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Why the Oregon defense is always underrated, and how that’s about to change

Superficial measures never go far enough. Fans expect perfection and an unbroken chain of three and outs, and analysts compare everything to SEC, where one quarterback in ten can throw and every other weekend the opponent is helpless and punchless, Troy State or Mississippi.

Statistics tell their own damn lies. Oregon’s defense will always be underrated, as long as the measures are yards allowed and time of possession. The Ducks are 34-6 in their last 40 scoring 46 points a game. Offensively, that’s shock and awe efficiency. Defensively, that’s a lot of extra possessions and plays, and to combat that, Nick Aliotti and his staff do a tremendous job of developing their depth and preparing for the future, playing the number twos and number threes in rotation.

The Ducks probably lead the country in an unkept stat, “Meaningless Yards Allowed.” Think back to last year. Against UCLA in the PAC-12 title game, the Bruins put together a 15-play, 94-yard touchdown drive that consumed 5:22 on the clock. Impressive, right? Not really. The drive gobbled up a huge chunk of the fourth quarter, and UCLA was trailing 49-24. The drive, put together against a heavily-rotated Duck defense, constituted more than a quarter of their output for the whole game, and all it did was guarantee they’d lose. 

It happens a lot with the Webfoots defense. They lose battles to win wars, but it goes way beyond, “bend but don’t break,” an expression that Aliotti hates. Over the last four years Oregon has forced more turnovers than any school except Oklahoma State. They turn in performances like the championship game, where they double up an opponent and hold them to 243 yards when the game is close, then flex to protect a league. Against Cal earlier in the year they frustrated the Bears offense for three quarters. In the fourth Cal put together drives of 38, 64, and 39 yards. In the first two they turned the ball over on downs, the equivalent of an extra turnover. The last one, 8 plays and 3 first downs, ended when time ran out. The result? No points,  but on the stat sheet the Ducks “mediocre” defense gave up 29 plays and 141 yards in the quarter. While winning 43-15.

Photo: This season look for the Duck defense to swarm like zombies in a science fiction movie, only lots, lots faster (dailybruin.com photo).

It goes like that a lot for the Ducks, dominance when the game is close, giving ground when the only danger is a series of quick scores. At the same time Aliotti’s unit is fiercest late in the game against tough opponents. The Rose Bowl was an offensive slugfest, but Wisconsin’s last four possessions ended interception, punt, fumble, and the final gun, the Ducks scoring twice to win 45-38. The sensational touchdowns dominate the highlights, but it was gutty, clutch defensive plays that won the game. Oregon had a bitter loss to USC last November, with John Neal’s young cornerbacks having a difficult time containing the Trojans fabulous outside receiver duo of Woods and Lee. SC built up a 38-14 lead with just 3:13 to go in the third quarter. No one quit on the Oregon sideline, however. Matt Barkley’s last three possessions were punt, interception, and fumble, and the game came down to a missed field goal. The Ducks lost 38-35 in a courageous team effort, another game where stats didn’t tell the whole story.

This season even the stats are likely to tell a different story. Led by an impressive cast of senior leaders like John Boyett, Michael Clay and Dion Jordan, along with a deep rotation developed through the last few years of patiently rotating and grooming players, Oregon has the nucleus of a defense that is scary good. Former Duck quarterback Nate Costa, now a counterman for Comcast Sports, accepted an invitation to practice this week and said this Duck team has far more talent than any squad he was a part of, and Costa was the sure-handed holder on two teams that went to BCS bowls. The talent shines brightly on defense, where the Ducks are fast, strong and athletic from sideline-to-sideline. Those young cornerbacks, victimized by premier receivers last season, have grown up. All year long they showed steady improvement, and now they’re ready to clamp down, aided by the veteran Boyett directing traffic, and a nasty front seven that will put increased pressure on the quarterback. Up front, Dion Jordan, Ike Remington, Taylor Hart and crew go eight and nine deep, athletic and tenacious. Look for newcomers like Jared Ebert, DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead to make an impact, and we do mean impact, on a unit that has ramped up its competitiveness and is ready to impose its will on opposing offenses. Ricky Heimuli and Wade Keliipiki anchor the middle, each topping 300 pounds and fiercely strong.

Alonso, Clay and scoring machine Bo Lokombo form a fabulous unit at linebacker, play-making hitters who play smart. The beauty of the deep rotation Oregon has utilized over the last three years is that there are now a bevy of future stars ready to step into larger roles. Look for Derrick Malone, Erick Dargan and Brian Jackson, among many others, to come up big this season.

Analysts often say that a coach can’t truly be measured until he has been at a school for four full years, until he has an opportunity to build his own program and develop his own recruits. This is Chip Kelly’s fourth season, but that traditional timetable is accelerated in Eugene. Already they’ve enjoyed impressive success, benefitting from a solid foundation laid out by Mike Bellotti and a core of veteran assistant coaches who’ve blessed the Ducks with tremendous continuity. As good as the Ducks have been in the last three joyous seasons, this year could be a whole ‘nother level of excellence. There are playmakers everywhere. The pride and focus in this group is astounding. Mariota, their youthful new quarterback, has a maturity and level-headedness that outshine even his speed and throwing ability. Three PAC-12 titles aren’t enough. These Ducks gotta get it, and this year, they just might.

Tonight Oregon faces a lower division team with some respectable weapons on offense. Look for the defense to set the tone for this year, and begin to define itself as a salty, aggressive unit that doesn’t want to be overshadowed by the highly-decorated offense anymore. They’ll be dominating and amped up. They’ll get to the quarterback and force turnovers. Gang Green? These are the relentless Brain-Eating Zombies, on a mission to allow no mortal escape.