Entering Saturday against the nation's top passing attack, the Ducks were allowing just 189.3 yards per game while surrendering just one passing touchdown on the year. Led by freshman sensation Jared Goff, California was leading the nation with 437 yards per game, throwing eight touchdown passes through three games.
All of that changed on a rainy Saturday night in Autzen Stadium that challenged even the most die hard Oregon fans. The weather was so bad that California head coach Sonny Dykes pulled Goff after he completed just three of six passes for 11 yards in the first quarter.
According to this Associated Press recap on ESPN.com, Dykes pulled Goff because he was unable to maintain a grip on the ball due to the monsoon-like conditions.
"The ball was slipping out of his hand. We're not quite sure why but it was," Dykes said. "So we felt like were having a hard time getting anything done. Couldn't throw it at all. We needed to make a change and it felt like it gave us a better chance to move the football and score some points."
Goff's inability to hold on to the ball opened the door for Zach Kline, the former Under Armour All-American that was beaten out by Goff in the offseason. Kline was able to hold on to the ball while driving California the length of the field. Once the Bears reached the red zone, Kline threw an interception to Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and the route was on.
The numbers have been good, but they don't really tell the whole story for the Oregon defense.
With the combination of Ekpre-Olomu and Terrance Mitchell at cornerback, the Oregon secondary has been highly thought of since last season when Ekpre-Olomu emerged as one of the nation's best corners. With a standout trio of veteran safeties to assist them in run support and in the passing game, the Ducks' last line of defense is as good as it gets.
Led by Goff at quarterback and a talented group of young receivers, California was among the top passing teams in the country entering Saturday night.
Almost every time the Ducks step on the field after the first quarter, they have the kind of lead that forces the opponents to throw the ball much more than they would like.
Oregon's opponents spend most of the time with their offense on the field trying to throw their way back into the game. In spite of the fact that the Ducks face so many offensive plays from their opponents, their pass defense ranks among the best in the country.
In Saturday night's rain-soaked contest, the Ducks used the weather, a dangerous pass rush and an alert secondary to limit the Bears to numbers that didn't even approach what Cal had been putting up through the air.
Maybe it was the backup quarterback, or maybe it was the monsoon in Eugene. Regardless of what caused it, the Ducks' pass defense looks even better now than it had before facing off against Cal's "Bear Raid" offense.
The weather throughout the entire Northwest was severe enough to knock out power to over 26,000 Oregon households. As the schedule moves along, the weather will become a factor more often, but it almost certainly won't be as friendly for the pass defense as it was against Cal.
Oregon QB Marcus Mariota was just 11-of-25 for 114 yards, but he did manage to throw two more touchdowns and run for another.
With games against pass-happy teams like Colorado, Washington State, UCLA and Oregon State still ahead, the Ducks will continue to be tested on the back end. Fortunately for the Ducks, they now have a dangerous front seven that creates havoc near the line of scrimmage.
The defensive line of the Ducks is so deep and versatile that opponents are almost always facing fresh legs in pass protection.
Facing off with players like 6'8", 285-pound Arik Armstead, 6'7", 285-pound DeForest Buckner, 6'4", 315-pound Ricky Havili-Heimuli and 6'4", 297-pound Alec Balducci has a way of quickly wearing down an offensive line. Each of the players mentioned above were high school All-Americans and each of them are backups for the Ducks.
With a physical and nasty defensive line, an athletic group of linebackers that can cover the field at a very high level—along with having one of the best secondaries in school history—falling behind the Ducks is the last thing a team wants to do. Unfortunately for their opponents, that is exactly what happens nearly every time out.
By abandoning the run game and having to go almost exclusively to the pass early in the game, Oregon's opponents are faced with trying to stave off the Ducks' entire defensive arsenal. Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti can use the entire playbook and allow his players to pin their ears back and rush the passer.
Once the quarterback feels the pressure and has to operate in fear while running for his life, he is likely to make some poor decisions. That is when the Oregon corners can team up with safeties Brian Jackson, Avery Patterson and Erick Dargan to make plays with their aggressive style, which has a habit of forcing turnovers at an alarming rate.
The bottom line is this: If a team wants to beat the Ducks, they need to establish the run early, limit turnovers and force the Ducks to defend every type of formation by utilizing a diverse game plan. The way to beat the Ducks is to keep the ball away from their powerful offense and make it into a slugfest.
Oregon fans don't want to hear it, and the way the Ducks are playing makes it a long shot, but their bitter rivals in Seattle might give the Ducks their biggest challenge of the season. Love them or hate them, it is easy to see how much the Washington Huskies have improved in 2013, and their balanced offense could give the Ducks some trouble.
Washington QB Keith Price seems to have regained his 2011 form. Also, along with an improved offensive line, RB Bishop Sankey has become one of the best running backs in college football. A balanced attack like the Huskies is what a team needs if they hope to ground the high-flying Ducks.
The bottom line for any team that hopes to accomplish what USC did in 2011 and what Stanford did in 2012 is to get out in front of the Ducks early. Oregon's defense is too good to come from behind, especially if teams are relying on the passing game alone.
The Ducks have a strong pass rush, versatile linebackers that can cover the middle of the field and an elite secondary made up of a group of potential NFL players. Teams that rely on their passing attack to move the ball like the Buffaloes, Cougars and Beavers have virtually no chance against the Ducks and their much-improved defense.
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