Why Oregon's Defense Is College Football's Most Under Appreciated Unit

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Why Oregon's Defense Is College Football's Most Under Appreciated Unit
USA TODAY Sports

No college football entity has been consistently overlooked and underappreciated more than the Oregon defense.

There's a reason for this, of course. When your offense regularly posts college basketball totals—they averaged 49.6 points per game in 2012—then those tasked with playing on the other side of the football will obviously take a backseat.

The defense. What defense? The scoreboard is on fire. 

The national perception of Oregon is that it’s strictly an offensive power, a neon machine capable of destroying opponents the way it strains your flat screen mounted on the wall. Forget about having to stop someone. When they can’t stop you, it doesn’t really matter.

It’s not that simple—at least it wasn’t under Chip Kelly’s watch—and the Ducks have somewhat silently produced one of the most complete teams in the country. Under new coach Mark Helfrich, this philosophy likely won’t shift much.

Those who refuse to acknowledge the success of the Ducks’ defense are either a) far too fascinated by all the touchdowns b) not accustomed to enjoying the wonders of late-night Pac-12 football or c) a bit of both.

We should salivate over the scoring, although the defense deserves a little love. Just ask Nick Saban, who would gladly sit in my corner.

It beats that dreaded tempo.

 

Ducks’ D By The Numbers

There are a number of reasons Oregon went to four BCS bowls—and one national championship—in the past four years under Chip Kelly. In this time the Ducks went 46-7 and an astonishing 33-3 in Pac-12 play. 

The offense, of course, contributed a great deal to the success. Since 2010, the Ducks averaged more than 45 points per game. The production and consistency has been remarkable, and they’ve also finished in the top five in total yardage in each of the past three seasons.

Although the defense won’t come close to matching this kind of preposterous production, the gap may not be as large as you’d think. No, we won’t begin to confuse them with Alabama or LSU just yet, but they have more than held their own while operating in a unique situation.

Because the offense is working (and usually scoring) at a frantic pace, the defense rarely catches much of breather. The tempo has gotten more extreme, and the gap between offensive plays is getting even smaller.

Although the system is unique, the defense has done its part. Under defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, it gave up an average of only 22.17 points per game with Chip Kelly standing on the sideline. The low came in 2010 when the Ducks gave up only 18.7 points per game, although last year’s performance wasn’t far behind.

One of the main reasons for Oregon’s defensive success is turnovers. Last year, the Ducks led the nation in interceptions and overall turnovers, and they have become one of the nation’s most active defenses in recent memory.

Nick Aliotti likes to rotate players, especially along the defensive front and at linebacker, and they have become one of the nation’s best teams at generating consistent pressure. Even thought the sack totals aren’t gaudy—they did rank third in the nation in 2011—the variety of looks along with a healthy dose of talent has helped make a difference.

This pressure has made life tough on the offenses, and the results show. Oregon’s turnover rate over the past four years stacks up with anyone in the country, including some of the nation’s best.

Of course, forcing offenses to make mistakes is far from the whole story. We won’t confuse them with two of the finest defenses in the SEC (and the nation) traditionally just yet, but the havoc certainly has made a difference.

 

What About 2013?

Numbers aside, it should be an interesting year for the defense. Although Chip Kelly is taking his talents to sunny Philadelphia, Nick Aliotti remains, as does much of the staff. 

This is good news, although it isn’t all good news.

The Ducks have to replace linebacker/defense end Dion Jordan—who could potentially be the No. 1 pick in this month’s NFL Draft, and very likely a top ten pick—and that’s not all. Kiko Alonso and Michael Clay are also gone, which means there is much production to be replaced in this second level.

Replacing talents such as these won’t be easy, but capable players remain. Boseko Lokomb, Tyson Coleman and Derrick Malone all contributed last season, and they are the next men up.

Trying to fill that hybrid role which Jordan played so beautifully won’t be easy, although sophomore Christian French will likely get first crack. He has similar athletic traits to Jordan, no question, but help will have to come from other places. Jordan’s absence cannot be overstated; he was that special for this team.

While linebacker is a concern, the defensive line is loaded. Injuries hit this team hard last season, and freshmen were asked to contribute right away. They did that and then some.

Arik Armstead is one of the most fascinating players in all of college football. At 6’8” and 290 pounds Armstead has already shown flashes. Massive yet quick considering his unbelievable frame—he also plays basketball, by the way—he will likely become a force in year two.

DeForrest Buckner, another freshman last season, also will log valuable minutes. Buckner checks in around 6’7” so expect plenty of batted passes from this group. Senior Taylor Hart, who led the team with eight sacks, will also return along with a handful of other valuable contributors.

The starting defensive backfield—which led the nations in interceptions last season—will all return.


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