“Re-establish the run and power football,” were the marching orders from Oregon football coach Mario Cristobal to his troops as they prepared for the UCLA game, which the Ducks eventually won 42-21. Although the victory seemed decisive, looking at the rushing game would lead you to believe that goal was not fully achieved.
In the first half the Bruins’ defense allowed 10 first-down rushes for 34 yards or 3.4 per carry, with the longest 9 yards. The Ducks had only two running plays that netted over 10 yards against a defense that had given up over 40 going into the contest.
Against the 106th rush defense and 100th total defense nationally, the Ducks did not dominate the line of scrimmage with their physical play. In fact, you could say that the young Bruins kept the Ducks’ physical run game at bay until the fourth quarter when Tony Brooks-James went 54 yards for a score that skewed the running-play average.
In the first quarter, Oregon’s run offense could average only 2.3 yards per rush and only 3.6 per rush in the second quarter. The Ducks were able to score 21 points in the first half, but one touchdown was on a punt return and another was an 11-yard drive after recovering a fumbled punt.
In the first half, quarterback Justin Herbert completed 5-of-7 passes for 69 yards (9.8 yards per attempt) and on their 80-yard drive for a touchdown, the Ducks gained three yards on four rushes and the rest of the yardage came on pass plays. Oregon had 21 points at halftime and “physical” football had little to do with the scoring success.
In the locker room, Cristobal saw the Duck rushing total at 65 yards, while UCLA had 126: hardly evidence of physical football and re-establishing the run. Oregon upped its average per rush to 4.3 in the third quarter, gaining 51 yards on 12 carries.
After gaining less than 100 yards against Washington State and Arizona (both defeats), the Ducks scratched out 200 against UCLA, with 54 coming in the fourth quarter by James’ touchdown.
The most significant statistic relative to the contenders for the national championship playoffs is scoring average. Five of the top 10 teams likely to make the playoffs average between 51 and 42 points per game. Oregon averages in conference 30 points while allowing 31.3. If you want evidence of Stanford’s demise, check its scoring: averaging only 26 points per game; that ranks 91st in the country.
Oregon used a two tight end/wing formation with 10 players lined up in the box in short yardage situations. On one unsuccessful fourth-down attempt, they motioned a wide receiver into the other wing position, bringing another defender into the massed formation.
UCLA had more defenders than Oregon had blockers where it chose to run Travis Dye, who was stuffed by the unblocked Bruin for no gain. Cristobal is light in the running back department. Dye is the smallest back on the roster and with CJ Verdell and Cyrus Habibi-Likio in the wings, Oregon’s two most physical backs were left out of the play.
The receiver who motioned back into the strength of the formation was run over by his defender. Why motion him back to where the ball was going to be directed? By having him wide, he is blocking the defender without having to engage him physically, a win-win for the Ducks. Sometimes you can block someone without having to hit him.
The role of Oregon’s passing game is somewhat hazy. Cristobal claims it is set up by the run. It’s hard to imagine that an offense averaging 2.3 in the first quarter is going to cause the Bruins to overreact to a run fake. Passing on first down is important; it opens up the game, creates momentum and pace, and puts more pressure on the defense.
Herbert is a shell of the quarterback he was through the Washington game. His footwork and throwing fundamentals have deteriorated in the face of poor pass protection and, based on his performance, coaches neglecting the little things that a great passer must do to be effective. He is not getting his feet set all the time and does not get square to the receiver on sideline routes, hence the short ball heading for the dirt out of bounds.
Herbert is now the No. 4 quarterback in the Pac-12 with only a 59 percent completion percentage. He could be a No. 1 draft pick who can’t make all-conference.
On the positive side, the pass protection was very good in the UCLA game and Herbert was spared the beatings he took in defeats against Washington State and Arizona. Still, some of his previous bad habits have reared their head. Herbert, so intent on making things happen, is often throwing into coverage, particularly when he’s trying to get the ball to his favorite receiver.
It is a coaching error to let things go to the point that there is only one “go-to” receiver. Ask WSU quarterback Gardner Minshew who his go-to receiver is and he might give you five to eight names because the Cougars spread the field and make you cover every receiver. And Minshew’s completion percentage is 71 percent. Spread the ball and you increase your effectiveness and point production. It is a sad commentary that with all the four-star recruits the Ducks have brought in, there seem so few established receivers. You would think with that talent and coaching, they would have many athletic targets for Herbert to chose from.
Being “physical” can be done out of many formations, they don’t all have to be massed like the flying wedge or V formation like the early days of stone-age football. Chip Kelly had his offense in a spread formation that was spread not to pass, but to better run the ball. For his offensive line, they only needed to be able to count to six to know who to block and if there were more than six, then the defense could not adequately cover the pass — a far easier proposition to force one-on-one coverage by the secondary, which also had to worry about covering the option.
A key point in the season came in the third quarter of the Washington State game. The Ducks had been whipped in the first half but scored their first possession of the third quarter. With a quick stop by the defense that played well enough to win in the second half, Herbert had first-and-goal from the 6-yard line. Inexplicably, Duck coaches chose to run the same play three times in a row against a defense they couldn’t block with their smallest running back that was knocked on his backside.
You had to wonder why Herbert was not a factor in any of those three plays as he was the only “big play” guy on the offense at that time. He was responsible for both Duck touchdowns in the red zone, running for one and passing for another. Why was he not called? It was like having Dagwood Bumstead shoot three times while Michael Jordan was setting a screen instead of Jordan taking the shot as the big-play guy.
The same thing happened against UCLA, fourth-and-one stuffed in the backfield by an unblocked defender. It’s hard to be physical when tacklers outnumber blockers and the ball carrier is a lightweight. What is the coach trying to prove? Have there been an inordinate number of offensive linemen helped off the field this season?
The Ducks showed discipline against UCLA, only getting tagged with one penalty while the Bumbling Bruins ran up 11. After the coaches got the players together early in the week, there was a renewed emphasis on the kicking game that had its most productive impact this season. Without the fake field goal, the punt return and the fumbled punt recovery, the game could have swung the other way. Every week there should be an emphasis on the kicking game. Perhaps that way, it will be productive every game, not just on homecoming.
The crucial stats for the UCLA game:
• No. 1 (explosiveness, yards per play) — UCLA 5.7, Oregon 6.6 (Oregon. Leader wins 86 percent of the time);
• No. 2 (efficiency, third- and fourth-down conversion — Oregon 10-of-20 for 50 percent, UCLA 8-of-20 for 40 percent (Oregon. Leader wins 83 percent of the time);
• No. 3 (drive-finishing, points per trip inside 40) — Oregon 6-of-8 for 75 percent, UCLA 3-of-7 for 43 percent (Oregon. Leader wins 75 percent of the time);
• No. 4 (average field position) — Oregon 36-yard line, UCLA 25-yard line (Oregon. Leader wins 72 percent of the time);
• No. 5 (turnover margin) — Oregon 1, UCLA 6 (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.