Duck Tales: Dan Lanning’s decisions play central role in Oregon’s shocking loss

This is going to be a nuanced conversation, and that’s the whole point: A lot of debates about football strategy should involve fewer discussions about the ultimate decisions coaches make, and more discussions about the thought process which informs the discussions.

There are plenty of instances in a game where both decisions can be reasonable and sensible. A coach can do A or B and have a good rationale for either choice. Coaching criticism is better when the thought process is examined. The decision might be fine, but the thought process and philosophy need to be aligned with the decisions.

This takes us into an analysis of the two big mistakes Dan Lanning made for Oregon in its loss to Washington on Saturday:

THE SURPRISE ONSIDE KICK

Lanning ordered a surprise onside kick in the second quarter with the score tied 10-10.

THE BACKGROUND

Lanning dialed up a surprise onside kick in the second quarter of Oregon’s game versus UCLA on Oct. 22. Oregon recovered, scored a touchdown, and went on to win by 15 points.

THE WASHINGTON RESULT

Lanning’s onside kick against Washington was not recovered by Oregon. The Huskies got three points to break that 10-10 tie and gain a 13-10 halftime lead.

THE COMPARISON

The Oregon-UCLA onside kick came when the Ducks led 17-10 and UCLA had scored a touchdown on its previous possession.

The Oregon-Washington onside kick came when the Ducks were tied 10-10 and Washington had not scored a touchdown on its previous possession.

OREGON-WASHINGTON THIRD QUARTER

Oregon scored 21 points in the third quarter, Washington 14. The game became a track meet in this specific quarter. Nearly half of the game’s 71 total points (35) were scored in this quarter. Take note of that.

OREGON-WASHINGTON SECOND QUARTER

Just 13 total points were scored in the second quarter of Oregon-Washington: Ducks 7, Huskies 6. Washington had scored only three points in the second quarter when Lanning called for the onside kick.

OREGON-UCLA SECOND QUARTER

The Oregon-UCLA second quarter, in which Lanning called for that onside kick, produced 38 points, 28 by Oregon. That was the track-meet quarter in that particular game, creating roughly half of the game’s 75 points.

OREGON-UCLA THIRD QUARTER

Only 10 points were scored in this quarter: Oregon 7, UCLA 3. This quarter was much like the low-scoring second quarter of Oregon-Washington.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Lanning’s onside kick in the second quarter of Oregon-UCLA made sense. The game was a track meet in that quarter, so the value of stealing a possession contained more upside.

Lanning’s onside kick in the second quarter of Oregon-Washington did not make sense. Oregon’s defense was playing well at the time. The risk of giving Washington field position and points was much more considerable. The value of kicking the ball deep was clearly greater, as it regularly is when a team’s defense is playing well in a non-end-of-game situation.

LATE 4TH AND 1 AT OREGON'S 34-YARD LINE

In the final two minutes, with the score tied at 34-34, Lanning went for it on 4th and 1 at his own 34.

Lanning has been very aggressive on fourth downs this year, and he made that philosophy work against UCLA, in which Oregon converted numerous fourth downs and built a large lead because of it.

Let’s be clear here: Going for it — trying to keep the ball and win in regulation without letting Washington’s offense touch the ball — was a good move, at least in terms of a general thought process.

What did Lanning do wrong, then? Let’s examine:

DECISION VERSUS DETAILS

In a context-free world, going for it in a high-scoring game makes total sense. However, decisions are almost always made within a specific context.

Lanning ran that 4th-and-1 play with backup QB Ty Thompson on the field. Bo Nix was pleading on the sideline to come in and run that play. Start there when examining why Lanning erred.

LANNING'S USE OF BO NIX

When one realizes that Lanning allowed Nix to enter the game on Oregon’s last possession after Washington took a 37-34 lead (which was caused by UO’s fourth-down failure), it only makes sense that Lanning should have called timeout, inserted Nix into the game, and used Nix for the 4th and 1.

If Lanning felt Nix was physically unable to play and could not be inserted into the game under any circumstances, it would be a different conversation. He probably should have punted if Nix couldn’t re-enter the game … but Nix did come back in.

Lanning should have called timeout and put Nix in. That was the mistake, not going for it on fourth down.

THE EXPLANATION

Nix is a great QB sneak quarterback, also a great running quarterback. Having him on the field would have forced the Washington defense to account for him, possibly on a QB keeper or bootleg. That definitely affects how the defense anticipates and prepares for a play.

THE RESULT

With Nix not on the field, Washington was able to sell out against the run and crash down in the middle gap, stuffing a handoff from Ty Thompson. Lanning limited his options by not having Nix on the field.

NUANCE

If Nix had been on the field, Oregon might still have handed the ball off, but Nix being there would have made Washington less certain a handoff was coming. That kind of detail means everything in a high-leverage situation where the margin for error is zero.

BOTTOM LINE

Lanning’s big-picture decisions were good. They usually are. The details of situations against Washington — a surprise onside when the offenses weren’t thriving, and not reinserting Bo Nix for the 4th and 1 — were simply not accounted for. That’s where Lanning went wrong, not in the actual decision to go for the first down.

Story originally appeared on Trojans Wire