Wednesday, November 9, 2011
Oregon not awed by Andrew Luck
By Ted Miller
Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti has been around awhile. Long enough that when he says that Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck reminds him of John Elway, that comparison is based on his having coached against Elway -- although he was coaching running backs at Oregon State during Elway's Stanford tenure.
Yes, he sees what everyone else sees: a smart, athletic, big-armed, poised, team-first guy. A superefficient playmaker who values winning over piling up big numbers and hogging the spotlight.
"Wow. He's phenomenal," Aliotti said. "The guy is the total package. He's the best quarterback I've seen in this league, and there have been a lot of very good quarterbacks in this league. To me, he reminds me the most of John Elway."
Oregon is the only team in the past year that has been able to beat Andrew Luck and the Cardinal offense.
There you go. He sees what everyone else sees.
But unlike everyone else, Aliotti has put together a game plan that shut down Luck -- see Stanford's zero second-half points in the Ducks' 52-31 win last year. (Yeah, the first half didn't go as well.) So Oregon's coaching offices and locker room probably lack something that a lot of other teams have had when facing Luck.
One of Oregon's many mantras is playing "nameless, faceless opponents." Luck is the most famous college football player in the nation. But for the Ducks, he's just No. 12 behind center.
"I haven't made a big deal about it," Aliotti said. "It's not like we've gone around, 'Ohhhh ... Andrew Luck' or anything. Some teams praise and talk about him to their own team. They make him bigger than life, which I think gives him an aura. Kids can get in awe. I don't think that will be the case with our kids."
That is a good first step for figuring out a way to contain Luck and the Stanford offense: Get over who he is and concentrate on what they -- the Cardinal -- do.
Of course, after the first step, you've got to take a second one. And the football part of football ain't easy here.
The question that typically follows is, how aggressively do you attack Luck with stunts and blitzes? Oregon leads the Pac-12 with 29 sacks. Stanford has yielded a conference-low four sacks. But teams have been -- at times -- successful with pressure this season, not allowing Luck to be consistently comfortable in the pocket.
"If you can not let him set his feet," Oregon coach Chip Kelly said. "If you can disrupt the launch point for a quarterback. That's the key to playing good pass defense."
After watching hours of film, Aliotti's conclusion is that pressure -- rushing five or more guys -- can work against Luck and the Cardinal offense. That, however, might not be the right first question.
"When guys bring five or more, it appears people have had more success," he said. "But you've got to get them in a down where they have to throw the ball. So you have to win first down. I think that's a real key."
A good reason Stanford ranks first in the conference and fourth in the nation in third-down conversions is the Cardinal typically face third-and-manageable distances. That primarily is due to a running game that averages 5.7 yards per carry. Think about that: Second-and-4 gives you plenty of play-calling options. And if you can gain 6 yards on a run on second-and-10, well, you become a royal pain in the tuchus for a defensive coordinator.
Third-and-4 is not a good blitzing down. And if you try, Luck is very good at spying your intentions and making the right check.
"He's really good on that," Kelly said "I think that's one thing that separates him, besides his athletic ability, is just how smart he is. He can see the whole field and he can pick up blitzes and he's really, really sharp. That's why he's the total package. It's tough to fool him."
In last year's game, the Ducks sacked Luck only once -- recall that he was sacked just six times in 2010 -- but they got good pressure, and Luck threw two interceptions. In 34 career starts, that was one of two times he's thrown more than one pick in a game.
Fair to say, pressure is good. Then the issue is containment. Luck is a capable runner, although he hasn't run as much this season. He has 954 career rushing yards, and the Ducks don't want to be the team that puts him over 1,000.
Still, as Kelly noted, once you account for Luck's arm and legs, you still have to contend with his scariest body part: his brain. Luck, who is legitimately "Stanford smart," has play-calling options unlike any other quarterback in the country. After the win over Washington on Oct. 22, Cardinal coach David Shaw went out of his way in a casual conversation -- no tape recorder allowed -- to clarify just how many options Luck has at the line of scrimmage. Let's just say it's a large handful of passing and running plays.
But that also leaves an opening for a defensive coordinator. Can he give a look to Luck that draws out a play call, then change the defense before Luck can re-audible?
The answer is yes and no. It's hard to do, particularly with a young defense. Complicating things increases chances for blown assignments. And if your first goal for your defense is to play hard and fast and with confidence -- as it is for Aliotti -- it could provoke too much thinking.
"That becomes the cat-and-mouse game between Andrew and Nick, to be honest with you," Kelly said.
Said Aliotti, "I don't know if there are any magical calls. I wish I had some magical calls."
No, there is no magic on defense. It's about about playing fast and loose. Defeating blocks. Executing. Forcing turnovers. Gap integrity. Winning third down.
And, on Saturday, maybe creating just a little bit of bad Luck.