Oregon Offensive Scheme
Following a 13-2 season that concluded with a loss to Ohio State in College Football Playoff championship game last season, the Oregon Ducks have taken a step back in 2015. They've started the season 4-3 and had an assortment of issues plaguing performance on both sides of the football.
On offense, Oregon added former Eastern Washington star Vernon Adams Jr., as a post-graduate transfer to fill the void created at the quarterback position by the loss of Heisman Trophy Winner Marcus Mariota, who was selected No. 2 in the NFL Draft earlier this year by the Tennessee Titans.
But Adams suffered a broken finger early in the season and didn't play in three-plus games, and the Ducks' top receiver, Darren Carrington, missed the team's first six games of the season -- as well as the National title game in January -- due to a failed NCAA drug test.
Adams and Carrington returned to play in the team's last game at Washington, however, a 26-20 win, that hinted at a better overall playmaking capability in the second half of the team's schedule even though it's now too late for a return trip to the CFP.
Though Adams ran a similar offense at Eastern Washington, where he threw for 10,438 yards and 110 touchdowns as a three-year starter for a program that went 34-9 under his direction, he's not especially similar to Mariota in terms of style, nor as good.
Oregon's once-unique version of the spread triple option offense, as created by architect Chip Kelly before he left to coach the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013, continues to evolve in an effort to stay ahead of the curve, as its philosophy is now seemingly ubiquitous across the college landscape.
Whereas early in Kelly's years in Eugene, which started in 2007 as offensive coordinator under then-coach Mike Bellotti, the Ducks had a massive advantage simply due to the contrast between their style of football and that of everyone else in the Pac-12, that chasm has been closed significantly.
Now, the Ducks try to stay ahead with a few new wrinkles and the better caliber of players they've been able to attract via its on-field success and the brilliant Nike-aided marketing and promotion of the program via their progressive uniforms and other branding strategies, as well as their elite facilities.
Adams is less of a rushing threat than Mariota, a player who averaged 112 carries and 745 rushing yards per season (6.6 yards per carry) and 29 rushing touchdowns in three seasons, but a threat nonetheless. He's more of a Russell Wilson type quarterback, smaller than Mariota, and very willing to extend plays in order to throw the football.
What really drives the Oregon offense though is its broader run game capability, which is centered around sophomore Royce Freeman, a 5-foot-11, 230 pound block of muscle who somehow manages to play big while making himself small and hard to tackle.
Freeman is averaging a league-best 142.4 rushing yards per game and is second only to Utah star back Devontae Booker in terms of carries per game. Freeman's 6.6 yards per carry is the league-best among Pac-12 first-string running backs and he is a full service player who runs well inside or out, and is also the team's second leading receiver, with 15 catches for 179 yards. Overall, the Ducks average 297 rushing yards per game, which is tied for the most in the league and over 100 yards a game more than some of the very capable rushing attacks ASU's seen to this point in the season.
What Oregon loves to do is use Freeman and hybrid player Bralon Addison, a 5-foot-10, 190 pound junior, in a variety of play action threats that keep defenses guessing and forced to cover the full width of the field due to the triple option capability.
Addison motions to and from the backfield with great frequency in order to try to provide advantageous matchups both in terms of numbers and personnel to Oregon head coach and play caller Mark Helfrich, who was at an earlier stage of his career pseudo-offensive coordinator at ASU under Dirk Koetter, who was the actual play caller. Interestingly, former Nebraska quarterback Scott Frost, who was under center when ASU beat then-No. 1 Nebraska 19-0 in 1996, is currently the quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator -- in name only -- for Helfrich.
The Ducks use a variety of formations as window dressing and strive to get defenses flowing in one direction only to take the play another direction. They'll use a lot of two back and two tight end formations, flex out a tight end often especially into the boundary, and try to get Carrington one-on-one down the field. They don't have a wide variety of athletes for ASU to key on, especially with former Phoenix Brophy Prep star receiver Devon Allen still getting back to his full capability after an ACL tear last season. Only three players have more than 10 catches through seven games played.
This is the Adams, Freeman, Addison and Carrington show.
Oregon's had some offensive line struggles due in part to injuries. Left guard Matt Pierson and right tackle Tyrell Crosby didn't play last time out against Washington and though Oregon's secretive about injuries, their status for tonight is doubtful. ASU has experience with Oregon's senior center Matt Hegarty even though the two teams haven't played the last two seasons. Hegarty is a post-graduate transfer from Notre Dame. Senior left tackle Tyler Johnstone is one of a handful of players from the Valley, a group that includes Allen, lightly used receiver Jalen Brown, backup running back Kani Benoit, and defensive back Reggie Daniels.
Oregon Offensive Personnel
Vernon Adams (No. 3) -- An undersized but versatile quarterback at 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds, Adams is somewhat in the Russell Wilson mode. He would rather hand the ball off to his backs and extend plays to throw rather than run on read options, and isn't a super quick twitch athlete but moves well and is evasive. He is accurate throwing down the field more than on intermediate throws though, and is challenging in the red zone because how how Oregon likes to roll him out.
