PALO ALTO, Calif. -- We know Oregon has speed. Chip Kelly might as well have it printed on his business card:
Chip Kelly, head coach, Oregon. “I recruit speed.”
Speed at the skill positions, speed in which they get off plays and speed in which they execute those plays.
In the time it took you to read this, Oregon has run four plays and gained 72 yards.
But it’s what they do with that speed that makes them so dangerous.
Let’s take a look at what Oregon does on offense that makes them so potent.
Setting up in the shotgun, a standard run play starts with the double-option. Quarterback Darron Thomas reads the defensive end and then decides whether to hand off to one of his blistering backs if the defensive end dives or he keeps it himself.
Simple enough. But then…
Oregon starts bringing slot backs across in a fly motion or arc motion which adds a pitch element -- turning the double option into the triple option. They’ll also do this out of a triple-I formation or split backs -- which is what you would see from traditional wishbone teams, only the Ducks do it out of the shotgun.
Getting tougher. But then…
Thomas starts reading the man inside of the defensive end -- be it an inside linebacker or nose guard in the 3-4 scheme -- and it becomes a mid-line option.
Getting a lot tougher. But then…
Oregon pulls one of its athletic guards on a trap block and Thomas fakes the dive and follows the trap.
Getting really hard now. But then…
Eight or nine defenders have been sucked in and are committed to the run and Thomas pulls off the play-action -- or simply spreads out his receivers to create crater-sized pockets in the secondary.
By the way, they will do all of the above out of multiple formations, from the hurry-up and with the nation’s leading rusher LaMichael James -- or the equally fast Kenjon Barner or De'Anthony Thomas -- standing next to or behind Thomas. Starting to the get the picture?
“It’s pretty tough,” said linebacker Jarek Lancaster, who then corrected himself. “Actually, it’s really tough. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. They do a lot of different things. But we’ve put in some really good calls that have made it as simple as possible for us … The type of defense we have is built-in to stop those runs. Just play your man and don’t be a hero out there. That’s how you do your job.
“No freelancing on these guys because they will burn you if you freelance.”
A defensive coach whom I admire greatly once told me there is no way to stop the triple-option on a chalkboard because the defense is always outnumbered.
Some pretty doom-and-gloom stuff if you happen to play defense for the boys in red. But there are ways around it – option rules that players can adhere to in order to minimize the impact of what Oregon can do offensively.
“What Chip and the guys do, they do a great job picking different formations every week,” said Stanford co-defensive coordinator Jason Tarver. “What he’s shown, he’ll run the same play out of different formations. He uses all of that speed he has to cross your vision.”
And then you start thinking. Too much.
“If you think about all of those things when you are on the field, that’s when you get into trouble,” said safety Michael Thomas. “ … Coaches are coming up with a game plan that is very simple for us and allows us to go out and play fast. They are going to have motions and move guys around. You can’t get caught up in all of that. You just have to line up and play fast.”
An important key for Stanford is to stay multiple on defense. Keep changing up the looks. Keep changing up the formations and the blitz patterns so that Thomas’ reads are increasingly difficult. Teams that become stagnant in their alignments make it easier for Thomas to make his reads as the game progresses. The more multiple Stanford can be, the tougher it will be Thomas to make a clean read.
“That’s their pace,” Tarver said. “Their pace goes so fast that they want the simple looks so they read you in the same spot all of the time. The biggest thing you have to do is be ready and play sound. We’re a multiple-look team anyway.”
Stanford head coach David Shaw said there is no way to simulate Oregon’s players in practice. But he can simulate the pace. He’s running two scout teams -- right when one gets done, the other is on the line ready to go. The safeties have to react quickly and make the calls in a short amount of time so they can get a feel for how quickly Oregon moves.
And there is always the trap of getting away from what you do well to try to stop a certain play.
“You gotta remember, this game is being played by 18-22 year olds,” Shaw said. “And you asked them to do a lot against an offense that does a lot. There is a lot of variance in there where one guy just has to be out of position to give up a big play. You want to give multiple looks, but you have to trust your base defense to a certain degree because the guys know it and they know where to line up.”
Every play is a chess match. A 2-yard Oregon run might be setting up another play two drives later. Likewise a Stanford blitz might be setting up a different coverage later in the drive.
“This is the kind of game where you better be on your best behavior schematically,” Shaw said.