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Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Gang Green, take 2: Oregon's defense is surprisingly stout


Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Oregon's defense doesn't pencil out. It's clearly very good, but it shouldn't be.

The Ducks lost six starters, four of whom were NFL draft picks, from a 2008 defense that ranked 82nd in the nation in total defense and 78th in scoring defense. T.J. Ward was a returning starter at free safety, but he's only recently returned to action after being injured in the first half of the season-opener at Boise State. Cornerback and team captain Walter Thurmond III, generally considered the Ducks' best player, blew out his knee on Sept. 26.

Look at it like this: Name a defensive starter for Oregon.
 
 AP Photo/Chris Carlson
 Linebacker Spencer Paysinger and the Oregon defense have surprised many with their performance so far this season.


Defensive end Will Tukuafu? Good for you. He's long been an underrated player. Clay Matthews? Actually, Oregon's middle linebacker is "Casey" Matthews, but it's the same gene pool, so that's not too bad.

It's a no-name crew that has been riddled by injuries -- Willie Glasper, who replaced Thurmond, also was lost for the year to a knee injury -- yet here Oregon is, ranked 19th in the nation both total defense and scoring defense.

When Washington scored a fourth-quarter touchdown in a 43-19 defeat last weekend, it was the first TD against the Ducks' defense in 15 quarters.

How can this be? Oregon hasn't ranked among the top 40 in total defense since 2004. It hasn't had a "special" defense since 1994, when the "Gang Green" led the Ducks to the Rose Bowl.

There are a lot of explanations, though.

"They're being very aggressive and they've really been aggressive mixing their odd front and their 4-2 front," said USC coach Pete Carroll, whose Trojans visit Oregon on Saturday. "It's been problematic for their opponents. They've had a lot of pressure and a lot of plays in the backfield."

That's true. Oregon ranks third in the Pac-10 and 10th in the nation in sacks (3.14 per game) and is 25th in the nation in tackles for a loss (7.0 per game).

UCLA had just 211 yards and didn't score an offensive touchdown against Oregon. Bruins coach Rick Neuheisel said the Ducks play hard, play their gap responsibilities and are good tacklers.

California's only points against Oregon in a 42-3 defeat came after the Ducks fumbled the opening kickoff. The drive totaled minus-8 yards. Coach Jeff Tedford said Oregon has speed at every position, which will be critical in the matchup with the Trojans.

"I think Oregon's defense is going to match up pretty favorably [with USC]," he said.

Washington moved the ball at times against Oregon, but the Ducks recorded four sacks and forced three turnovers, one of which concluded a first-half goal-line stand. Coach Steve Sarkisian said Oregon isn't giving up big plays, which has been a problem in the past.

"They're making teams drive down the field and not get yards in chunks," he said.

As for Oregon's longtime defensive coordinator, Nick Aliotti, he gives a jovial shrug. Why is his defense so good? Beats him.

"If I had the answer to that, I would bottle it," he said.

Maybe it's better chemistry. Maybe the focus and work ethic are better.

Of course, Aliotti is being a bit coy. There have been some scheme tweaks.

Coaches who have played the Ducks, as well as Carroll, note Oregon has diversified its defensive alignments and is running more zone blitzes.

"Yeah, we're doing more of that," Aliotti said after a brief pause. "I'm trying not to give away all our secrets."

Aliotti also admitted he's not trading out personnel groups as much, which can disrupt a defense's rhythm and sometimes lead to confusion. He also talked about the coaching staff being "on the same page," which suggests some staff changes, specifically the addition of defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro, have helped.

Linebacker Spencer Paysinger, one of the returning starters you've never heard of but is, nonetheless, a really good player, said he likes how the defense is playing more aggressively and is "able to put bodies on people instead of just dropping into zones."

He's also noticed how the defense's play has turned Aliotti's frown upside down. More than a few Oregon fans have groused about Aliotti's defense through the years because it didn't match the typically high-powered offense. When Aliotti defended his defense, some rolled their eyes.

Those complaints are rarer these days.

"He does have a smile on his face," Paysinger said. "He knows his defense has been lights out the past few games."

While Aliotti clearly is enjoying the defensive renaissance -- he's coached at Oregon 19 seasons, split between three different tenures -- he's also quick to note the season is only seven games old and, oh by the way, USC is coming to town.

He's not ready to talk about this crew as the second-coming of his "Gang Green" unit just yet.

Not that he's ruling out a new nickname at some point.

"Maybe we'll give them something fancy at the end of the year," he said.