No play calls are more scrutinized than those made on 4th down and this subject provides an interesting study for students of the Oregon Offense. The decision to “Go For It” (and what type of play to run in that situation) often faces a head-on battle with conventional offensive wisdom. Often this wisdom is overly conservative, unimaginative, and in direct contrast to the philosophy of the Spread Offense. Our study of Oregon football over the past five seasons has revealed an offense with complete disregard for the constraints of conventional wisdom. The Ducks have combined innovation with decisive and aggressive play-calling in these critical situations. A great example of Oregon’s use of this philosophy is a 4th and short this past season at Southern Cal.
Oregon frequently uses tempo after 3rd down in an attempt to create busts against a 4th down short yardage defense. After not converting on 3rd down, Oregon (above) lines up quickly in a 4-wide receiver, 2×2 Stack formation. This is a pass first formation and personnel grouping for most teams. This set, one without Fullbacks or Tight Ends, is one that many would frown upon in short yardage situations. USC responds with a defensive call that doesn’t seem to fit: short yardage run pressure (LBs blitzing through the frontside B & backside A gaps) but passing down type coverage (Deep Cover 2).
Despite four receivers and one back in the game, USC (above) lines up with 7 defenders in the box. Oregon’s effectiveness running the football and the distance to gain makes stopping the run a priority for USC. This defensive call may have been the result of a quick decision to go for it by Oregon, or their tempo lining up in the formation not allowing time for adequate planning. Regardless of the reason, the defensive look created numbers on the perimeter for the Ducks.
Oregon has a zone read play called with a quick “Now” screen from both WR Stacks built in. Pre-snap, Marcus Mariota (above) recognizes both safeties back in half field coverage. The Trojan’s decision to blitz has also left both alley areas vacated. USC sells out to stop the inside run. Oregon’s call, an inside run with a packaged perimeter quick screen, is designed to take advantage of the outside weakness in this defense.
Even though he gets a “Give” read (above) from the backside defensive end, Mariota recognizes Oregon’s numbers disadvantage inside the box. The lack of alley defenders and two deep half-field safeties creates open access to area near the numbers. He pulls the ball and takes the easy throw and catch that the defense gives him.
“Now” screens allow an offense to quickly take advantage of the loaded box look from the USC defense. The screen runner takes one step up, one step back then turns and faces the QB. This allows the QB to make a quick decision and get the ball out into the open space between the right hash and the sideline.
This play is great example of the most underrated part of the Oregon offense, the blocking of the wide receivers, as the outside WR throws a cut block on the corner. Cut blocking is a great technique against a downhill defender. The effective cut (defined by the corner on the ground) creates the time and space needed to convert the 1st down.
Faced with a 4th and short last season (above) the Offensive Coordinator at Villanova, Sam Venuto, made a play call displaying some Oregon influence. Villanova lined up in a Stack formation and called Zone Read with a Now screen with the only difference from our call is that the zone side WR Stack is blocking. The WR Stack away from the zone side is running the Now.
Delaware lined up in a 6 man box with two low Cover 4 safeties. Teams are afraid to line up in spread sets on short yardage downs because the Cover 4 “free hitter” safeties are tight enough to the box to make a tackle at or near the line of scrimmage.
When the ball is snapped the Villanova QB (above) has access to the Now screen at the top but doesn’t take it. He is coached if there’s any doubt about the look outside go to your zone read. The defensive end plays square shouldered with his weight balanced (he’s sitting) so the QB gives the ball to the RB.
Outstanding blocking by the offensive line (above) creates the situation that keeps many people out of the spread in these situations, Tailback vs. Free Hitter. This play, and our study of Oregon over the years, illustrates that the job is often done on short yardage before the free hitter can get involved. The tailback picks up the 1st down before contact is made.
The lesson we have learned over the years, through both our own experience and studying the great offenses in college football, is to build your scheme around what your players do best. When faced with a critical situation use your best players, formations and plays. The 4th down situation at USC shows how much Oregon trusts their play-caller, system and most important, the players. This is a great time in offensive football – due in no small part to the ability of the Oregon offense to show that conventional offensive wisdom is little more than an obstacle to innovation.
Even at Villanova, “oh how we love to learn about your Beloved Ducks!”
Wide Receivers Coach
Top Photo from Video