- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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Nick Aliotti, a native of Walnut Creek, Calif., a graduate of Pittsburg High School, a former freshman MVP at running back for UC Davis, arrived at Oregon as a graduate assistant in 1978 under Rich Brooks. The Ducks celebrated his arrival by going 1-10.
After a 4-7 season the next year, Oregon State coach Joe Avezzano hired him to coach running backs. In 1984, he was the offensive coordinator at Chico State. The Ducks went 6-5 that year.
Funny how things turn out. Back then, there was little to suggest Aliotti would become a defensive coach, or that he would circle back to Oregon, or that there would be any reason to go back to Eugene. After all, if Aliotti wanted to climb the coaching ladder, didn't he want to go to a place where you had a chance to win?
Yet here he is, now close enough to an Oregon lifer that we're going to call him that, a guy who has been a firsthand witness to a program rising from nothing to respectability to legitimate goodness. And then to the cusp of greatness.
"I'll tell you how it feels for me personally," Aliotti said. "It feels fantastic."
And anyone who knows Aliotti, 58, will guess that there was a prelude to that quote -- "It's not about me" -- and a postlude -- "It's really, really special" -- as well as some entertaining parentheticals along the way.
Yet this season includes something new: respect.
Aliotti has been a good defensive coordinator for a long time, although his defenses often were outmanned. During the Ducks' rise under Chip Kelly, Oregon has played better defense than most folks realized, but it often required observers to look behind the numbers. And who has time for that?
Yet before this season began, more than a few pundits, including folks on the benighted East Coast, took a look at the Ducks' depth chart and noted that there were some salty characters on the mean side of the ball. The Ducks had some size to go along with their speed. There were some 300-pounders inside and there was, as coaches say, "great length" across the board, with seven of the top nine defensive linemen over 6-foot-4. And four over 6-6.
They passed the sight test.
What about the football part of football? Glad you asked. ESPN's numbers guy, Brad Edwards, took a closer look at the Oregon defense this week, noting that if you go beyond some superficial numbers that don't look impressive, you can make a case that the Ducks are playing defense on par with the finest teams in the country.
He took a measure of the Oregon defense only when an opponent was within 28 points, noting, "Using only statistics from when the score is within 28 points allows us to evaluate how teams perform when the starters are on the field and playing with maximum intensity."
What did he find? First, he found the Ducks have allowed 19 touchdowns this season -- one a pick-six against the offense -- but only seven were given up when the game margin was within 28 points.
Then he entered that into his Bat Computer.
Here's what he found. The Ducks ranked third in the nation, behind only Alabama and Notre Dame, in points per drive at 0.89. The Ducks allow just 4.03 yards per play, which ranks fourth in the nation. The Oregon defense leads the nation in red zone TD percentage at 22 percent, or four TDs allowed in 18 drives. Finally, on third-down conversion defense, the Ducks rank second, trailing only Oregon State, with a 24.7 percent success rate.
Not bad, eh?
Aliotti's defense, however, will face a major test on a big stage Saturday when it visits USC. Although the Trojans' offense has been surprisingly inconsistent this season, it still has all the main players from the squad that turned in a scintillating performance a year ago while ending the Ducks' 21-game Autzen Stadium winning streak with a 38-35 victory.
"Those great receivers and the quarterback were able to have their way with us last year," Aliotti said. "They beat our defense last year with their offense."
Matt Barkley completed 26 of 34 passes for 323 yards with four touchdowns as the Trojans rolled up 462 yards. Marqise Lee, then a true freshman, caught eight passes for 187 yards and a score. Aliotti, by the way, was perhaps more upset about the Trojans' 139 rushing yards than the passing numbers.
Barkley is a four-year starter who has seen just about every defense. He's not easy to fool. But that doesn't mean Aliotti isn't going to try.
"The best I can answer is we're going to do a little bit of all of it," he said.
And Aliotti has a lot of tricks in his bag. When you talk to opposing offensive coaches, it's clear the Ducks' defense has evolved in the past few years. Calling it "multiple" doesn't do it justice. You could almost call it "nonstandard." Aliotti will give a general idea of the evolution, but he doesn't want even that to appear in print.
USC coach Lane Kiffin coached the Trojans' offense under Pete Carroll from 2001 to '06. He sees dramatic changes.
"You see no similarities," he said. "You'd think it was a different staff. Obviously it's not; they've been there forever. I don't know what changed, but they are very different. They are very multiple. They change fronts. They disguise things very well."
Aliotti has played a lot of chess games with opposing offenses since he returned to Oregon for good in 1999. Shutting down Barkley and the Trojans on Saturday would help him further secure his grandmaster bona fides this fall.
1dChantel Jennings and Ted Miller