Oregon defense ready to be underestimated

January, 2, 2012
1/02/12
11:00
AM ET
LOS ANGELES -- If reporters weren't going to ask Nick Aliotti interesting questions this week, well, maybe he'd ask them a few.

[+] EnlargeNick Aliotti
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireWhile Oregon's offense gets all the hype, Nick Aliotti's defense has also shined this season.
"I always find it interesting, not to be religious or anything like that, because I don't want to go there," Oregon's defensive coordinator said. "But it's always kind of like, we're praying for a win and they're praying for a win. So who's going to answer who?"

Pause for deep thought. Breathe in, breathe out.

Leave it to Aliotti to take a redundant question about Oregon needing to prove it can win a "big one" and turning it into a grounds for philosophical speculation.

What Aliotti was praying for likely was something engaging and different to talk about. There was clockwork predictability to the questions about his defense as it prepares for the Rose Bowl against Wisconsin. Here's a guess you could name them yourself.

1. How will Oregon's smaller defense handle Wisconsin's superior size? 2. How does Oregon hope to contain the Badgers' balanced attack with running back Montee Ball and quarterback Russell Wilson? 3. Does it bother him that his defense is overshadowed by the Ducks' flashy offense?

"All I know is last year, all we heard was how Auburn and Oregon were going to go up and down the field," he said of the national championship game last January. "That didn't quite happen."

The Ducks lost, of course, 22-19 on a last-second field goal, but that was the Tigers' second-lowest point total of the season.

There is some resignation to Aliotti -- "I'm trying to answer your question here," he repeatedly said to reporters -- because he'd like for his defense to get more credit, but he also knows that Oregon's national perception is gaudy uniforms and gaudy offensive statistics. That obscures how solid the Ducks' defense has been and is again this season.

No, Oregon is not as good as Alabama or LSU on defense. No, it won't send eight or nine guys to the NFL. But the Ducks did hold LSU to 273 yards, which is comparable to the 239 the Tigers had against the Crimson Tide. And Oregon did hold Auburn to fewer points than the Crimson Tide did in 2010 (28).

Aliotti wants to explain things, but he knows -- "I'm not trying to pat myself on the back; I'm giving you a long-winded answer" -- that a nuanced explanation often doesn't get much traction with an audience in search of simple -- simplistic? -- black and white numbers.

So what most see is this: Oregon’s defense ranks 59th in the nation in total yards, while Wisconsin's ranks eighth. Decisive advantage Badgers, correct? Well, Aliotti would note if he were typing this (and do you really know he's not?) that the Ducks and Badgers yield similar numbers on yards per play: Oregon 4.93, Wisconsin 4.85. And the Ducks are slightly better on third down.

You've heard this before, right? Because the Ducks' offense works so quickly, it ranks last in the nation in time of possession while also ranking third in scoring with 46.2 ppg. That meant more possessions for opposing offenses, which is why Oregon faced more plays than any team in the nation -- 1,005 -- other than Oklahoma State, which saw 1,008. Wisconsin's defense, with the benefit of an an offense that ranks 22nd in time of possession, only saw 786.

"So it's simple math," Aliotti said. "You play 80 plays, 4 yards a play is 320 yards. You play 60 plays, 5 yards a play is 300."

Speaking of math, Wisconsin's offensive line averages 6-foot-5, 320 pounds. The Ducks average 275 pounds among their eight regularly rotating defensive linemen. It's one thing to give up 25 pounds to a line that averages 300 pounds, like Stanford, but giving up 45 pounds is something else entirely.

Isn't it?

"It doesn't mean anything," defensive end Terrell Turner said. "The way our defensive line coach trains us, we can play against guys who are 7-foot-8, 390 pounds."

So there.

As for Ball and Wilson, Aliotti believes first down will be key. The Badgers convert 54 percent of their third-down plays, which ranks No. 1 in the nation, largely because they rarely face third-and-long.

"If they are in second-and-5 or less a lot of the game, then it will be hard to get them out of their rhythm," Aliotti said.

And second-and-5 is a great time for play-action, Wilson's forte. With senior Anthony Gildon highly questionable, the Ducks will be extremely young at cornerback, with redshirt freshmen Terrance Mitchell and Troy Hill as well as true freshman Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. While the Badgers are a power-running team, they are extremely efficient passing the ball, with Wilson throwing 31 TD passes and two receivers who caught at least 50 balls for more than 800 yards.

Of course, no one thought Oregon would hold Auburn and Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Cam Newton to 22 points last year.

It's clear that Aliotti and the Ducks respect the Wisconsin offense. And they are accustomed to being overlooked and dismissed. But there were a few times this week when Ducks defenders looked like cats purring with canaries in their mouths.

Said Aliotti, "We can't divulge any of the weaknesses because we'd have to kill 'ya."

Ted Miller | email

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