Oregon defense ready for prime time

Originally Published: October 27, 2013
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

EUGENE, Ore. -- Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti likes to joke that the Ducks' high-flying offense is a fast sports car.

The way Aliotti explains it, offensive coordinator Scott Frost is the car's GPS and quarterback Marcus Mariota is its driver.

So what exactly is Oregon's defense, then?

"We're just on the field when our offense needs a rest," Aliotti said.

The Oregon defense proved Saturday night that it's much more than that. When the No. 3 Ducks left their locker room at halftime, they were tied 14-14 with No. 12 UCLA, surprising much of the crowd of 59,206 at Autzen Stadium. For a team that's trying to jump No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Florida State in the BCS standings, it was hardly a dominating performance.

Oregon's high-octane offense seemed to be stuck in neutral for the first time this season, and Aliotti knew his defense would have to deliver in the final 30 minutes.

[+] EnlargeOregon defenders
AP Photo/Don RyanUCLA's Paul Perkins is surrounded by Oregon's Taylor Hart, left, and Brian Jackson.

In fact, a couple of Oregon's defensive players promised Aliotti that the Bruins wouldn't score another point in the second half.

"I love it when they do that stuff," Aliotti said. "I love it when they talk dirty to me."

It's exactly what Oregon's underappreciated defense did against UCLA after halftime. The Ducks held the Bruins to only 94 yards of offense and shut them out in the final two quarters, and then Oregon's offense exploded for 28 consecutive points in a 42-14 victory.

"They've played phenomenally well," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. "[The defense allowed] really one explosive play and we'll live with that all day. We don't have [former Ducks star defensive end] Dion Jordan or the name that everybody knows, but there are about 22 guys playing their tails off, and we love every one of them."

During the past six seasons, when Chip Kelly transformed the Ducks into college football's most explosive and exciting spread offense, first as their offensive coordinator and then as their head coach, everybody has been enamored with Oregon's offense. But it's about time the Ducks' defense starts getting some love, too.

"So far, I think we're allowing about [17] points per game," Aliotti said. "I'd say that's pretty good. I think anytime you can hold a team under 24 points, especially with our offense, I think you'll have a chance to win."

Aliotti, who has spent 22 seasons coaching at Oregon, takes a lot of pride in his defense. After last week's 62-38 win over Washington State, Aliotti called Cougars coach Mike Leach "low class" for throwing the ball nearly every down late in the fourth quarter, when Oregon's defense was playing mostly third-stringers at the time. Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday attempted an FBS-record 89 passes in the game and finished with 557 yards passing with four touchdowns and four interceptions.

Aliotti later apologized for the comments, but it was evident he cares as much about his defense's statistics and reputation as Leach does in breaking records.

"Since [UCLA] only threw for 64 yards, the 580 [Washington State] threw last week will balance out pretty good," Aliotti said.

Oregon's defense produced the game-changing play that turned Saturday night's game into a rout. After Oregon finally went ahead 21-14 on Byron Marshall's 11-yard touchdown run with 2:57 to play in the third quarter, UCLA faced third-and-20 at midfield on the first play of the fourth. Bruins quarterback Brett Hundley tried to throw the down the right sideline, but free safety Avery Patterson intercepted the pass and returned it 34 yards to the UCLA 38.

We don't sit here saying the offense won this game and the special teams won this game. It's that we won the game.

-- Oregon coach Mark Helfrich

Seven plays later, Mariota threw an 8-yard touchdown to Bralon Addison to make it 28-14 with 12:41 remaining, all but ending the game.

"I think our defense is outstanding," Helfrich said. "We don't sit here saying the offense won this game and the special teams won this game. It's that we won the game."

But Oregon's philosophy of never taking its foot off the pedal is a lot easier to embrace when its defense is playing so well. After UCLA went ahead 7-0 on Hundley's 4-yard run early in the first quarter, the Ducks' ensuing drive seemed to stall after Mariota was sacked for a 3-yard loss on third down.

Helfrich sent his punting team onto the field, but told starting middle linebacker Rodney Hardrick, one of the up-backs in the punt formation, to run a fake if the Bruins showed a certain look. Facing fourth-and-14 (at their own 26!), the Ducks successfully ran a fake for a 66-yard gain. Tailback De'Anthony Thomas ran for a 1-yard touchdown two plays later to tie the score.

"[Helfrich] doesn't want us to hesitate for a second," Frost said. "It's a full speed-ahead attack and there's never been a fear of failure. It's been that way since I've been here."

Even Mariota was shocked by his coach's gamble while watching the fake punt from the sideline.

"I was surprised, myself," Mariota said. "I think Rodney had a deal where he saw a look and took it. It was a huge momentum swing for us."

And when Oregon's offense finally got rolling in the second half, the Bruins didn't have a chance of coming back.

On a day when Alabama trounced Tennessee 45-10 and FSU routed NC State 49-17, the Ducks' eighth consecutive victory to open the season looked just as impressive in the end.

And as the Ducks head into a bye week before their Nov. 7 Pac-12 showdown against No. 6 Stanford, it's obvious there's more to them this season than their fashion and offense.

"Our defense is one of the best in the country, no doubt," Thomas said.

Mark Schlabach | email

College Football and Basketball

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