt this play... Fisher is staring him down.
Because of the Tight End, Kikaha is lined up wide. At the snap Fished gets into his slide step and hits Kikaha with a "punch" (a quick double handed push like a short jab to the sternum) to knock the pass rusher back. Fisher keeps his balance and rides Kikaha out of the play.
This play is 3rd and 8. Like Arizona, Washington is rushing three and dropping eight into coverage. Two Washington Safeties are staying deep to prevent a big play. Oregon runs three underneath curl routes to open space between the underneath coverage and the Safeties over the top. The outside receivers #5 Devon Allen and #87 Darren Carrington run 10 yard in routes in front of the Safeties.
On the rush Washington is bringing #80Evan Hudson, #93 Andrew Hudson and #55 big Danny Shelton. All three interior linemen contribute to blocking Shelton while #75 Fisher and #73 Tyrell Crosby are responsible for the Defensive Ends. Fisher stops #80 in his tracks while Crosby shows improved play in the right by blocking (then holding) #93. Mariota's first read Devon Allen is covered but he has time to come all the way across the field to find Carrington for the first down.
Jake Fisher's health has not been the only change on this Oregon team as the year has progressed. In the Arizona game, Defensive End Arik Armstead injured his ankle.
Arizona's running game was much more effective when Armstead was out (he would have been playing at defensive end where this run breaks free on the outside).
Armstead is expected to return for the Cal game but in his absence Oregon has been using a 2-4-5 personnel group which was gave up 461 yards rushing (230.5 YPG) to UCLA and Washington combined but only 409 combined passing yards(204.5 YGP). Even if Armstead is 100% I would still expect to see some of the 2 Defensive Lineman, 4 Linebacker, 5 Defensive Back personnel on Defense Friday night.
There has been a change at running back as well. Royce Freeman has seen his carries per game increase to the point where he is the featured back, Byron Marshall is the 3rd down back and slot receiver while last year's freshman All American back Thomas Tyner (#24) has seen his role reduced from starting back to third string.
If Tyner is in the game, expect him to get a screen pass.
This appears to be Tyner's play, called only when he is in the game (once against UCLA and once against Washington).
An Exploit for the Cal offense?
Arizona ran several passes to the running back after he had released to the flat, Oregon was never able to account for him on defense.
Chris Petersen designed a play just to take advantage of this oversight by the Ducks. Will they have fixed it for this week?
Oregon is getting healthy on defense and has found their rhythm on offense, typical Cal luck. Washington's defense was unable to contain the Duck offense for more than a quarter. They have been vulnerable to shoot outs this year. A track meet with over 100 points to overload the new Levi's Stadium scoreboard looks like the best chance for a Golden Bear victory.