Oregon Football Offensive Preview

Oregon is completely loaded at the skill positions on offense. Can a first year quarterback guide the Ducks to a victory over the Golden Bears?

Before the season started, I thought Cal would be undefeated heading into their matchup with the Ducks after cruising through the easy part of their schedule, setting up a matchup of unbeaten teams with the sports world moderately paying attention to this one west coast game’s box score to see who would rise to the top of the Pac-12 North. This sounds like a lot of matchups between Cal and Oregon in recent years— Cal would cruise through their out of conference games, win their first 4 or 5 games, starting receiving some votes in the AP Poll on the verge of national attention if they could upset Oregon, and then, well, Oregon would usually snuff those hopes out. I thought 2020 would be Cal’s year— returning nearly their entire offense, and Oregon due for a regression after losing four year starter QB Justin Herbert to the Los Angeles Clippers (err, Chargers). Cal' would be a dark horse for the Pac-12 North, I thought.

Well, 2020 is not Cal’s year. It’s probably not anyone’s year, save for maybe social hermits and Jeff Bezos. Oregon isn’t doing so hot either after losing last week to their little brother-esque rivals Oregon State, after winning 11 of their previous 12 matchups heading into that week. Now Cal is a must-win for Oregon to keep their Pac-12 North title hopes alive, while Cal is simply fighting for a moral victory and to avoid the embarrassment of a winless season.

Oregon has the best offense in the conference: they lead the Pac-12 in both yards per game (491.8) and points per game (38.5). In what is surely not a good sign, I actually took far too many Oregon highlight clips to even fit them all in this article (I will link to a full album at the end, if you’re interested). If Cal can’t slow the Oregon offense, it’s going to be a long day.

Oregon is loaded with talent at the wide receiver and running back positions. They are led at quarterback by first year starter Tyler Shough (pronounced “shuck”), a dual-threat quarterback that will use the threat of his legs to open up the passing game (reminiscent of Chase Garbers in that respect). I think he’s probably the most promising young quarterback in the Pac-12 this year, although perhaps my expectations of him were a bit too high for this season (a feeling I usually associate with Cal players). If Cal is going to stop the Oregon offense, they are going to do it by stopping QB Tyler Shough.

Quarterback

Style-wise, I think the Chase Garbers comparison is a fair one. Shough will not set the world on fire with his speed, but Oregon will run designed QB-rush plays, and he can always run the ball for a first down if a defense does not account for him. Shough is not afraid to stand in the pocket and take a big hit if it means completing a pass, and he has the accuracy and arm strength to develop into a top-flight quarterback. Luckily for Cal, he’s still growing into the role of starting QB, and although he often does take the time to read through his progressions, he does occasionally make some rookie mistakes. Cal will have to both account for the threat of Shough runs, while also giving him some confusing looks on defense in order to force some turnovers.

Let’s take a look at some clips to demonstrate what I mean.

UCLA absolutely had this play shut down, but Shough uses his athleticism to convert on 3rd and 10 anyway:

Shough does an excellent job of sensing pressure and deciding when to run. Unlike a lot of dual-threat quarterbacks, he’s still looking to make a throw, and is usually scrambling as a last resort:

Oregon will have Shough run the ball as a way to keep defenses honest, and to make sure someone accounts for him on defense:

Okay, so now defense know they need to watch out for Shough running the ball himself. What happens next?

QB Tyler Shough fakes the run to draw in the linebackers and get RB Travis Dye wide open in the middle of the field for the Tebow-like jump pass touchdown.

This was an interesting play by Oregon: UCLA was playing with two really wide split safeties, so by faking the run and drawing in the linebackers, the entire middle of the field was practically empty for RB Travis Dye to run it straight up the middle for 32 yards (or 20 yards after the catch) for the touchdown.

I’m choosing to highlight Shough’s running ability, because it’s the crux of the Oregon offense. However, when given time to throw, Shough does have excellent accuracy and arm strength.

I like this play because Shough stands strong in the pocket even as he’s about to be blown up by an unblocked pass rusher, (LB Jahad Woods) quickly identifies the mismatch (the speedy RB Travis Dye gets picked up by the edge rusher DE Ron Stone Jr, and hits Dye in stride so that he can run it the rest of the way for the touchdown.

A key detail here (that you’ll undoubtedly hear again during the TV broadcast), is that Oregon is playing with a completely new offensive line this year. Their offensive line last year had a combined 222 starts (including soon-to-be top NFL Draft pick Penei Sewell, who is sitting out this season), and their line this year had just 6 combined starts between them heading into this season. Although the line held up well against the relatively weak defensive lines of Stanford and Washington, UCLA and Oregon State were able to accelerate Shough’s decision-making process and coerce him into making mistakes.

UCLA sacked Shough 4 times, and it resulted in his most inaccurate passing of the season thus far, although he was lucky that UCLA was unable to intercept any of his errant throws. Against OSU, he wasn’t quite so lucky:

Rookie mistake: Shough makes his decision after the pre-snap read, stares down and underthrows his receiver, resulting in an interception by CB Nashon Wright.

It will be important for Cal to get pressure on Shough and to take away his run game.

