What HAPPENED to the Oregon Ducks?

Coach Ken Woody Analysis

The question on everyone’s mind is “what happened to the Oregon Ducks?” after they were pasted by a mediocre Arizona team in Tucson. The Duck offense was somnolent and quarterback Justin Herbert sank into a fog, without getting any help from his offensive line, receivers or coaches.

For the second week in a row, coach Mario Cristobal‘s physical running offense was missing in action and when the Ducks can’t run, they can’t pass either. Without an effective rush offense, play action passes don’t count for much. Herbert has a Big-Sky collection of receivers to target and the pass protection did nothing more than afford the Wildcats plenty of times to take shots at Herbert, who was lucky not to be badly injured.

Even with the game out of control and over, there was no sign of relief for Herbert; he just kept taking shots from a poor defense that suddenly was All Pac-12. This is a problem Cristobal must solve quickly; the Ducks look like someone who has suffered a stroke and can no longer be ambulatory or take care of himself. There is absolutely no fear in opponents for Oregon’s offense right now; it appears capable of scoring only two touchdowns per game.

This video above shows how QB Herbert’s passing skills have eroded over the past two weeks. Here, Herbert is flushed out of the pocket to his left. He throws awkwardly without getting square to his target, a wide receiver down field near the left sideline. There are no other receivers in the picture and it is obvious Herbert is pressing and trying to make something happen out of a bad situation.

This pass is under thrown and late, and allows Arizona’s safety time to come across the field and intercept the ball. Herbert had gone over 200 throws on the road without an interception, but this was the first. This play epitomizes the current state of the Duck passing game – frantic, without a lot of options.

Oregon’s Dillon Mitchell, who seems to be the only receiver able to get open, takes advantage of an Arizona secondary breakdown to become wide open (above) for a strike from Herbert. This pass, and a two-point conversion from Herbert, closed the gap to 16-8 for Arizona, but that was as close as the Ducks were going to get on this disastrous trip to the desert.

Mitchell is the leading receiver for Oregon, but Herbert is now targeting him too often, as there are sometimes other receivers in better positions. Herbert’s reliance on Mitchell is leading him to risky throws when Mitchell is covered. There appears to be little effort by the coaching staff to spread the throws to different receivers. As a result, Mitchell is being driven to exhaustion; there could be a better effort made to give him more breaks as he eventually loses his quickness and focus.

There are 17 receivers listed on the Oregon roster. With all the hoopla about recruiting four-star receivers, it is strange to not see more of them get a chance to get in on the action. Duck receivers don’t measure up well against other Northern Division rivals. They have a reputation for having a difficult time getting open versus man coverage and are unreliable in catching the ball at key times.

This play above demonstrates poor fundamentals in alignment and coverage by Oregon’s right corner, who lines up inside the wide receiver to the left of the formation. At the snap, the corner is fooled into losing that alignment, allowing the receiver to beat him on a route he was supposed to deny on the snap.

A defensive back can be fooled in a variety of ways: guessing where the receiver is going, allowing the receiver to get space between him by a head and shoulders move or by changing his direction coming off the line of scrimmage. To lose this position without help inside from a linebacker or safety is very bad; if you can’t stop a post route in this situation, you are going to get beaten like a drum. Opposing teams will see this on film and the corner can expect every opponent to test him on a similar route.

The proper alignment is crucial to effective pass coverage. If players can’t demonstrate this on a consistent basis you have to check the coaching that is, or isn’t going on in practice.

This was an embarrassing mistake (above) that no college team should ever make. An Oregon player, attempting to block on the punt return, does not hear the “peter” call from the safety letting him know that the punt is short and is not going to be returned. When a blocker hears that call, he should immediately stop blocking, find the ball and get out of the way.

The ball bounces and hits the blocker, (who has not listened to the peter call), in the back of the leg, which makes it a free ball (muff) for Arizona to recover. You may recover a muff, but you cannot return it, so the ball becomes dead where the Wildcat player recovered it.

This was just one of several special team gaffes that sullied Oregon’s effort, including a blocked punt that led to an Arizona field goal. These mistakes came from lack of discipline and focus and you must ask if similar mistakes are being made on the practice field during the week before the game.

Arizona floods the left side of their formation, (above) spacing out their receivers to stretch Oregon’s zone defense to its limit. Everyone (corner, safety, outside linebacker) is where he should be. The problem comes when the middle linebacker allows the slot receiver to beat him inside on a post route into the middle of a wide-open middle.

Without any defenders in the area, it is an easy touchdown for the Wildcats, who used their formation to set up the mismatch between Oregon’s linebacker and their slot receiver. This was too easy to give up by a team that is trying to be good; it was more like Big-Sky defense. Perhaps the Ducks should copy this play and run it as its own.


Jim Leavitt has work to do, too…

Oregon’s defense two years ago was just like the defense that the Ducks have played the past two games: undisciplined in alignment, execution and tackling. The good thing is that against other conference opponents (Stanford, Cal, Washington), the Ducks have played solid defense this year, so they should be capable, under the right circumstances.

Why the defense has deteriorated so quickly in the middle of the season is a mystery. If you believe in Chip Kelly‘s axiom that you can “expect” on Saturday what you “accept” in practice during the week, you would suspect that the Ducks have fallen into bad practice habits.

It’s hard to believe you can drill the right things in practice and then forget them on game day, unless there are players who don’t care, which is also hard to believe. Coach Cristobal has referred many times to the fact that his players practice hard and work to set a higher bar on both offense and defense. Lately, it’s not happening and this team is slipping back into 2016.

Coach Ken Woody
Eugene, Oregon

Top Photo by Tom Corno

Mike Bellotti, ESPN analyst and Former-Oregon coach: “Ken Woody’s ability to break down the game with interesting, entertaining insights comes from a career as a college player and coach, influenced by some of the top coaches in football. Woody spells it out in a simple, refreshing, humorous manner.”

Dan Fouts, NFL Hall of Fame, Oregon Ducks quarterback: “Entertaining and easy to understand.”

“Every Oregon fan should have a copy to learn from as I do.” Charles Fischer

Buy the book here to learn from Coach Woody, or give a gift of football, a great gift for the fan who wants to learn and enjoy more of the Duck (or whoever your favorite team is) football experience.

Ken Woody is a former Fox Sports football commentator who played defensive back, receiver and kicker for Oregon from 1966 to 1970. He coached college football for 18 years, including stints as an assistant coach at Oregon, Washington, Washington State and Utah State, and was head coach at Whitman College and Washington University-St. Louis. He writes x’s and o’s, a weekly column in the Register-Guard, RG online coverage of Duck football and is the author of “After Further Review—an inside look at what’s really happening on the football field.” Woody is on KUGN (590 am) 2:45 before kickoff and 30 minutes after each game with coaching and game analysis.

Ken also conducts weekly coaching clinics for fans at Eugene’s Valley River Inn every Thursday during football season at 6:00 PM. The clinics are free and open to the public.

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