Play-calling from the Husky-Duck football game last week has been a topic of conversation, and controversy, since Oregon knocked off Washington in overtime, 30-27.
The Dawgs' coaches were guilty of forgetting they were averaging over four yards per carry when they chose two key plays — one that led to a turnover and the other that forced them to have to try a field goal in overtime.
The fumbled drive came after successive rushes of 5, 2 and 2 yards by Washington running backs. The Huskies went to an ultra-fast huddle and came out to run a quarterback sneak. As often happens in those situations, the center becomes more focused on his second priority, blocking the B gap (between center and guard), rather than getting the ball to quarterback and then blocking the B gap.
Usually the fumble is blamed on the quarterback, but the blame actually goes to the center in this case. You can hardly blame him because he had the best nose guard in the Pac-12, Jordon Scott, getting off like a rocket, and with his 329 pounds pushing linemen backward off the line of scrimmage.
A better play for the Huskies would have been to put the ball in the hands of a running back, or the wildcat formation (a running back taking a direct snap out of the shotgun), which was never stopped in this game nor in several other games before Oregon.
The Huskies had the ball first in overtime, which is an advantage for Oregon because it knows exactly what it has to do in its overtime period.
After a rush for 19 yards to the Duck 6-yard line, a second-down rush gained nothing. And then, on third-and-goal from the 3-yard line, the Washington quarterback threw a fade route into the end zone, but five yards out of bounds.
The fade is a lower percentage pass than most others and you have to ask yourself why UW coach Chris Petersen didn’t use his wildcat formation, percentage-wise a much better choice than the fade route. The wildcat also affords the running back a variety of options of where to turn up field, and you can avoid the B gap terror, Scott. Petersen had to turn to the field goal, which was a great win for the Oregon defense.
Many Oregon fans criticized the play calling for the Ducks, feeling that quarterback Justin Herbert was being wasted handing off so many times when he could be passing, which is his forte. I was critical, too, but less so after hearing UO coach Mario Cristobal explain after the game. He revealed the coaching staff felt like the Ducks could run against the Husky defense; that they did, for 177 yards, much more than its average going into the game. Coaches also wanted to keep the ball away from the dynamic Husky offense, which Oregon’s defense struggled at times to contain.
Cristobal had CJ Verdell run three times for nine yards and the Ducks were called for holding, setting up a third-and-11 from the 26-yard line. Herbert, cool as a duck in a pond, hit Dillon Mitchell with a 17-yard gain to get a first-and-goal from the 9.
After a run of three yards, Herbert threw incomplete, perhaps setting up the Husky defensive coaches to anticipate another throw. On third down, with a pass play set up and seeing that Washington was in a pass defense set, Cristobal ran on the field to call a timeout. On the next play, with an inside zone play called against a pass defense that was outnumbered by run defenders (six to four), CJ Verdell ran through a hole wide enough for a sports writer to saunter in for six.
Two Husky defenders followed Dillon Mitchell out of the middle and across the formation away from the play, a tactic the Ducks used the entire game before nearly every play. This was a clear example of Cristobal’s experience and expertise leading the offense in the most critical moment of the season so far.
Shane Lemieux, an outstanding left guard for the best offensive line in the Pac-12 Conference, commented after the game: “It’s third-and-six in overtime to win a game and we run inside zone (the most basic running play). That’s big-time. That’s a statement.”
That is a fabulous statement, reinforcing Herbert’s thoughts after the game when he said it was a great call. Herbert was thinking about his team and winning this game and he knows there will be plenty of opportunities down the line to throw the football. He has become a great leader and his dedication to his teammates is much more than the modern football player who cares too much about his stats and not enough of his team and coaches.
The Oregon defense, much improved the past two seasons, looked slow in pursuing Myles Gaskin (as good as Stanford’s Bryce Love), Ahmed Salvon, Sean McGrew and Keith Pleasant once they broke the line of scrimmage. Perhaps that lead to what appeared to be grind it out attack by the offense—to limit the time Washington had the ball. As it turned out, time of possession was almost 50-50 with the Huskies at 30 minutes, 37 seconds and the Ducks at 29:23.
It is either lack of speed in the guys pursuing, or loafing (but I don’t think Cristobal would put up with that). At times defensive backs looked hopeless trying to stay with a Washington wide receiver. There were some instances when a covering defensive back would take his eyes off the receiver to see the quarterback. Once they saw him, they realized they needed to be closer (in contact) with the receiver before they take their eyes off the man they are covering. Such was the issue on the Huskies’ 43-yard score to Ty Jones that tied the game at 24-24.
This needs to be fixed fast, with the next game against the best passing team in the Pac-12 It will be interesting to see which defensive back the Cougars pick on during the game. It's also going to be interesting to see if the Pac-12 officials could be consistent with their calls. In the Washington game, they were quick to call holding on the Ducks' offense and blind to blatant holding by Husky offensive tackles, right in front of the head official who is charged with watching for that infraction.
The crucial stats for the Washington game:
No. 1 (explosiveness, yards per play) — Washington 6.2, Oregon 4.7 (Washington: Leader wins 86 percent of the time);
No. 2 (efficiency, third- and fourth-down conversions) — Oregon 12-of-21 for 57 percent, Washington 7-of-15 for 47 percent (Oregon: Leader wins 83 percent of the time);
No. 3 (drive-finishing, points per trip inside 40) — Oregon 4-of-6 for 67 percent, Washington 4-of-7 for 57 percent (Oregon: Leader wins 75 percent of the time);
No. 4 (average field position) — Oregon 33-yard line, Washington 24-yard line (Oregon: Leader wins 72 percent of the time);
No. 5 (turnover margin) — Oregon 1, Washington 2 (Oregon: Leader wins 73 percent of the time).
Former Oregon player Ken Woody coached college football for 18 years, including as an assistant at Oregon, Washington, Washington State and Utah State.