Charles Dickens famous opening to A Tale of Two Cities perfectly captures Oregon football and illustrates the vast range of emotions that its fans have endured in the last five years.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…
A Tale of Two Cities
Each season has been a wild ride of hope, excitement, and dreams that were equally tempered with disappointment, despair, and adversity. 2014 was an even more apt example of this.
A Tale of Two Games
Oregon faced Arizona on two occasions last year, presenting a microcosm of its program. In the first game, despite being heavily favored, the Ducks were upset 31-24 on their home field, potentially removing themselves from national championship contention. Then the Ducks ripped off seven consecutive wins to secure a rematch in the PAC-12 Championship game. With the second chance, Oregon orchestrated a blowout 51-13 victory, and secured a place in the play-off.
Obviously many factors played a role in the outcomes of the two games.
In the upset, Arizona was (much like in 2013) able to run the ball effectively by gaining 208 yards on 55 carries. There were also a few questionable calls, but that appeared to cut both ways to some extent. Finally, there was the constant breakdown in pass protection, as Marcus Mariota was under heavy pressure for much of the game, suffering five sacks and committing two fumbles, one of which occurred on a potential game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter.
The PAC-12 Championship, however, was much different. First, Oregon’s defense was stifling. Second, Oregon offensively racked up 51 points, 627 yards, and didn’t allow any sacks.
Pass Pro in the Upset
Oregon’s offensive line was plagued by injuries throughout the 2014 season and the plague started early. During the pre-season, Tyler Johnstone suffered a season ending injury, and then Ducks lost guard Haniteli Lousi and right tackle Andre Yruretagoyena against Michigan State. Then the critical blow came in the loss of senior tackle Jake Fisher early in the Wyoming game. These injuries led to the necessity of starting walk-on Matt Pierson and true freshman Tyrell Crosby at the tackle positions for both the Washington State game and the Arizona game.
This youth and inexperience obviously presented problems against Washington State as the Ducks allowed seven sacks and scraped out a 38-31 victory on the road. The following week we saw the previously mentioned upset loss to Arizona.
Let’s take a look at how the inexperience on the line directly impacted Oregon’s ability to pass protect.
As the play above begins, we see that Arizona is only bringing three players in its pressure and Oregon has six players in its protection scheme. Six on three is typically pretty good odds. However, when communication breaks down and a young player over-commits, we can see how it can lead to a disastrous result.
As the nose tackle (above) presses up-field and gains penetration into the backfield, the left guard takes note and prepares himself to assist to the inside. A general rule of pass protection when uncovered is to assist where needed, starting inside and working to the outside. In the case above, this leaves the tackle in a one-on-0ne situation with the defensive end. Still, the play is in decent shape and the pocket is holding as the play action occurs.
We see above that the young left tackle over-commits to the outside, and Marcus Mariota steps up in the pocket as a result of the penetration and pressure provided by the nose tackle. The defensive end capitalizes on the over commitment of the tackle and the vacated left guard to make an inside move to the quarterback.
Mariota has nowhere to go as the pocket collapses. He takes a shot from his backside and fumbles on the play, eliminating an opportunity for Oregon to score before the half.
If the Ducks (above) had been able to score a TD at this point, they would have went into halftime with a 14-3 lead and the outcome of the game may have been different.
As the play begins above we see that once again, Arizona is only bringing pressure with three defenders.
Immediately the young offensive tackles (above) are overwhelmed by the defensive ends as both are bull-rushed deep into the backfield.
Mariota has little choice (above) but to try to escape from the collapsing pocket. In this case Mariota is forced to flatten his release because of the linebacker presence. This gives Scooby Wright an opportunity to peel off of his blocker and do what he does best…
…strip the football in the fifth sack given up by Oregon in the contest. This turnover (above) sealed the victory for Arizona in its second straight upset of the Ducks in consecutive years.
I still dispute whether the possession was lost before his knee was down…
Pass Protection in the PAC-12 Championship Game
Fortunately for the Ducks, several of their injured lineman returned to play and their young players gained much needed experience in the seven games between the two contests. The result, we will see, is a much better example of pass protection, and the reward of an explosive play.
As the play begins above, Arizona is bringing a six-man pressure against Oregon’s six-man protection.
Once again, the pocket of protection forms early (above) in the development of the play. The back steps up inside to protect the A-gap and the line does a good job of stalemating the pass rush.
With the offensive line (above) creating a solid stalemate at the line of scrimmage, Mariota gets a read on the secondary and takes note of the free pass-rusher coming from the right side. He has enough time to make a decision and throw the ball.
Mariota’s pass is dead-on to a wide-open Charles Nelson running down the seam. The play goes for 73 yards and sets up a Mariota rushing touchdown a few plays later.
What a difference healthy offensive linemen can make!
As I indicated above, no game can be reduced down to a single factor. It is beneficial, however, to analyze games and take a closer look at some of the nuances that occur over the course of a 60-minute game. In the examples above, we saw how youth and experience on the offensive line can create difficult situations for an offense to work with. In my experience as an offensive line coach, this is always much more noticeable in pass protection as it is typically more complex, requires a greater level of communication, and in the case of the offensive tackle, is one of the most difficult situations in football.
If a team finds starts two inexperienced players at tackle, there will be growing pains. On a positive note, however, this can lead to young players having a great deal of experience and this bodes well for the future.
So as we find ourselves in the spring of hope after a season that embodied both the best of times and the worst of times, we can look forward to a 2015 season of Light. And once again, Oregon fans have everything before them.
I may be in New York, but “Oh how we love to learn about your beloved Ducks!”
Coach Levi Steier
Oregon Football Analyst for CFF Network/FishDuck.com
Albany, New York
Featured photo by Craig Strobeck
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