Royce Freeman (No. 21) -- A 230 pound punisher who nonetheless possesses terrific short-area elusiveness and stop-and-start explosion, Freedman averages a league-best 142.4 yards per game at an impressive 6.6 yards per carry with 21.4 carries per game, second most in the Pac-12 behind Utah's Devontae Booker. Freeman runs within his framework extremely well and has the ability to get narrow and not given defenders a lot of surface area to grab or strike.
Bralon Addison (No. 2) -- In the hybrid role that De'Anthony Thomas made famous at Oregon, Addison isn't quite as athletically dynamic but very capable all the same. Listed at receiver, Addison often lines up in the backfield and motions out, or starts in the slot and motions to backfield. He only has 11 carries in seven games and is more of a disguise utility than someone Oregon is going to hand it off to much. But Addison is good at working against heavier personnel and the Ducks will try to generate mismatches to throw him the football.
Devon Carrington (No. 7) --Far and away Oregon's biggest receiving threat down the field, Carrington is a clear-cut NFL prospect with a great combination of athletic range, route running and playmaking ability. He missed the first six games of the season due to an NCAA drug violation but had five catches for 125 yards and two touchdowns in his first game back against Washington. Oregon will try to clear out his side of the football -- and he'll line up either into the boundary or wide on the field side -- by occupying safeties with other routes to generate 1-on-1s.
Oregon Offensive Line/Tight ends -- Seniors Tyler Johnstone (No. 64) at left tackle and Matt Hegarty (No. 72) are probably the best linemen the team has but neither is a dominant player and Oregon doesn't have the type of NFL talent along its front has it has tended to have in recent years. The left guard and right side of the line are a little more susceptible to due injuries and Washington's defensive front, as an example, got a lot of pressure on Adams in the team's last game, primarily through just muscling this group around. Oregon is No. 9 in the Pac-12 in sacks allowed. The Ducks also don't have the elite tight end playmaker they've often had, with no tight end having more than a handful of catches or one tight end. They do use these players, who are long and have good size, as blockers at the point of attack.
ASU Defense Against Oregon Offense
In the only time ASU coach Todd Graham has gone up against Oregon, the Ducks rushed for 406 yards as a team in a 43-21 win in Tempe in 2012 that was way worse than the final score. Oregon scored all of its points in the first half and took a 43-7 halftime lead and coasted the rest of the way. ASU should do better this time around for sure, but one of the biggest challenges for Graham is how effectively the Ducks can run and pass the ball to either the field or boundary side and do so against formation strength. Graham's tendency to overload blitz has the ability to corral Adams and create a lot of negative plays but if it goes against the play design, there's potential for one play touchdowns. This is especially true with such a big and physical running back, who also has shown excellent vision and cut back ability. ASU's going to no doubt try to use its recipe that worked for three-plus quarters against Utah by trying to contain Oregon's rushing attack inside while plugging interior gaps. it will also have to try to handle Carrington in some one-on-one situations and if it doesn't get to Adams, that's easier said than done with any real consistency.
Oregon Defensive Scheme
Simply put, the Ducks have been an unmitigated mess on the defensive side of the football this season. To wit, they rank dead last in the Pac-12 in scoring defense (36 points), total defense (461.9 yards), pass defense (306.6 yards), first downs allowed (23.4), and pass efficiency defense.
Needless to say, second-year defensive coordinator Don Pellum -- who has remarkably coached at Oregon continuously since 1983 -- has drawn serious criticism and even made some Ducks' fans long for former coordinator Nick Aliotti, a coach who mentored Pellum and was regularly under scrutiny for his defensive play calling.
The Ducks are perhaps the second-most aggressive defense in the Pac-12 behind ASU, and are No. 2 in sacks as a result, but when they have blitzed they've had an inordinate amount of breakdowns in their secondary due to lack of effective communication.
More recently, especially against Washington, Oregon seemed to blitz far fewer and instead played a lot of eight man zone drop coverage in an effort to force the Huskies' true freshman quarterback to throw the ball.
Overall, the range of Oregon's defensive play calling is probably as varied as anyone in the league and that's perhaps contributing to its struggles, as well as a number of injuries to a back seven that already was dealing with replacing most of its starters. The Ducks will go from pass rushing six and playing mostly man behind it, to only pass rushing three and playing a very relaxed zone.
Far and away, the strength of the unit is up front, led by 6-foot-7, 300 pound defensive lineman DeForest Buckner out of an odd front that puts three big and heavy defensive linemen at the point of attack. Buckner usually plays on the right side of the line and will align anywhere between a 3 and 6 technique as he probes and testes the left side of opponent's offensive lines in a way unlike anyone else in the Pac-12. He's a clear-cut future NFL first-round pick and someone ASU has to key on at all times.
