As linebacker Derrick Malone streaked toward the end zone in Oregon's Alamo Bowl rout of Texas last December, his play punctuated one era of Ducks football with an exclamation point.
Malone ran back an interception 38 yards to slam the door on the Longhorns' last-ditch rally effort. Oregon's 30-7 romp sent defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti into retirement with style.
And while the Alamo Bowl closed a chapter for Oregon, that performance began a new one—a chapter that could end with the Ducks hoisting a national championship trophy.
“The sky’s the limit,” Malone said at Wednesday’s session of Pac-12 Media Days. The linebacker referred to the Oregon defense, but his sentiment could describe all facets of the 2014 Ducks.
Expectations are characteristically high for Oregon heading into the season. Voters picked the Ducks to win the Pac-12 championship, and the win over Texas validates some of that confidence. It also gives new defensive coordinator Don Pellum a building block for 2014.
The Ducks defense shutting down the Longhorns made an emphatic, and much needed, statement.
“There were a lot of questions of can we stop a running team,” Malone said. “Once we did it in the last game, that carried over great momentum into the spring.”
Coming into the Alamo Bowl, Oregon’s defense suffered through a few lackadaisical performances—particularly against the run. Stanford running back Tyler Gaffney effectively took the air out of the ball in the Cardinal’s 26-20 upset of the Ducks on Nov. 7.
Two weeks later, Arizona All-American Ka’Deem Carey gashed Oregon for 206 yards and four touchdowns, while dual-threat quarterback B.J. Denker averaged 7.3 yards on his 14 carries in the Wildcats' confounding 42-16 rout of the Ducks.
The losses kept Oregon out of the national championship hunt and drew scrutiny on the defense—not all of it warranted, according to head coach Mark Helfrich.
“It’s a full-end deal,” he said. “It’s everybody [who is responsible for team performance].”
Nevertheless, an inability to stop the rush vexed Oregon right down to the very end of the regular season.
Thanks to quarterback Marcus Mariota’s touchdown strike to wide receiver Josh Huff in the waning moments, Oregon salvaged its win streak over rival Oregon State to end the regular season. But the Beavers forced a photo finish by scoring 35 points, powered in part by 231 rushing yards.
Oregon State averaged just 94.4 rushing yards per game all season, which ranked the Beavers No. 11 in the Pac-12.
Helfrich attributed Oregon’s late-season inconsistencies to execution, and “execution is coached.”
Execution was not a problem against Texas. The Ducks limited the Longhorns to 4.1 yards per carry and completely stifled any attempt at a passing attack.
Malone also credited “a sense of urgency and aggressiveness” for the turnaround against Texas. That mindset was on full display as the Ducks took two interceptions back for touchdowns to bookend the blowout.
Of course, one strong performance on its own cannot buoy a team from week to week, much less into a new season. But for Oregon, it served as a springboard into an offseason in which the Ducks aggressively tackled the weight room.
“We made a concerted effort to [get stronger] on both sides of the ball,” Helfrich said. “On the field in the spring, I think it made an absolute difference.”
One area in which the Oregon defense could see improvement from its offseason regimen is in getting to the backfield.
Applying pressure behind the line of scrimmage is crucial for generating turnovers, a key component of the Ducks’ defensive strategy. Oregon ranked No. 82 nationally in tackles for loss last season. In contrast, the Ducks were No. 19 in 2011, their last Pac-12 championship-winning season, and No. 10 in a 2010 campaign that culminated with a BCS Championship Game appearance.
|Season||Rush Defense (National Rank)||Sacks (National Rank)||Tackles for Loss (National Rank)||Turnovers Gained (National Rank)|
|2013||165.5 (66)||28.0 (47)||70.0 (82)||29 (17)|
|2012||144.9 (45)||28.0 (44)||84.0 (35)||40 (1)|
|2011||142.8 (54)||45.0 (3)||94.0 (19)||29 (19)|
|2010||128.1 (27)||33.0 (21)||96.0 (10)||37 (2)|
"For me personally, it was a little bit of hesitation,” Malone said. “I'm very [much a] perfectionist in that the decisions I make are just precise, just right.”
Combining that meticulousness with the level of aggression that made former Ducks linebacker Kiko Alonso a headache for opposing offenses could make Malone one of the top defensive playmakers in the Pac-12.
“Derrick’s a guy along the lines of Don Pellum,” Helfrich said. “He can walk into every position meeting room and have instant credibility.
“He’s the kind of guy [who] walks a walk and always talks the talk,” the coach added.
That’s exactly the kind of confidence Oregon needs from its linebacker corps, the most veteran and deepest unit on the defensive side. Malone leads a group that includes returning starters Tony Washington and Rodney Hardrick, as well as up-and-comers Joe Walker, Tyson Coleman and Torrodney Prevot.
The Ducks face considerable turnover on the defensive line and in the secondary, but Malone likes the outlook of both groups. He offered considerable praise for the line, a unit vital to Oregon’s pass-rushing efforts.
“They’re getting bigger and stronger, just like everyone else,” Malone said. “They’re ready to take off. They say there’s a lack of experience because there aren’t many starters [returning], but they’re going to be great.”
He added he likes the potential of DeForest Buckner. Malone called the third-year defensive lineman “a beast.”
The challenge now for Oregon is replicating that Alamo Bowl performance for 12 regular season games and a Pac-12 Championship tilt. If it can, a berth in the inaugural College Football Playoff is within reach.
“Defense did a great job this spring, and from all accounts this summer, of raising the bar to a higher standard of accountability and effort,” Helfrich said. “In fall camp … we’ll see how that went.”
Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise cited. Statistics compiled via CFBStats.com.