After 1365 yards, 113 points and enough highlights to fill up the entire Pac-12 postgame show, fans around the nation are still asking, “What makes Oregon’s offense so good?”
The easy answers are Oregon’s off-the-charts talent, timely play calling and mental fortitude. But as I broke down film from Saturday at the Coliseum, it was obvious that the Ducks’ offensive line is a massive element to their offensive success.
They are not the biggest offensive line in the nation, averaging 299 pounds per player. Nor are they the most highly recruited, with zero five-star recruits.
But they understand Chip Kelly’s scheme, and their movement at the start of each snap forces defenses to play on their heels. The first drive of the USC game is a great example.
On the first play, the offensive line is in a simple man protection scheme and USC drops into its zone responsibilities, a traditional defense. Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota goes through his progression and easily finds wideout Josh Huff (#7) for a nine-yard gain, as USC linebacker Dion Bailey (#18) races to cover running back Kenjon Barner (#24).
On Oregon’s second snap, watch as the offensive line zone blocks the Trojan defense to the left. The defense flows to where the OL steps, and Trojan linebacker Hayes Pullard (#10) follows Mariota, playing over the top of the defensive line in case Mariota keeps the rock. T.J. McDonald (#7) flows downhill for the pitch man, who happens to be De’Anthony Thomas (#6) in this instance. How Pullard and McDonald play this snap is critical.
Once Chip Kelly recognizes how the USC defense is going to play when his offensive line flows left, he calls a play that looks exactly the same by his five down linemen. This time, the backfield action alters: While McDonald flows downhill again to cover his man (Colt Lyerla #15), cornerback Nickell Robey (#21) allows his eyes to get caught up in Mariota’s fake, as he thinks Huff is on a path to block McDonald. But Huff ends up running a corner route and gaining 29 yards.
Wasting no time, Kelly calls the same action up front on the very next snap. This time, Pullard (#10) remains in the box for a potential run and McDonald (#7) doesn’t flow downhill. Thus, Lyerla finds himself open in the flat for an easy 14 yards.
Now imagine what could be going through a USC defender’s head at this point. The Trojans have seen base protection in the quick game on the first snap, an offensive line zone blocking left next and the passing game going backside multiple times on the next few snaps. Quite simply, the defenders are having difficulty reading run or pass because of Mariota’s fakes coupled with the offensive line’s consistent footwork.
On the final play of this drive, the Ducks go back to base protection as Mariota gives a token fake to Barner (#24), which catches USC’s linebackers flat-footed in zone coverage. The outside linebacker lined up over Thomas (#6) in the slot fails to re-route him, as he thinks there is a chance that Barner may get the handoff. Furthermore, middle linebacker Lamar Dawson (#55) gets caught reading run and doesn’t get depth, allowing the Ducks to find the end zone in a swift 65 seconds.
Fast forward to the final scoring drive of the game for Oregon, and Kelly again calls for his offensive line to zone block to the left. Only this time, Barner follows the O-line’s path and remains on his course, going untouched to the end zone and into the Heisman discussion.
If these teams meet again in the Pac-12 Championship Game, look for USC to alter its defensive game plan as the Ducks’ offense continues to roll in 2012 behind an unheralded but proven offensive line.
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