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Inside Oregon's Split Zone RPO That Wreaked Havoc Against Ohio State

Ducks offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead kept the Buckeyes guessing with a new take on an old college football classic.

When you hear the term triple option, you may think it’s the old-school flexbone look that only survives at the FBS level thanks to the service academies' reliance on small linemen. But that ignores the way football has trended lately and those infamous three letters “R, P, O,” which stand for Run Pass Option. It is the new-school triple option, which Oregon used to power their massive 35–28 win over Ohio State.

But first, a play from earlier in the game. It’s not the same formation but it is a similar blocking action. The offensive line blocks one way, and the tight end comes back across the formation to block the edge defender. Here it’s No. 9 Zach Harrison.

It’s simple enough, and split zone blocking action is something Ohio State is fairly familiar with themselves. In the past, it’s been referred to as “crunch” in the Buckeyes’ own playbook, and it was the catalyst to Trey Sermon’s career rushing day in the 2020 Big Ten Championship Game.

But here, Oregon offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead tweaks it. They’ve run this RPO before, albeit out of some different formations. When the Ducks lined up in this specific shotgun set with three wide receivers to the offense’s right, they created a void and played within that open space. Instead of blocking Harrison, Oregon’s tight ends left him alone and allowed quarterback Anthony Brown to read him.

Oregon-split-zone-rpo

When Harrison (red arrow) crashes down the line of scrimmage to chase the running back, Brown simply pulls the ball out of his RB’s chest. In effect, Harrison has been blocked without anyone needing to put a body on him. If linebacker Teradja Mitchell (gray arrow, who is in man coverage on tight end DJ Johnson) doesn’t follow Johnson (green arrow), or is a step slow in doing so, Brown could simply flip the ball out to his tight end for the outlet, but more on that later. For now, it’s first down Ducks, and they’d score a few plays later.

Oregon came back to the play later in the game to produce the longest gain of the day, CJ Verdell’s 77-yard touchdown run to give the Ducks a 14-point lead early in the third quarter.

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This time, Harrison stays home instead of crashing down the line of scrimmage and Mitchell comes down to take away the running threat  instead of taking the tight end. Instead, middle linebacker Tommy Eichenberg is responsible for the tight end and handles him in man coverage which is, as the broadcast helpfully points out from another angle, a problem. It leaves nobody home up the middle and if an offense can create this 1-on-1 with a running back and a safety, they’ll take it 100 times out of 100.

This play becomes particularly backbreaking when you add the fact that it was third down and Ohio State’s offense was a stop away from getting off the field. Instead, they entered into a hole from which they were unable to dig out. As Oregon tried to ice the game late in the fourth quarter they came back to this play and showed the third option.

Like I said earlier, if the linebacker is a touch slow, Brown has an easy option to just flip it out to the tight end. Harrison and Mitchell take away the run on this final play. But there’s a different middle linebacker in the game. Cody Simon replaced Eichenberg, and his momentary indecision on whether to follow the tight end or plug the hole lets Brown flip the ball out to Johnson and keep the game-sealing drive alive.

This is the same play out of the same formation to give Oregon three different ways to attack a defense. If you want to be very technical, the wide receivers at the top of the screen are actually running a screen action in two of these plays, so if Oregon had a numbers advantage on that half of the field, it could have given the Ducks yet another option on this play. But as we see here, three is plenty to get the job done.

With the game on the line in the biggest win in the Mario Cristobal era, Oregon turned to a new-school version of an old staple. Maybe it wasn’t the triple option, but it was a triple option. 

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