The Ducks use a four-linebacker approach and not the hybrid type safety-linebackers employed by most of the defenses in the Pac-12. These are big outside linebackers who are relied upon in a full service capacity including covering backs and slot receivers.
In the secondary, the Ducks are athletic but not especially big and flip their players based on field and boundary alignment. Sophomore Charles Nelson is a 5-foot-8, 170 pound sophomore who plays at times on offense and starts at boundary safety. Juwaan Williams is an athletic field safety who can really make plays coming downhill to the ball.
Oregon's preference is to play two high safeties with a variety of underneath coverages and usually will start out that way and then bring one of the safeties down into the box more as it feels it is warranted.
Boundary corner Tyree Robinson moved to the position from safety for the team's last game and was targeted at times by the Huskies in man coverage situations.
The inside linebackers for Oregon are athletically moderate players who have struggled in pass coverage situations and been decent against the run, though motion flow has at times forced them to react out of their gaps.
Oregon Defensive Personnel
DeForest Buckner (No. 44) -- Far and away Oregon's best defensive player, Bucker has incredible violence with his hands and uses his length at 6-foot-7 and 300 pounds, and brute strength, to thrash offensive linemen around like rag dolls. He's not a speed rusher and tends to make most of his plays by attacking in between the tackle and guard or straight up the mid-line of tackles as a bull rusher. He disengages from would be blockers as well as anyone in the league and also has an elite motor, especially for his size. He has nine tackles for loss and five sacks, both team leading.
Joe Walker (No. 35) -- A relatively generic cog of an inside linebacker at 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds even though he leads Oregon with 49 tackles. Walker started 10 games as a junior last season out of the junior college ranks and is a pretty solid, smart player against the run but not in the athletic mold of some of the guys ASU's played to this point in the season.
Rodney Hardrick (No. 48) -- One of Oregon's two starting inside linebackers, Hardrick is susceptible at times to play action motion flow against the run and can get out of his gap. He's second on the team with 42 tackles but has just three for loss and is challenged when forced to cover underneath receivers.
Tyree Robinson (No. 3) -- A boundary corner who had been playing safety prior to Oregon's last game, Robinson is a good athlete but deserves additional testing for his man coverage ability if ASU can occupy the boundary corner on that side of the field with its play calling.
Christian French (No. 96) -- A huge outside linebacker who can be on the field or boundary side, French is 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds. He's borderline impossible for receivers to effectively block on perimeter runs in the alley and even good tight ends will be challenged to do so. But French is forced to cover a lot of smaller, quicker players and that's a potential liability that Oregon trades off for his physicality, even though French runs very well for his size. He has five tackles for loss, mostly stopping wide runs and screens.
Arrion Springs (No. 1) -- This field side corner is Oregon's best man coverage defender and a very good athlete who also has plus size for the position at 5-foot-11, 205 pounds. When breakdowns have occurred here, they've mostly been in zone assignments with communication breakdowns. He'll run with the best receivers in the conference far more often than not.
Tyson Coleman (No. 33) -- A Devil-like alignment from a 2-point stance is common from Coleman, a player who is often responsible for setting the edge into the boundary and preventing plays breaking to his outside. Sometimes he'll shift over to the field side. Either way he's a focal blocking surface for ASU to be successful as Coleman has 6.5 tackles for loss, second on the team, and two sacks.
ASU Offense Against Oregon Defense
Perimeter attacks are going to be difficult against Oregon because its defense runs to the football extremely well on the outside, and the Ducks are also big and athletic at outside linebacker. This is the type of defense that can be attacked more through the middle in voids created by its zone coverage shells and especially at the linebacker level via mismatches. Against Utah, ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell finally decided it was the right time to start playing senior receiver D.J. Foster in the tight slot 3-man role in which he initially excelled as a younger player in the Sun Devils' scheme out of two back formations. With junior Tim White coming into his own and looking like a very solid option at the 2-receiver field side position and senior Devin Lucien settling in with his timing and rhythm at the boundary side 9-receiver position, this is the game in which Foster can make an impact via Norvell trying to generate mismatches with Foster working against Oregon's linebackers. It's going to be tough to run on Oregon's heavy front, so run replacements will be key, especially because the Ducks tend to handle perimeter screens well. This is also the game in which moderate range passing along and between the seams can be effective and it has been under-utilized at times by ASU to this point. The Sun Devils need to throw the ball more to their backs (including Foster in the tight slot) and tight ends and attack the middle of the Oregon defense via play actions, and take advantage of Oregon's communication breakdowns when pressuring.
It's a tough game to predict in a season of tough games to predict. I've tended to be a lot more successful than I have this year, but feel like it's a good opportunity for ASU's offense to get healthier and feeling better about itself and not a horrible match up for the ASU defense which has done very well against the run but will be seriously tested tonight. ASU wins 38-35.