NCF Nation: Willie Glasper

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.

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller


Ten years ago, would you have believed UCLA and Oregon would be 3-0 at halftime?



The Pac-10 is now a defensive league.

The Bruins lead on Kai Forbath's 52-yard field goal. And that's our scoring summary.

Oregon sophomore cornerback Anthony Gildon -- the Ducks third option at the position after Walter Thurmond and Willie Glasper went down to knee injuries -- has been flagged twice for pass interference, but the Bruins have been unable to exploit the Ducks secondary, which is also missing safety T.J. Ward and was riddled with illness this week.

Quarterback report?

Kevin Prince and Nate Costa are both playing OK, but neither has strung a few good passing plays together.

Turning point: Oregon posted an impressive goal-line stand when two quarterback sneaks by Prince from the 1/2-yard line failed.

Stat of the half: Ducks are 1 of 6 on third down. Costa has played fairly well, but he hasn't been able to string together first downs.

Best player in the half: Ducks running back LaMichael James has 83 yards rushing on eight carries. Of course, one carry -- from the Ducks' 1-yard line -- went for 49 yards.

What Oregon needs to do; What UCLA needs to do: Both teams need the same thing. They need to keep playing stingy defense while finding an offensive rhythm. In a low-scoring game, turnovers are almost always critical. No turnovers so far. And both teams have made nice plays in special teams. In low-scoring games, field position is almost always critical. Wonder who gets to play on a short field more?

Posted by ESPN.com's Ivan Maisel


1. This from Brad Edwards and the ESPN research fiends: Florida has lost at least one game to an SEC West team in each of the past 10 years. Under coach Urban Meyer, the Gators are 6-6 against the West in the regular season, 2-0 in the league championship game. You could blame it on the familiarity that conference teams have with one another, but Meyer is 20-2 against the SEC East. Go figure.

2. Oregon began the season with three seniors in the secondary. T.J. Ward sprained his ankle at Boise State, and now both Walter Thurmond and Willie Glasper have suffered season-ending knee injuries. Ward came back to practice this week, which is good news. But which UCLA quarterback will the Ducks see? Kevin Prince, out four weeks with a broken jaw, is practicing. Omen alert: the Ducks’ last 3-0 start in the Pac-10, 2001, had a BCS finish (Fiesta).

3. There is no better tradition in college football than the Army-Navy postgame, when both teams stand in front of the respective student bodies and sing each alma mater. Maybe it will spread. Tulane coach Bob Toledo had his team stand with the Black Knights and sing after the Green Wave won, 17-16, at West Point last week. “I was doing it out of respect for them,” Toledo said. “I have great appreciation for those guys and what they stand for.” Very cool.

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