Shhh!! Oregon can play a little defense too

Matt Lowe

October 25, 2012 at 1:10 pm.

Oregon's defense has been smothering opponents when its had to this season. (Scott Olmos-US PRESSWIRE)

Ever since offensive guru Chip Kelly took over the Oregon football program in 2009, all the Ducks have been doing is winning— and winning big.

With its lightning quick spread attack and array of great athletes on offense, Oregon has run roughshod over almost every opponent it has played the last four seasons — and usually in impressive fashion. Dating back to the year Kelly took over for longtime coach Mike Bellotti (1995-2008), who owns the school record for most wins by a head coach (116-55), the Ducks have a 41-6 record, which includes back-to-back 12 win seasons and this year’s 7-0 start.

But in 2012, unlike in previous years past, Oregon is fielding perhaps the best defense in the Kelly era. Combine that with an offense that currently sits No. 2 nationally in scoring offense (51 ppg), No. 4 in rushing offense (317.1 ypg) and No. 8 in total offense (529.1 ypg), and it’s a double whammy that’s leaves opponents gasping for air.

Entering Week Nine of the collegiate football season, Oregon’s defensive numbers aren’t staggering, nor are they poor considering the team’s offense. The Ducks currently rank 28th nationally in scoring defense (20.1 ppg), 42nd in run defense (136.1 ypg), 65th in pass defense (230.6 ypg) and 46th in total defense (366.7 ypg). But those numbers are misleading, and here’s why.

Almost every game Oregon has played this season has been over at the conclusion of the first half. In Game 1, Oregon was up 50-10 at half over a pretty good Arkansas State team.  In Game 2, the Ducks had a 35-6 lead over a solid Fresno State team at the break. In Game 3, UO had a 35-7 lead over Tennessee Tech. In Game 4, Kelly’s team held a slim 13-0 lead over an explosive Arizona team at the break, but went on to shut out the Wildcats 49-0. In Game 5, the Ducks were only up by four, 23-19, over Washington State, but stormed back to rout the Cougars 51-26. In Game 6, Oregon held a 35-7 halftime lead at home against Washington.  And in Game 7, in front of a national audience, the Ducks jumped out to a 43-7 halftime lead at Arizona State.

So out of the seven games the Ducks have played, only two teams (Arizona and Washington State) were even remotely close to hanging with UO at the half. That tells me that the Nick Aliotti’s Oregon defense is doing its job and doing it well, even if the defensive numbers don’t jump off the stat sheet.

Another thing that tells me, is that when a team can score like Oregon does, its defensive abilities may be masked somewhat due to the games getting so far out of reach so fast. Hey, when a team is up by 40 late in the third quarter, is a D-coordinator going to be calling his best plays? No, he’s going to be playing younger guys trying to find more depth. And that’s why teams have had more success against Aliotti’s unit in the second half of games.

Oregon likes getting up on teams early and often to force teams out of their comfort zone. This challenges teams to do things (like go for fourth downs, fake punt etc.) they feel they have to do to stay in the game. This also plays right in to the hands of a salty Oregon defense that has size, speed, athleticism, big-play ability and a lot of depth.

Although it’s not ranked in the upper echelon in pass defense when it comes to FBS leaders, Oregon’s secondary, which is led by Ifo Ekpre-Olomu (12 passes defended; two INTs) and safeties Brian Jackson (32 tackles; five passes broken up) Avery Patterson, has been outstanding. The Ducks rank third nationally with 14 interceptions, four of which were returned four touchdowns, which ranks third in the country, and lead the FBS with 385 interception return yards.

“We’ve got good athletes back there,” Kelly said. “They’ve all got really good hands. They have a good knowledge of the scheme. Avery has good hands. Erick Dargan may have the best hands out of all the guys. Ifo has good hands.  Troy (Hill) has good hands. We have a bunch of athletic guys back there that can catch real well.”

Kelly also talked about the communication between his safeties, who have stepped up their play after team leader John Boyett was lost for the season.

“Our secondary, because of what we do schematically there, has to be in constant communication in we’re they have to be. Who’s playing high or who’s playing low? I think Brian and Avery do a really good job at that. You can also throw (Erick) Dargan in there too.”

In addition to being one of the top ball-hawking teams in the country, Oregon ranks 17th in pass efficiency defense and is tops in the nation in red zone defense, having allowed only 15 scores in 29 chances this season. Kelly talked about why his team defends so well when teams do get inside the Ducks’ 20.

“I think our guys have a great understanding of what we do,” Kelly said. “They are really intelligent group of players and they are really athletic. When the field gets constricted, we’ve got a lot of athletic guys that can cover a lot of ground. And they understand what they’re doing.”

Looking for more evidence that these guys can play despite the offense getting most of the ink? Then look no further than the front seven, which has played a big role in the Ducks ranking seventh in the country in sacks (22).

End Dion Jordan and tackle Taylor Hart are major forces on the defensive line. Jordan, a Butkus Award semifinalist, is a 6-7, 243-pound pass-rushing terror off the edge who is tied with Hart for the team lead in sacks with five. The converted tight end is a game-changer who could be a first-day NFL draft pick.

Like Jordan, Hart offers a lot of height and athleticism on the defensive line. The 6-6, 292-pound junior is an excellent pass rusher from his defensive tackle position, and he’s also active behind the line of scrimmage, as evidenced by his five tackles for loss.

Kiko Alonso, Boseko Lokombo and Michael Clay anchor the defense at the linebacker positions.

The 6-4, 242-pound Alonso currently leads the team in tackles (42) and tackles for loss (eight), but he’s also adept in pass coverage. Alonso has two interceptions and four passes defended, and his range wreaks havoc on opposing offenses.

Lokombo, who scored three defensive touchdowns a year ago, has 17 tackles, a sack and an interception so far this season.  The 6-3, 232-pound strong side linebacker also has four passes defend and a forced fumble to his credit.

Michael Clay is another Duck who has made a big impact on the team’s sound defensive play.  Clay ranks second to Alonso on the squad in tackles (39), and his two sacks are tied for second on the team. Coach Kelly talked about Clay during his weekly press conference when he was asked if he was a “glue” guy on the defensive side.

“I look at Michael as a kid who is has such a great knowledge of our system,” he said. “Not only what he does but how everyone else fits into it. He helps other guys get lined up. Whether that’s a glue guy or coach on the field, he just knows where to be and where everyone else needs to be.

“He has a great football mind, and he truly has a great idea of what we’re doing. He watches so much tape and studies it so much, so he has a great understanding of how we’re going to stop what the offense is doing.”

Clay, like Alonso, is one of a number of Oregon defenders who fly to the ball and makes plays. And making plays is what this year’s Ducks defense is all about.  And that’s why it’s one of the best kept secrets in college football.