WSU vs. Oregon: What's With The Goofy Cards?

THE OREGON SPREAD OPTION OFFENSE has become more than essential enough, with pieces of it throughout the Pac-12 and college football, that Cougar fans need to become more familiar with it. Here are five key concepts to help understand what the Ducks try to do on offense, and why it has been as effective as it has.

1. It is oriented around just 2 essential plays.
It seems unlikely that such a dynamic and flexible offense could originate from just two basic plays, but that’s a pretty accurate statement. Oregon runs an inside zone read play and an outside zone read play as the foundation of its offense.

The inside zone read is essentially an isolation run play where a defensive lineman (usually their best player) goes unblocked but is removed from the play by the quarterback's decision. The quarterback reads the defender and either keeps the ball or hands it off based on who the lineman prepares to tackle.

The outside zone read is a traditional zone-blocking sweep play where the offensive linemen roll out in space and the running back selects the best gap available based on what spaces open up in the defense.

2. The offense openly declares which play it plans to run.
This seams completely contrary to every notion of football common sense, but it works. Due to the formation Oregon chooses, they essentially declare whether it is an inside zone read or outside zone read play. If the running back lines up behind the quarterback, it is an inside zone play. If he lines up to the side of the quarterback or in front of him, it is an outside zone read.

Moreover, the Ducks indirectly also announce which side of the field the will be running to. These plays are all designed to flow to the opposite side of the field from where the running back lines up.

As if that wasn't enough, a few seasons ago the Ducks starting using a flamboyant system of pseudo-secret jumbo cards to signal the next play. Far from morse code, these cards actually announce the next formation (and thus the play) to both the offense and the defense. Why would they do this...?

3. These plays are designed to work whether the defense believes the Ducks or not.
As you would expect, opposing defense generally don't believe the Ducks are this honest. If Marcus Mariota marched right up the line of scrimmage and yelled at the defense “Hey, I'm running over there,” more likely than not, the defenders would assume he was lying. As a result, a surprising amount the time the Ducks do exactly what they say they were going to do and the defense fails to effectively defend it anyway.

Both the inside and outside zone read plays are designed to stretch the front seven and set up an extra blocker; similar to the way Nebraska used the Power-I Dive/Triple Option Sweep combination. They are very effective plays if the defense does not over-compensate. The problem is, if you do overcompensate, the Duck running backs have the option of changing their minds mid-play.

A very high number of inside zone reads get bounced to the outside, and many outside zone reads turn into cut-back plays. It is no accident that Oregon has more broken plays go for big gains than any team in college football because even guessing right can make you wrong. This is a source of endless frustration for opposing defensive coordinators.

4. The Ducks may be lying after all.
A good portion of the time, the Duck's “open playbook” is simply an act of deception. The truly deadly aspect is offense is the devastating array of counter plays the Ducks use to punish defenses who guess wrong. Teams that stack on the box on an inside-zone read leave themselves exposed to play action passes and wide receiver screens. Defense that rush extra defenders to the playside on an outside zone read find themselves all heading the wrong direction when Mariota keeps the ball himself and runs the other way.

Both of Oregon's fundamental plays have numerous corresponding counter plays which essentially do the opposite. This is the primary reason why the Ducks seem to enjoy so many plays with gaping holes and wide open receivers -- the defense took the bait. Any good offense can punish a defense if they know what they are planning to do and the Ducks have found a very effective method of getting defenses to exaggerate their strategy.

5. Once the Ducks get you off balance, it is Game Over.
There is an unmistakable rhythm to this offense that seems to make it impossible to adjust to once it starts working. If particular plays are working well, it seems to make the counter-plays even more effective as the game wears on.

Any coaching adjustments become counterproductive as they force the defense to over-compensate in certain areas. This is what Oregon want you to do in the first place. The Ducks thrive on overreaction and guesswork.

So how do you beat this offense? There is no magic formula unfortunately, but defenses have been slowly figuring this offense out. The biggest key is to play great assignment-correct football from your base defense. You cannot expect to overcompensate any weaknesses. There a lot of hat-on-hat plays, and defenders have to beat their man quickly and tackle cleanly. A disruptive amount of penetration up front can pay huge dividends.

Indeed, it is vital to win the line of scrimmage and compress the point of attack. The Ducks rely on speed and space, and you have to try and take it away before the quarterback has anything to work with. A dynamic QB, Mariota is absolutely devastating in this offense because it can turn him into an extra running back, a proxy-blocker, or play-action passer against an exposed secondary.

None of that matters though if Mariota and the Ducks don't have the requisite time and space to operate.

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