Warning: this post will only be of interest if you're a fellow huge Ducks fan (but I wouldn't be surprised if some Huskies or Beavers read it and comment).
So here I sit roughly 24 hours after the conclusion of the Ducks 40-27 loss to LSU in the hugely-anticipated Cowboys Classic opener for each. I've had ample opportunity stew over the game and outcome and have read way too many articles and tweets devoted to the game. The storylines are mostly consistent and simple: the Ducks can't win the big game (still) and LSU again demonstrated the SEC's superiority by dominating Oregon for a big win.
First things first. It's true, the Ducks still haven't proven they can win the big game on the big stage – particularly a game outside of Autzen Stadium (more on this later). They are 0-4 under Chip Kelly in match ups against Top 15 teams who have had four weeks or longer to prepare for the Ducks. As I said, I'll get into this more later, but I think it's overly simplistic – and probably also wrong – to assume that if you simply give good teams time to prepare for the Ducks offense, they'll shut it down.
Now regarding the second point, it simply isn't true that LSU dominated the Ducks in this game. The Ducks simply made too many mistakes against a very good team and LSU played mostly error-free, composed and controlled football. The Tigers played like a team that is used to playing on such a big stage and their approach reflected this mentality. Leading up to the game, you didn't hear any LSU players talking about how the game was bigger than the BCS Championship – and that the season would be lost if they lost (as Darron Thomas stated during the week). Yes, this was a big game. But LSU is very used to big games. And this is where playing in the SEC is a huge advantage. But again, more on this point later as well (as it ties to my earlier point).
But lets get a few facts clear. Oregon out-gained LSU 335 to 273 yards. Obviously not a great showing by the Ducks offense – but it wasn't totally stifled either. On the other hand, LSU's QB didn't even have 100 yards on the night – and completed fewer than 50% of his passes. Oregon's defense played very well against a stout LSU team – the Tigers TD drives were 75, 21, 41 and 39 yards. Now what LSU did do very well was convert its opportunities into points. While the Ducks only managed a field goal from an LSU fumble deep in its own territory, the Tigers scored TDs off of 3 Ducks fumbles. Sorry folks, this isn't domination by one team over the other. It's excellent execution on one side of the field – and lack thereof on the other. I know it's just semantics but the semantics help form a perception – and this fuels a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy among the sports media. Leading up to the game, I heard many pundits talk about how LSU's bigger/stronger lines would be the difference in the game. And while both played well, they weren't the difference in the game – but that was still included in many post-game reports (they had to validate their earlier statements).
Anyway – enough of that…lets get back to the football itself and quick observations/opinions:
What happened to the "option" part of the Ducks spread offense?
The Ducks offense has been most deadly when the defense has had to worry about who will carry the ball on any given read/option play. When the offense is humming, it's been a blur of Dennis Dixon or Jerimiah Masoli and up through November of last year, Darron Thomas either faking the hand off and sprinting through a gap, or handing it off (usually for a gain because the defense is collapsing on the QB) or throwing a quick bubble screen or slant pass (because the match up favors receivers).
Last night against LSU, DT didn't have his first carry until the 4th quarter. It seemed that nearly every run was a basic hand off, with an expectation that RBs LaMichael James or Kenjon Barner would find holes with zone block reads. Without having Thomas as a legitimate threat to run on any given play, the Ducks removed a key playmaker – but more importantly, made it incredibly easy for LSU to key on Ducks RBs on any running play.
The Ducks have also used the option-pitch play very successfully with their receivers (see: Arizona game last season) – but didn't run any pure option-pitch plays all night against LSU. There was also a surprising lack of mis-direction type of plays. When you're playing a defense as aggressive and fast as LSU, it's not uncommon to try to use those qualities against a defense by trying to get them to pursue one direction, and run a play the other direction. The Ducks actually did run a successful misdirection play that resulted in their 3rd TD (and pulled them within 33-20 in the 4th quarter). But on their next possession, they simply dropped DT back into the pocket on pass plays – and gain -1 yard on five plays.
Why isn't Thomas running the ball more in big games?
Interestingly, this has received very little attention from the media (even Ducks beat writers). But to my earlier point, when Thomas (or whoever the QB is in the Ducks system) can run the ball, it opens the running game tremendously. In big wins against USC and Stanford last season, DT had 8 carries for 42 yards vs the Trojans (while LMJ had 36 carries for 239 yards) and 15 carries for 117 yards vs. Stanford (while LMJ had 31 carries for 257 yards).
