Review of Oregon's 21-6 road victory over Stanford revealed some good and some bad news for Ducks football coach Mario Cristobal.
First the good.
Oregon’s defense continued its excellent play, keeping Stanford out of the end zone, its third straight game without allowing a touchdown. Cardinal coach David Shaw’s offense is nowhere near as strong as in years past, but the Duck defense grudgingly gave up only 3.7 yards per play and twice held Stanford to only field goals when it penetrated the UO 20-yard line.
Stanford’s tall tight ends have traditionally had their way with the shorter Duck defenders, scoring six touchdowns on passes in the past two years, but were shut out this time by Oregon’s corners and safeties.
Showing the results of excellent coaching and execution, the corners bodied up to the receivers and used their bodies to move them toward the boundary and out of bounds. Like basketball players jockeying for position underneath the basket, the defensive backs were able to use their strength, without holding with their hands, and leverage the receiver out of bounds without a pass interference penalty.
There were also examples of safeties covering deep (“over the top”), helping the corners out with coverage, something rarely seen in the past two years. This is an example of good scouting by the coaches and putting players in a position where they can defend one of the hardest-to-defend pass plays in the book. One other major improvement this season is that the defensive backs are better drilled in getting their eyes on the ball after it’s thrown and thus more able to make a play on the throw.
Oregon’s defensive front put good pressure on KJ Costello, Stanford’s quarterback, who carved up the Ducks at will last year. Costello injured his throwing hand and was ineffective, only passing for 120 yards on 16 completions. He was sacked five times and was held to only 4 yards per attempt, and Oregon’s coverage, including linebackers, was excellent. Players were nearly always around the ball.
Coach Andy Avalos’ defense is on track to have a spectacular season, having chalked up 33 tackles for loss, 17 quarterback hurries and 22 pass breakups, and allowed only 31 percent conversions on third downs in the first four games. The defenders occasionally miss some tackles due to not breaking down and getting under control, but players have consistently hustled and tackled well in the open field, another aspect of a well-coached and fundamentally sound defense.
Punter Blake Maimone had six punts for a 47.7 average, which is outstanding. Even better, he put five of the punts inside the 20-yard line, a great improvement from his past performance. The punt team left the Cardinal on the 8- and 10-yard lines twice each, in the game, and this was a major factor in the Oregon victory, especially with the banged-up Stanford offense unable to garner any explosion plays from deep in its own territory.
And now, the bad.
Oregon’s offense struggled mightily, allowing four sacks, several quarterback hurries, averaged a paltry 2.0 yards per carry and, once again, failed to convert an easy try for field goal.
Quarterback Justin Herbert had a fine day, throwing three touchdowns on well-designed pass plays, and did not allow an interception, but as the game went on, it was clear that his patched up offensive line was ineffective in pass blocking; struggling to block pass rushes that came with only four defenders.
It is also clear that the pistol formation is more of a “cap gun” right now. The running back is too deep to get back to the line of scrimmage before the open running lane (if any) is closed up by defensive reaction. There were several instances of runners being dropped for losses because of this. It is also obvious that Duck running backs lack the breakaway speed and tackle-breaking ability of the outstanding runners who came before them.
On one play, five Oregon blockers could not sustain their blocks long enough for the back to get to the crease they had established in the four-man defensive front. A quicker-hitting run would have resulted in a gain, instead of a loss. The longest run from scrimmage was only 11 yards, which isn’t going to cut it against a team that can score more than six points per game.
The Ducks are converting only 39 percent of their third-down conversions, which must get better if they are to be competitive in the Northern Division of the Pac-12.
The offensive line had to shuffle a tackle to center when Jake Hanson was injured, and although an excellen, skilled athlete, Calvin Throckmorton looked like a rookie at times as his replacement. He struggled in pass protection and there were several snaps that were high, and without Herbert’s 6-foot-6 frame, each were a potential turnover, reminiscent of bad-snap dreams still in the memories of Duck fans from last year’s losses to Stanford and Washington State.
If the Ducks can’t run, and can’t protect Herbert, who will come under increased pressure as opponents realize their running game is not the threat that it once was, there is potential disaster ahead. Oregon’s conservative offensive philosophy will not be able to adjust to these challenges, unless some things change and get better.
First, the Ducks’ inside game would be one tackler less if Herbert was allowed to run some option. Currently, because the outside defender on running plays away from him does not have to worry about an option or reverse coming back at him, can slant hard to the inside and help tackle or limit the cutback options of the ball carrier.
Options and reverses would be easy fixes, as would installing more outside plays to take advantage of the fastest back Cristobal has in his stable: Darrian Felix. He has looked formidable running outside the tackles in the very limited amount of carries. One look at Auburn and you can see what the Tigers have done to take advantage of a lightweight (175 pounds) Anthony Schwartz’s sprinter’s speed to spark their own run game: reverses, fly sweeps and short passes that he turns into big gains.
Cristobal is one-third through his season and still can’t count on a reliable field-goal kicking combination. Freshman Camden Lewis is 0-for-2, but the latest miss against Stanford came as a result of the left guard planting his leg too far inside the center’s legs on the snap of the ball. The result was something you never see: the snap hit the guard’s shin and deflected to an angle away from the holder, Blake Maimone. Both the holder and kicker moved to catch the ball, which Maimone did in a very athletic manner. Lewis also backed off to catch the ball and when Maimone finally got it down, he was too far off his steps and rhythm to get a good foot into the ball. The miss was certainly not the kicker or holder’s fault.
High school teams routinely kick extra points and field goals without blocking linemen deflecting their own center’s snap. The left guard’s technique was terrible and Cristobal must consider whether he’s given the holder, the center, the kicker and the entire kicking unit the number of reps in practice (and games) they need to be successful. When you have “tune-up games” before your conference schedule, it would be helpful to consider going for field goals when your ego wants to go for touchdowns that are no longer needed to win the game.
The look you get from the bench when the field goal team goes on the field is one of resignation — “we’ve failed, we’ve been stopped. Oh well, let’s try a field goal.” It wouldn’t be a surprise if both the holder and kicker have a hard time feeling confident if the Ducks set up to kick a field goal. This needs to change, fast, before a game depends on it. As it is, the offense’s conversion rate is not a lock, either.
The crucial stats for the Stanford game:
No. 1 (explosiveness, yards per play) — Stanford 3.7, Oregon 5.9 (leader wins 86% of the time);
No. 2 (efficiency, 3rd-4th down conversion — Oregon 5 of 12 for 42%, Stanford 5 of 18 for 28% (leader wins 83% of the time);
No. 3 (drive-finishing, points per trip inside 40) — Oregon 3 of 4 for 75%, Stanford 2 of-2 for 100% (leader wins 75% of the time);
No. 4 (average field position) — Oregon 38.8-yard line, Stanford 19.7-yard line (leader wins 72% of the time);
No. 5 (turnover margin) — Oregon 0, Stanford -3 (leader wins 73% of the time).
Former Oregon player Ken Woody coached college football for 18 years. He conducts a weekly coach's corner from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays at the 6th Street Grill.