Let’s go back to the beginning of the season, greener pastures. Regardless of what team you support, there was nothing but excitement about the potential for your football team’s upcoming roster, with the possible exception of Ohio State. There was no shortage of hype around Oregon football prior to 2018, especially the offense, including a handful of players who flirted with All Pac-12 distinctions. Justin Herbert was squarely in the mix for best QB in the conference, while a talented cast of running backs and offensive linemen were highly regarded.
After dominating offensively against Stanford and California, there were between three and five different players who were making a case as the absolute best in the Pac-12 at their position. Justin Herbert and Dillon Mitchell were tearing it up, while C.J. Verdell was running behind a prolific offensive line that was getting nationwide attention. Freshman tackle Penei Sewell was making a strong case for Pac-12 Freshman of the Year. Then the Washington game happens and while Oregon continues to play well, even while the big plays dried up and the offensive lineman started going down. Sewell and Dallas Warmack got banged up, with Sewell suffering a major injury that exposed a lack of depth on the offensive line. Oregon’s offense went from explosive to anemic in a manner of weeks, leaving us wondering what happened.
Keen observers of Oregon football will point to two flaws: the offensive line sharply decreasing in quality due to injuries, and a lack of creativity in their playcalling. I’ve performed a case study on how Oregon performed on first down over the course of conference play. Before we dive into each game here are two metrics to know – “big plays” are defined as twenty yards or more, essentially picking up the first down and more, and “success percentage” is defined as gaining more than one-third of the distance to the first down marker, which is almost always at least four yards since we are looking at first down exclusively.
First, during the Stanford game, Oregon ran the ball 64% of the time on first down, gaining 6.4 yards per rush. They also passed for 5.5 yards per throw, for a total of 6.1 yards per play and three big plays on the night. This healthy mix of runs and passes resulted in a solid fifty percent success percentage. Oregon’s offense was effective on first down against Stanford, favoring the run but finding success with both.
Against California we saw a similar story, once again choosing to run the ball 68% of the game. The running attack averaged a similar 6.5 yards per play, while the first down passes posted a ridiculous 16.3 yards per play. The 9.7 averaged yards per play on first down was inflated by five big plays but Oregon found themselves with another solid 50% success rate. Another week of explosive Oregon offense and another week of moving the ball well on first down.
The Washington game undercut the explosive quality of Oregon’s attack but the team still shined. The team ran the ball on first down 71% of the game, for a healthy 5.3 yards per rush. They also passed for 5.1 yards per play, leaving the combined offensive push at 5.2 yards. While the rushing game and overall offense performed a whole yard worse than the first two games, they found themselves at an incredible 65.6% success rate. Despite being limited to only one big first down play all night, the running game was consistently able to pick up at least 4 yards and grind it out to overcome the Huskies.
Falling behind early against Washington State resulted in Oregon running on only 38.5% of first downs. The run game picked up 4.9 yards per play, while passing remained steady at 6.4 yards per play. Falling under five yards per play was distressing for Oregon, but with four big plays the team was still able to put points on the board. Unfortunately, a 40.7% success rate on first downs left the Ducks scrambling behind the chains a bit. The offensive line woes and a good gameplan from the Cougars complicated things further. With Oregon averaging between 25 and 30 first down plays in a game, not getting four yards on an additional two or three plays can kill a drive and take points off the board.
And finally, Arizona. The Ducks struggled in this one, running the ball 52% of their first down plays, but for only 3.5 yards per rush. The passing remained steady at 6.4 yards per play, but with only one big play, Oregon’s strength became their weakness. An impressive and explosive running game that could break off big plays and grind out long drives dried up as Oregon only managed a 34.6% success rate on first downs. If the Ducks want to wake up against UCLA at home this Saturday, it starts with the offensive line stabilizing and the offense being able to gain four yards on first down.
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