Against Auburn, Thomas had a very different line: 8 carries for -6 yards. It should be noted that sacks are counted in these stats so it isn't a true reflection of how many "real" rushing attempts Thomas had. But he was extremely tentative in the game – beginning in the opening drive when he had a clear first down if he would have kept the ball and ran – but he opted to pitch it to James (which resulted in a loss for the Ducks).
Against LSU Thomas had 2 carries for 12 yards.
So the question again is, why isn't he running more in these games? Was he told specifically not to run unless necessary (for fear of injury)? Could be – the Ducks were down to only one experienced QB when they reached the BCS Championship game last season and Kelly may have simply wanted to keep Thomas out of harm's way (and it almost worked). But would he be this concerned in the opening game of the year? Maybe – at least for this game. I'm guessing he wants to give the backup QB game time experience to break him in – but probably not in a hostile environment in front of 90,000 fans.
Or it could simply be Thomas in these games. Who knows? Regardless, it has had an obvious negative impact on Oregon's rushing attack.
If the Ducks are going to be successful against good defenses, they need to stick to their offense and run the option (and use the QB as a weapon). Otherwise they're going to have a huge drop off in production.
Why have the Ducks gone 0-4 against Boise State, Ohio State, Auburn and LSU in past 3 years?
As I mentioned earlier, the prevailing opinion in the media and college football world is that if you give a good team enough time to prepare, they will figure out ways to stop the high-powered Oregon offense. The results seem to back up this theory as the Ducks have been held under their scoring average in each of these games. But there is another fact that hasn't been mentioned that even I didn't think much about until earlier today: while 3 of the 4 games were on "neutral" sites (BSU was at Boise State), their opponents had an obvious advantage in the number of fans at each game (Rose Bowl, BCS Championship and Cowboys Classic). These games weren't at Autzen Stadium.
In addition, all of these games had huge build-ups and media exposure. The Boise State game was the first game of the 2009 college football season (and was going to be Oregon's opportunity for revenge for a 2008 loss to the Broncos). The Rose Bowl was the Ducks first appearance in the game since 1994 (and was going to complete the team's redemption from the early season turmoil that surrounded it after the Blount incident). The BCS Championship hype and build up speaks for itself – and the run up to the LSU game was nearly as big as the BCS Championship (maybe even more so, given the months of build up that led to the game).
The record shows that the Ducks are extremely good – no, make that great – when playing at Autzen Stadium (especially under Kelly). They have demolished nearly every team that has visited the past two years – and I don't think it's a coincidence at all. Autzen is a huge homefield advantage for the Ducks, not only because of the deafening crowd and its impact on opposing offenses, but more importantly, for its relative silence while the Ducks have the ball. They clearly feed off the energy of the crowd and can get into their rhythm offensively.
But put the Ducks into a hostile environment (even one that is supposed to be neutral) and add the Big Game element? They are clearly a different team. They get rattled easily. Last night they were called for penalties on 3 of the first 4 plays and made the aforementioned turnovers. Against Auburn they sputtered and played tentatively. Against Ohio State they had a critical fumble while driving for a game-changing TD. Against Boise State they couldn't even get a first down until the third quarter. In all cases they had to deal with LOUD opposing crowds who made it very difficult for the offense. And yes, of course in each case they were also playing against very good defenses and that had an obvious impact.
But ultimately, I think this is the hurdle the Ducks need to clear to move from a good/very good team to be considered of the nation's elite. They need to figure out how to treat the "Big Game" as just another game and avoid getting too caught up in the hype that leads up to such games. And they need to win these Big Games outside of Autzen Stadium.
How do they do this? Good question. Chip Kelly seems to have the right approach as he says and does the right things publicly leading up to these games. He talks about how every game is the same – it's that week's "Super Bowl" for the Ducks. But I'm not sure this has resonated for the players in these big moments.
Maybe these are just more growing pains for the Ducks and the program. The teams mentioned above all have a strong history of playing in high-visibility, high-stress games (yes, even Boise State, especially the last 8-10 years). They have learned how to approach and handle these games, and even Ohio State had to recently deal with the label of being unable to win the "Big One" with a string of BCS losses (until they beat the Ducks in the Rose Bowl).
Hopefully the Ducks will have another opportunity to be on a big stage later this season and will turn the painful lessons learned these past 3 years into a positive result.
Posted via email from davidkaufer’s posterous