The euphoria among Oregon fans ignited by quarterback Justin Herbert’s declaration of foregoing the NFL draft to come back next fall and take another go at the Pac-12 was offset by the manner in which his talents were used, or not, this past fall.
Will coach Mario Cristobal provide a game plan against Michigan State in the Redbox Bowl that uses Herbert’s talents as the spark plug of the Duck offense or will the plan be like so many this season: predictable, uncreative and, well, boring?
Game plans and play calling have been a concern since Cristobal’s first game, a debacle against Boise State in last year’s Las Vegas Bowl.
The first half of the Stanford game this year provided an example of a plan that was imaginative and turned Herbert loose with his throwing talents. However, in many other games, a first-down rush of only two yards set up passing defenses that featured five or six defensive backs, and an extra pass rusher.
A successful offensive play on first down is four yards gained, which allows the play caller to remain in an “either run or pass” situation that keeps the defense on their heels. Too often, Herbert had to face third-and-long passing situations (five or more yards to go) because the run offense took three or four quarters to gain enough yardage on first down to keep him out of passing situations.
When you watch the Ducks take on the nation’s best run defense (80 yards per game allowed), look to see how stubborn Cristobal is about establishing the run first. It’s important to run the ball but, generally, you should not run it more than 55 percent on first down. Also, watch the third-down situations: how many are long yardage and is the lack of a successful running game causing this?
Michigan State is known for its defense and Cristobal has said he relishes the challenge for his “physical” offense. Better that he unleash Herbert from the start for several reasons, but most importantly, to establish tempo and rhythm and use both the pass and the run to establish a physical advantage.
The Spartans are not known as an offensive powerhouse, but they do possess strong running backs and a big offensive line that has moved the ball on all opponents. If the Ducks have any advantage in talent, it is in Herbert. Will Cristobal push that advantage or will he have his quarterback handing off on key plays to freshman running backs?
Herbert has fallen into bad habits that were not there in the first part of the season, both in fundamentals and decision-making. How much has been improved (coached) since the end of the season?
Former Oregon player Ken Woody coached college football for 18 years, including as an assistant at Oregon, Washington, Washington State and Utah State.