Running back

The starting running back is CJ Verdell, who probably has the most mainstream NFL Draft hype as a Pac-12 running back—although I suspect this has something to do with a lot more people watching Oregon games than, say, Oregon State games. CJ Verdell is a pretty good all-around running back, but I don’t really find that he excels in any one area. It would be easy to say something about his “vision” or “instincts” or something like that, but you can afford to be patient running behind an NFL-caliber offensive line in college (future 1st rounder Penei Sewell, 5th rounder Shane Lemieux, 6th rounder Jake Hanson, and UDFA/practice squad members Calvin Throckmorton and Brady Aiello, etc). The vast, vast majority of CJ Verdell runs involve him running through a gigantic hole opened by the offensive line and picking up a first down or more before anyone even touches him. He’s fast, but doesn’t have breakaway speed; he’s quick, but not extremely elusive; and he’s strong, but not enough to regularly break tackles. He does have good running back habits like always churning his legs forward for extra yards, always falling forward, and so on. If Verdell really wants to make an impression on NFL scouts, this would be the year to do it: he currently sits at 12th in the conference in yards per carry amongst players with at least 20 rushing attempts. I’m always a fan of running backs that create their own yards, which is why I’m lukewarm about Verdell at best.

Still, he does have some nice highlights. Verdell is the type of running back to run through his opponents, not around them. This is one of my favorite highlights of the season:

I mean, who doesn’t love watching a Stanford player go flying? Miezan thinks he’s about to land a big hit on Verdell to keep him out of the endzone, but… nope.

Oregon likes to use their running backs as pass catchers out of the backfield, so here’s Verdell again landing a punishing hit on someone trying to stop him:

Here, Oregon uses Verdell to stretch the field horizontally, and he gets some good blocks from the wide receivers to get the first down.

The player I find to be far more exciting is Travis Dye. I’m a bit skeptical about his listed height and weight (5’10 200 lbs), because he looks to be the smaller, speedier, and far shiftier running back. Dye is the homerun threat out of the backfield.

He’s quite fond of the spin move (you may remember a similar play in his game against Cal):

He can make people miss with some very nice cuts:

Now imagine how hard he’d have been to tackle if Oregon didn’t wear bright highlighter jerseys in the fog?

I also like the way Travis Dye is able to keep fighting through contact:

They also have a goal line specialist, Cyrus Habibi-Likio, but all his clips look the same: picture a guy taking the handoff from 2 yards out and punching it up the middle for a touchdown.

Cal will clearly have its hands full trying to slow down the Oregon run game.

Receivers

Although you may have expected the Oregon passing game to fly off a cliff after replacing Justin Herbert with a new starter, but a big reason it hasn’t is the Oregon receiver corps. What the hell, Oregon? A couple of years ago, they were dropping passes left and right, and now they’re the second best receiver corps in the Pac-12. They would undoubtedly be the best group if it weren’t for all the receivers on the USC payroll— err, roster. In fact, Oregon’s best receiver—Devon Williams—actually transferred from USC, deciding that he’d rather be the #1 receiver at a top football program somewhere else instead of share playing time with a group of other #1-type receivers.

Devon Williams is just ridiculous. He is a superb route runner, he has fantastic hands, and he’s also just bigger and stronger than the players that will try to guard him.

This is a common issue when teams play man coverage against USC receivers:

And here’s the Pac-12’s leading tackler, linebacker Avery Roberts, trying to take Williams down:

What if you do everything right, you have tight coverage on Williams, and the QB just lofts him a 50-50 ball? Well, expect it to be more like an 80-20 ball:

These are exactly the sort of highlights I take in USC games; I don’t know how you can defend that. And speaking of USC receivers, the brother of former USC WR Michael Pittman Jr (2nd round pick), Mycah Pittman, is also on the Ducks. He’s returning from an injury, but he already has a number of highlight reel catches in his short career:

Again, how do you defend that kind of play-making ability? Ridiculous.

Oregon receivers all had a severe case of the dropsies these past few years, but now these same receivers suddenly have glue for hands.

Here’s senior WR Johnny Johnson III:

WR Johnny Johnson III makes this catch despite pass interference by CB Ethan Bonner (who Shough apparently hates for some reason), although it was overturned after replay review as he makes the catch out of bounds.

And here’s senior WR Jaylon Redd with an insane acrobatic catch:

It’s also worth pointing out that Jaylon Redd is also used in the Oregon run game, frequently running the ball on jet sweeps like this one (this looks like a handoff, but these are sometimes “passes” when the QB flips the ball forward like he’s supposed to, to eliminate fumbles):

The Oregon receivers have really stepped up in order to help out their new quarterback.

Conclusion

Oregon has great running backs and great receivers. If earlier games are any indication, their offense is probably going to score a lot. But Oregon has been getting into offensive slugfests with almost everyone, because their defense has been bad—like, slightly worse than Cal bad. This game will probably come down to whether or not Cal can keep up with Oregon on offense. Cal doesn’t need to shut down the Oregon offense (nor can they be reasonably expected to), they just need to slow them down enough for Cal’s offense to be able to keep up. Justin Wilcox is still looking for his first win against his alma mater, so maybe we’ll see something interesting, like a game plan to eat up clock and minimize possessions for the Oregon offense or something, I don’t know. It’s a tall order, but at least now we can all be pleasantly surprised if Cal squeaks out a win from somewhere.

Go Bears.

For the full gallery of clips of the Oregon offense, see here: Oregon Offense GIFs