And here I am rolling my calendar to the week of September 12 . . . and it’s Oregon week! It’s perhaps Nebraska’s first true pressure test in the Mike Riley Era, as last year few national pundits paid attention to our BYU game and the season was already dead meat by the time Michigan State rolled into Lincoln. This time, it’s an undefeated Nebraska team versus what Nebraska used to be, when 9-win seasons like Oregon’s 2015 campaign were considered miserable failures. The road back to the top starts by showing up and delivering in these types of games.
Okay, so Oregon. Holy f*%^, that means their pace and space offense. This one isn’t going to be easy. Despite my attempts over the summer to curse Oregon’s QBs, it appears I’ve failed miserably. Dakota Prukop won the job after fall camp and the early returns are favorable. That said, Nebraska is a team with a pulse, unlike football cadavers Virginia (who lost to Richmond by 17 points) and UC Davis. And Oregon in 2016 isn’t peak Oregon of the Chip Kelly/Marcus Mariota years.
Turn the page for what the Ducks will bring into Lincoln this Saturday afternoon. And as usual, hit the hyperlinks if you want cut ups of Oregon’s scouted games.
Game(s) Scouted: UC Davis, Virginia, too many others in the last few years to count
First, I’ll throw out a caveat. What I’m about to do here can in no way, shape or form do justice to the depth that is Oregon’s offense. If you want to take a DEEP dive into a decade of Ducks football, head over to www.fishduck.com, a wonderful Xs and Os blog that has a substantial library on Oregon’s offense and defense.
The first thing you’ll notice about Oregon’s offense–once you get past the attire–is how comprehensive it is. Unlike some offenses that focus heavily on one area of the field to the exclusion of others, Oregon will attack the entire field, both horizontally and vertically. And as you’ll see below, they can do it both passing and running, and from every formation in their playbook.
The second thing you notice is that, having run the same core principles now for a decade, Oregon seamlessly melds those core principles to their constraint plays. They’ll hammer you with inside zone read, the staple of their offense, until they catch your safeties flying down to stop it. Then they’ll throw a couple of bubble screens to give you some window dressing before faking a flare screen to one side and sneaking out one of the best tight ends in the country on a tunnel and wheel on the other side :
That means you have to play them straight up and can’t send help to the point of attack to assist because you never really know where that point of attack is going to be. And so if you’re going to beat Oregon (1) your box defenders have to be able to consistently beat run blocks from the OL; and (2) your DBs better be able to tackle in space. If you can’t beat blocks in the box, Oregon will inside zone you to death. And if you can do that but you can’t tackle on the outside, they’ll run sweeps and bubble screens all night. Finally, as if that’s not enough, they just got a receiver back from the Rio Olympics (sigh, that’s not a joke) who only runs about three routes but is really, really fast running them.
So in a sea of Duck athletes, who is my pick to click this week? Junior wide receiver (and Olympian) Devon Allen. I almost picked Charles Nelson, who I refer to as the Special Teams Taylor Martinez (more on that tomorrow). Nelson only goes about 5’8″/170, but he’s a rocket in the open field and has some crazy shakes to go with it. He has terrible hands, though, and the Ducks have downplayed him on offense because of it. They don’t do the same with Allen, who in addition to his pass catching duties at receiver will run jet sweep and line up in the backfield to take option pitches. He’s also a guy that can get vertical in a hurry, and they’ll often move him into the slot as #2 or #3 in 3 x 1 sets to target interior DBs. Nebraska will be in its Nickel and Dime packages much of the day against Oregon, and though I love the development of our younger players, we’re not ready yet for Allen. Frankly, outside of a few elite teams with big DBs who have quick enough feet to get hands on him at the line, there probably won’t be any other teams that are ready for him either. He can flat out fly. He’s also a surprisingly good blocker on the edge, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him and Chris Jones throw hands before the night’s over.
“Rolls” Royce Freeman or Darren Carrington would have been the obvious picks, but as I’ll discuss below, I think we match up decently with them. Give me the Olympian and at least one deep touchdown from him.
Formations and Personnel
For the majority of each game, Oregon is a straight 11 personnel shotgun team. Three wide receivers, one tight end, one running back, line up and go, and then do it again and again and again. Because they like to play fast (typically sub 15 seconds between the end of the play and the next snap), they’ll often stay in this personnel package for long stretches. When they do, though, they’ll line up the TE and slot WR at unconventional places to change the formational looks. Lately, they’ve even dipped into the Pistol as more than just a novelty:
They’ll also come out in 10 and 12 personnel, and then show a split backs Gun look out of 20 and 21 personnel, identical to the Huskers’ recent use of the same. Because they’re in the Gun so often with the same personnel, they’re not a team that is going to formation you to death.
Concepts and Motions
Of course, just because they won’t kill you with formations doesn’t mean they don’t have plenty of ways to hurt you. Despite being an 11 personnel Gun team for most of the game, Oregon has the ability to substantially mix up their point of attack from all formations. They’ll go bunch FIB and then bring multiple players back to the weak side to get a WR the ball in space. They can false key your safeties and OLB by giving a zone look one way with the OL while throwing a flare screen back the other way. They’ll show you a middle of the field zone read before pitching it out on an RPO to a bubbling WR. When you start jumping outside run plays, the Ducks slip in a QB Power play with a sweep look from the RB.
In fact, despite being a team that has traditionally disfavored designed QB runs, now they’re running the Inverted Power Veer with their QB from two-back sets. Triple option from two-back? They’ve got that too. To that Olympian who plays WR. Hell, they even have triple option when they don’t call anything close to it.
