Marcus Mariota’s Advanced Stage of Zone Reading

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Cliff Grassmick

It was fun to watch Jeremiah Masoli get there, and when Darron Thomas got there — it helped to take us to the National Championship game.  I am referring to the Advanced Stage of Zone Reading that few quarterbacks rise to, as it has become evident to me in the last two games that Marcus Mariota has crossed that threshold, and entered into a new strata.  He is now making Zone Reading decisions at the highest levels of which can only propel Oregon closer to another NC game.  Let’s examine what he doing differently to compel fellow students of the Oregon offense to be as convinced as I am!
Typical "sit" defender
Against Colorado (above) we see a Sweep Read play going to the top of the screen where Tyner gets some big yardage.  At the moment of the mesh, we observe how Marcus is looking right at the defender to be Zone Read and since he is staying or “sitting” in the lane that Mariota would run through, hence the proper Zone Read action is to hand off the ball — which he does.
DE Crash at Goal Line
Remember the big deal that the sportscasters made of the “great ball fake” by Oregon’s QB on this scoring play? As you see above — it is an Inside Zone Read play with Tyner (yellow arrow) headed into the line, but during the mesh Marcus can see that there is NO defender to be Zone Read!  In fact, they are both being blocked in the red circle.  My friends, that was clearly a read, and a pretty easy one with as hard as the defensive end was crashing down into the LOS.  Of course, I say it is easy with the benefit of still screenshots to freeze the action; I can’t imagine doing it in half-a-second as the Ducks’ star QB does.  Mariota scores easily (green-dotted arrow).
Sitting, but sliding...
We have another classic Inside Zone Read near the goal line (above), and at the mesh it certainly appears that the unblocked or defender to be Zone Read is sitting in the hole that Mariota would run through, thus the proper read is to hand off.  Yet Marcus does NOT hand off, and pulls the ball out to score an easy touchdown.  Why?
Sitting 2
In the microseconds of the play right after the mesh, we see the red arrow (above) of the defender moving toward the RB of Oregon.  Marcus must have detected him sliding inside toward Marshall, thus by pulling the ball, the QB had a clear lane to run.  This is ultra-detection by Mariota taking place in split seconds, and is not the usual Zone Reads taking place!
Beating a MLB?
I had my first indications of him making Zone Reads far above the usual “sit or chase the running back” options during the Cal game.  In the screenshot above, we see Mariota looking (light blue-dotted line) at the middle linebacker during the mesh!  He could see that the defensive tackle (yellow arrow) was chasing the running back, but the MLB (blue arrow) was sitting, so the read is to hand off – right?
Mariota stunned me by pulling the ball when the read was clearly “hand off.” Effectively Marcus decided that he could “beat” the MLB on this play and sure enough the Oregon QB got ten yards on the play! Something is up!
Confidence at Goal line...
OK . . . this next play (above) is just nuts.  This is an Inside Zone Read play near the goal line, and Marcus pulled the ball when the defender was clearly sitting and NOT sliding inside toward the RB.  This defender was perfectly positioned to stop the Duck QB with his placement — so why did Mariota pull the ball?  Was this simply a mistake in Zone Reading, which happens from time to time?
Confidence 2
This was not a mistake (above) as Marcus motioned to his right to get a reaction that direction by the defender, and then Mariota dove to his left and into the end zone for the touchdown!  It was the WRONG READ!  The Oregon QB just felt he could beat him with his athleticism in a small space, and he did!  Holy Crap!
MM beats DE
Confirmation came in the Colorado game (above), when the defensive end was clearly sitting and on the balls of his feet in good position to stop the star QB if he dared to pull the ball.  Marcus had sized up this DE during the game and felt that although the “read” was to hand off — Mariota could beat this guy to the corner.  He subsequently pulled the ball and galloped for a 15-yard gain inside the Red Zone!
My friends — it is clear to me that Marcus has progressed into an advanced level of Zone Reading from the examples of the last two games.  He no longer just checks the man to be Zone Read and looks for “sitting” or not.  He is looking for placement of the defender, the direction of the defender and whether or not this is someone he can outrun to the perimeter.  This next step is exciting to us fans, as we all know the extraordinary speed Marcus has, and now he is arriving at the realization of how far his talents can take him on the football field.  Time to beat a Husky to the corner for a big gain!

“Oh how we love to learn about our beloved Ducks.”

Charles Fischer (FishDuck)

Remember the early days? (Two years ago)

Remember the early days? (Two years ago)



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Charles Fischer

Charles Fischer

Charles Fischer has been an intense fan of the Ducks for thirty years and has written reports on football boards for over a dozen years. Known as “FishDuck” on those boards, he is acknowledged for providing intense detail in his scrimmage reports and in his Xs and Os play analyses. He and his wife Lois, a daughter, Christine, and their dog (Abbie) reside in Eugene, Oregon, where he has been a financial advisor for 30 years serving clients in seven different states. He does not profess to be a coach or analyst, but simply a “hack” that enjoys sharing what he has learned and invites others to correct or add to this body of Oregon Football! See More...

  • DuckNV

    Thanks Charles. Great analysis as always and I appreciate the “moving” gif’s that demonstrate your point.

    I don’t know if it is a new wrinkle or not but I noticed that sometimes there is a leading blocker (sometimes just a shield) for MM when he pulls the ball. Having that little bit of interference turns short gains into long ones.

    • FishStaff

      That lead blocker is to offset the “Scrape Exchange” strategy that defenses will often employ against us, and something I should cover in the future. Thanks!

      • Gabe A.

        Yes, the peel block is used for scrape-exchange but may also be the reason MM keeps on certain plays. He is making very good and “calculated” decisions. Some of the reads are based on expected second level blocks as your Tackle/LB read above. This is why no one can “stop” Oregon but instead can only hope to win the center of play, beat blocks, have great pursuit, and hope for unforced errors (a bad day) a la Stanford game last year. Many plays the defenders don’t know who is being read-optioned on runs or passes! Many defenses in college don’t have the personnel to consistently win the LOS and beat blocks to enable quick pursuit. So, sometimes MM may be making a simple read but a “simple read” in Oregon’s offense is just the key to Pandora’s Box. Great write-up, I really enjoyed.

  • tristanh314

    I enjoyed your write up as always Charles. I prefer the use of the gifs to the slide show format you experimented with.

    A question though: I was under the impression the “zone” in a “Zone Read” referred to the blocking scheme being used by the linemen. You have several sentences with phrases such as “the defender to be Zone Read” as though “Zone Read” refers to the quarterback’s decision. What is the “zone” you refer to in this context? The gap the quarterback is looking to run through?

    Keep up the great work.

  • BrandonG

    Nice job Charles! I liked the .gif’s too!

    Watch Mariota’s feet on the inside zone-read touchdown against Colorado when it was 0-3. He slides along with the running back for a couple of steps. I think it was this delay that got the defender to commit to the running back and open the lane for Mariota. If Mariota hadn’t slid along with the back for those couple of steps, I think the defender would have stayed at home.

  • matt

    Awesome site! I found this while searching for an analysis on Auburn’s defense slowing the Ducks down. Did you guys break that down? I couldn’t find it.

    • FishStaff

      Go into the Directory and look for Fish Reports; there are many there.