Oregon Football: Why Ducks Defense Needs to Improve
LaMichael James and the Oregon Ducks offense look as sharp as ever, but to continue their NCAA success, defensive improvement is required.
On Saturday, the Ducks went in to Arizona to put on a full-fledged showcase of their high-powered offensive talents against the Wildcats. LaMichael James re-entered discussions for his own Heisman candidacy, as he set the record for single-game rushing yards with 288 rushing yards in the process.
James added 105 yards in special teams yardage, as well as two receptions for 15 yards.
School is now in session for the students at the University of Oregon, and the hustle of the campus is in full swing. Following their BCS National Championship Game appearance against Auburn in January, Oregon fans are as proud to be Ducks as ever. The Oregon gear is (roughly) as common as the rain here in Eugene, and the football team is recovering from their loss and pushing for another successful campaign at a BCS Bowl.
Their offense, led by Darron Thomas and LaMichael James, certainly looks ready for the challenge, as they’re in the process of breaking in their young and undersized offensive line that was obviously overmatched against LSU. Without graduated senior Jeff Maehl, Ducks receivers David Paulson, Lavasier Tuinei, Rashaan Vaughn and sophomore Josh Huff have already stepped up for the team.
While the second-highest scoring offense in the NCAA (52.0 PPG) is able to rely predominantly on their offense to win football games, they will need bigger contributions on defense in order to maintain elite play over the course of the season.
Improvements in the Secondary
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As Oregon plays such a high-scoring style of play, they will hope to be in command of the lead for the majority of the time that they are in action.
In Saturday’s away game, hundreds of University of Oregon students and I piled into one small basement on campus to cheer on our team. Jorge, a buddy of mine who was unfortunate enough to be wearing a “Puddles” the Duck hat at the time, was elected to replicate our actual mascot and do push-ups for every point that we’ve scored. By the end of the first half, he had 105 push-ups under his belt and a newfound respect for the guy in the Ducks suit on Game Day. As we all cheered on each of his pushups, hilarity ensued, and so did his conditioning.
We also quickly learned, however, that when we take the lead, the opposing team is forced to throw the ball back. After commanding a 35 to 9 lead at the half, the Wildcats looked to quarterback Nick Foles for leadership and a second half comeback.
For conference play, Oregon goes against multiple elite quarterbacks. While they were able to contain Nick Foles and an otherwise unimpressive Arizona team, they may not have that same luck (no pun intended) later in the season.
On Nov. 12, the Ducks travel to Stanford to play Andrew Luck, and on Nov. 19, the Ducks host Matt Barkley and USC at home.
In both of those games, the Oregon secondary will need to be able to shut down the deep pass and not allow long attempts at letting the other team back in the game. While it was not a threateningly close game on Saturday against Arizona, Arizona outscored the Ducks in the second half 22-21, and Foles had two second-half touchdown throws.
For a team looking for contention at a national title, it will be very difficult to maintain a victory rate as high as needed, allowing 398 yards in the air ever again. Luckily, Arizona was unable to capitalize, but Foles (398 yards, 34/57, 3 TDs) completely outperformed Thomas (101 yards, 11/20, 2 TDs) at an impressive rate of play.
In a more evenly matched game, a player like Foles easily could command a victory, and if it weren’t for the padded first half, the game would have been significantly closer. Look for the Ducks to work on improvements in the secondary in their bye week in order to try to maintain a game-changing pickoff or two, as they were unable to intercept Foles even once.
Bigger Presence from Defensive Line
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A big part of the college football game comes from the rushing game, and in the National Championship, that was where the Ducks fell short.
The Ducks offense can look as strong as possible, but if their defensive line is unable to stop the rush in a college football game, they will not be able to win the big game. In the “Natty," the Oregon defense ultimately contained Cam Newton (20/34, 265 yards, 1 INT), but was not able to contain freshman running back Michael Dyer. In the title game, Oregon allowed Dyer to rush for 145 yards and a 6.5 YPC average.
The box score from the Arizona game is entirely skewed, as the rushing yards for the Wildcats were deduced by 42 yards due to Foles sacks. From the rushers on Arizona not counting Foles, the Ducks allowed 124 yards on the ground.
In the future, the Ducks will be able to run the ball a lot. They play with the lead and command the pace of the game at their own will. While James was able to rush for 288 yards and 12.5 YPC, the defensive line needs to step up in bigger moments for rush stopping as Nick Fairley did against Oregon in the National Championship (13 carries for 49 yards for LaMichael James).
Linebackers Need to Step Up
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In their first in conference game of the season, the Ducks linebackers showed a general lack of ability to stop the rush and short pass.
Against Stanford, those will be areas absolutely utilized by the Stanford offense. The Cardinals will be using Stepfan Taylor for much of their offense, as they can’t put the entire weight of the load on the back of Luck. I would expect Luck to use short routes and screens for much of the time against the Oregon defense, and I wouldn’t count on him challenging Harris and Boyett when he can attempt to tear apart the Ducks under matched linebackers.
The Ducks feature some deep talent at the linebacker’s position, with the likes of Kiko Alonso, Michael Clay and Josh Kaddu. The team, however, is significantly hurt with the departure of Casey Matthews and Spencer Paysinger to the NFL.
Clay has battled injury and has only been able to perform in two games this season.
The Ducks are now ranked 79th in total defense (389.5 yards allowed per game).
Style of Play
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What accounts for the majority of the Ducks defense is essentially due to their distinctive style of play that relies on them scoring quickly and often.
That means that the other team will maintain the majority of the time of possession.
Against Arizona, Oregon’s average time of possession was around 2:10. Against the same team, Stanford averaged 3:58. The Wildcats were able to run 92 plays against Oregon, compared to the 62 that they ran against Stanford.
The most telling state, however, is found on OregonLive.com. The Wildcats averaged 5.4 yards a play against Stanford and only 5.2 against Oregon. This could be because of the larger sampling size—and increased difficulty to maintain consistency—against Oregon, but at the same time, it does help explain why Arizona had 398 yards against Oregon and only 281 yards against Stanford.
The defense did give up a ton of yards, but they were simply playing their style of play.
Stanford is averaging 46.0 PPG, and is allowing only 9.0 PPG. They deserve their sixth ranking and have been stellar in their performances thus far.
This same style of play will lead to exciting matchups against impressive offensive teams like USC, Stanford and Arizona State.
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The remaining games for Oregon will be big tests for Oregon, as they have to face conference rivals in Berkeley at home next Thursday. Last season, Berkeley played them closer than any other team in the conference and held them to only 15 points. The Ducks, however, were able to utilize their strong defense.
The Ducks then host Arizona State the following week, before travelling to Colorado after that. Homecoming game will be against Washington State on Oct. 9, then the Ducks travel to Washington for a rivalry game in Seattle.
The final stretch is the biggest stretch for Oregon, as they play Stanford on the road and then close the season against USC and Oregon State at home.
It is a hefty schedule, and hopefully, the Ducks defense will be able to improve in the needed areas before counting their bid for a BCS Title or rose smelling.