And I haven’t even mentioned that no matter what they run, they’ve still got a “Rolls” Royce in the backfield on their base inside zone read play:
No, it doesn’t get much better in the passing game either. They’ll go 3 x 1 to attack your single side CB with a fade. Then they’ll do it again with bunch FIB to attack the same guy with a slant. But why stop with a 3 x 1 when you can go Quads FIB too? Or how about motioning with the aforementioned 230lb Royce Freeman into Empty Quads and taking a deep shot to him?
They’ll run the Switch Fade concept to take advantage of safeties and communication breakdowns in Cover 4. The Ducks have a healthy dose of blatant pick plays that never get called (wait until you see that one with contact in the red zone this Saturday). They’ll bait safeties with a slant in the Shoot concept, leaving the CB on an island with the #1 WR breaking to the post. And like I mentioned earlier, they have the three-route Olympian ready to fly by your safety if he doesn’t gain immediate depth:
So where the hell can we beat them? Well, their left tackle largely sucks in pass protection. That was the guy they started against Virginia, but his back up didn’t do much better. In fact, I wasn’t particularly impressed with their entire offensive line when it came to pass protection. For a team that likes to get the ball out quick, they had a substantial amount of pressure against lowly Virginia on many deep passing concepts. If we bring pressure or can get Freedom Akinmoladun matched up one on one, he’ll do some damage.
Beyond that? Buckle up. Maybe you can say that Oregon isn’t a great perimeter running team or that the offense hasn’t validated it against an elite team. The former may be true, though they’ve looked pretty damn good at times with it this year. The latter is probably false, as this is an offense that, after early season injury issues, was drilling people down the stretch last year.
Nebraska absolutely has to tackle well, and perhaps most important to that, they need to understand team leverage of the ball back to pursuit defenders. That’s not easy, as it often means playing the proper role rather than being the hero tackling the ball carrier. But it’s absolutely vital if you’re going to control the Ducks. And that’s what’s so crazy about Oregon games. Because they scheme you out of crazy blitz packages and movement games with your front 7, they make it a battle of fundamentals while betting their guys are the house. Get off blocks. Leverage and tackle in space. Easy in theory, much harder in practice.
There is one major change from last year’s Ducks offense. Vernon Adams is out, playing in Mike Riley’s old stomping grounds north of the border, and FCS transfer Dakota Prukop is in. Last week I told you not to buy the Josh Allen hype for Wyoming. Thankfully, Allen rewarded me by going out and throwing 5 balls at Blackshirts, including one for Kieron Williams’ first career TD.
I’m not going to tell you the same thing about Prukop though. In a lot of ways, he reminds me of Joe Ganz with way more talent around him. Not an athletic specimen by any credible definition, Prukop protects the football, is extremely accurate and strangely intuitive, and appears to be perfectly comfortable in Oregon’s offense. And though he doesn’t have Marcus Mariota’s legs, he can scramble enough to avoid sacks and he’s pretty adept in the QB run game as well. But he can occasionally get rattled when pressured. If Nebraska is going to continue its multiple interception streak, the Huskers need to dial up some heat and get it home early. Otherwise, I expect Prukop to have a pretty solid night.
This is a week I’d like to take a pass, as I’ve been extremely pleased with the Blackshirts up to this point. I won’t, although it won’t win this site any fans. I don’t think Oregon’s offense boat races the Blackshirts, as we’re not Virginia and we’re sure as hell not UC Davis. But this Oregon offense is loaded with play makers and smart, repeatable concepts to get them the ball. Even though Prukop is not Mariota, he’s a classic ball protection distributor that is perfect for a high-octane offense filled with athletes around him. Because of this, we’ll be in Nickel and Dime a lot of the time, probably a considerable portion of which will be our 30 front subpackage.
In the run game, strangely enough Rolls Royce doesn’t scare me that much. He’ll definitely get his yards, but I can’t see him going off for 150+. Our linebackers are too good, and I think our defensive line will give Oregon’s inside zone play some issues. I do think you’ll see the Ducks continually target Ross Dzuris in the Read game, both with zone read and Inverted Veer, and also our LBs with Oregon’s Sweep Read and outside zone game. Finally, you’ll see some jet sweep to target the Nickel and Dime guys, and Nebraska’s safeties.
With the passing game, I’m pretty comfortable with our outside CBs. They may give up a couple of deep plays, but that’s going to happen against a WR the caliber of Darren Carrington. What scares me is Nebraska’s safeties against both Devon Allen and Charles Nelson from 3 x 1 formations. Our safeties are pretty damn good right now recognizing route concepts and jumping short stuff. But there is no substitute for pure speed, and while Oregon’s slot receivers have it in spades, our safeties aren’t exactly burners. And if that’s not enough, I think TE Pharaoah Brown is going to be a nightmare for us too. In a lot of ways, he’s a Cethan Carter clone, though he trades a bit of Carter’s raw strength for a bit more pure speed. He’ll be a handful for our Nickel/Dime LBs all night.
Can the Blackshirts hold up? Sure. They need a big game from Kevin Maurice and Carlos Davis, and they need Kalu, Williams, Antonio Reed and whoever else is healthy at the Nickel and Dime spots to have the game of their lives tackling in space. At this point, though, I still think we’re a guy or two short at the perimeter positions, and I’m not sure we have enough speed at LB either. I think Oregon gets to 30+ points, but, as I’ll tell you tomorrow night, it may not matter because of the Ducks’ porous defense.