CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu
The Oregon defense has been everything fans expected it to be through two games of the 2013 college football season.
While the group has given up a few more yards than it probably should have, the end result has been just 6.5 points per game given up on the scoreboard, good enough for seventh in the country.
Ah, but let's not get too far ahead ourselves with rankings, lest we forget that the mighty offenses of Nicholls and Virginia have been the only tests thus far. But while Oregon may not face a great offense until it heads north to Seattle in mid-October, the Tennessee Volunteers certainly figure to bring a bigger challenge than anything the defense has seen in the first couple of weeks.
The game is at home, and the Ducks should be able to feed off of a frenzied environment filled with screaming fans who want nothing more than to send an SEC team packing in humiliating defeat.
Will the the defense continue to impress on the scoreboard? Can it handle a physical SEC team with NFL-caliber athletes?
Here are the five things the Ducks' defense must prove against Tennessee on Saturday.
Tennessee LT Antonio Richardson
They just don't grow offensive lines anywhere else like they do in the SEC.
Take a gander at the Volunteers' preseason depth chart, specifically the offensive line. What you'll notice is that the five starting offensive linemen average more than 312 pounds.
You should also notice that not a single one of them stands shorter than 6'2", so in other words, Oregon's front seven will have its hands full on Saturday.
The Ducks can counter with physical specimens like Arik Armstead, but on the whole, the line is going to be looking across the line of scrimmage and seeing bigger men.
It may not be the best offensive line the Ducks will face this season, because Stanford holds that honor until proven otherwise. But it's by far the biggest matchup issue for Oregon on Saturday, and if the D-line can hold its own and occasionally get a push, it will be huge for the entire defense.
The matchup to watch here is left tackle Antonio Richardson against whoever decides to enter his territory, whether it's Armstead or Tony Washington from the outside. The Ducks may not face a better tackle this season, so finding a way to neutralize him will be critical in this contest.
Tennessee RB Rajion Neal
The two-headed rushing attack of Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane is another aspect of the Tennessee offense that the Ducks must be able to slow down on Saturday.
The pair have combined to rush for 350 yards and seven touchdowns in just two games, and the running game averages just under 200 yards per game, good enough for 23rd in the country.
Both backs are also gaining more than six yards per carry, a stat no doubt aided by the physical offensive line.
It's the first dangerous rushing attack Oregon has faced, and the Ducks must prove they can slow it down or stop it altogether. In the second half against Virginia, the front seven bottled up any attempts by the Cavaliers to run it up the middle, and I'm curious to see if that can happen again on Saturday.
Once again, the Ducks will certainly face better running backs this season. But this is the strength of the Tennessee offense, and if Oregon can keep up with both Neal and Lane for all four quarters, it will be a very positive sign for the rest of the season.
LB Derrick Malone
Junior Derrick Malone has been a tackling machine this season. He's already made 23 in the Ducks' first two games.
But he and the rest of the Ducks' defense face a much bigger test on Saturday, one that will surely test the inexperience of the linebackers.
While Virginia wasn't without a couple of slippery playmakers, Tennessee will have those kind of guys across the board, putting the onus on Malone and Rodney Hardrick to step up and make plays when they are there to be made.
This won't be anything new for experienced units like the secondary and defensive line. But the young linebacker group must continue to prove it can avoid missed tackles and make big plays.
Against Tennessee, it will have that very opportunity. Can the linebackers seize it?
CB Terrance Mitchell
Through two games, the Ducks have forced six turnovers. The Volunteers have given it up just twice.
While Oregon is known for allowing a fair amount of yards throughout the game, the reason the defense hasn’t allowed many points is because it is one of the best in the nation at forcing turnovers.
In fact, the team led the country in interceptions in 2012. So far, that trend appears to be continuing this season.
But Saturday brings a much stiffer test than the ones from the previous two weeks, and it’ll be interesting to see if the Ducks can continue to force turnovers against teams that aren’t nearly as prone to giving up the ball.
Because it’s only two weeks into the season, we don’t know for sure that Tennessee isn’t going to turn it over three or four times per game once it hits the SEC part of the schedule. But it’s safe to say this team is going to take better care of the ball than Nicholls and Virginia.
While forcing more than three turnovers won’t necessarily mean the Ducks are bound to lead the country in interceptions once again, it’s a good indicator the 2013 defense will follow in the footsteps of the 2012 group and continue to make huge plays that swing the momentum of each game.
S Erick Dargan
Tennessee doesn’t have a prolific passing attack—or at least it’s not where head coach Butch Jones would like it to be.
Quarterback Justin Worley has thrown for just 246 yards in two games. The strength of Oregon’s defense? One could make a case for the defensive line, but the secondary is the answer here. It took Virginia quarterback David Watford 41 pass attempts to throw for just 161 yards.
On Saturday, the unit must flex its muscles and completely dominate the Volunteers’ wide receivers.
We know they like to run the ball and have been doing it well over the first couple of games.
If Tennessee is able to throw it around on Oregon, it would signal a couple of major problems. The first is that the Volunteers would suddenly have an offensive attack with variety and the Ducks’ defense could find itself on its heels rather quickly.
But the second issue has a much larger scope: If Oregon can’t shut down what has been a subpar aerial attack, how is it going to keep up with teams like UCLA, Washington and Washington State?
The defense must prove it can dominate this particular matchup on Saturday.