The Oregon Ducks welcome the Arizona Wildcats to Autzen Stadium tonight in a Pac 12 matchup of high-powered spread offenses that has pundits predicting plenty of scoring. While the offense are getting all of the attention, it will actually be the Oregon defense that makes the difference in tonight’s game.
Defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti has been having to answer questions about his defense after giving up 34 points to the Arkansas State Red Wolves in Week 1, but that end score was a bit deceiving. The Ducks were up 50-3 with more than seven minutes to go in the second quarter when Aliotti emptied the bench and subbed in backups, walk-ons, and practice team players who gave up some points after the Ducks took their foot off the gas.
Looking at just the raw numbers, one would think this unit is a middle-of-the-road defense that plays just good enough to let their offense outscore their opponents. They rank 51st nationally in total defense, allowing 357.3 yards per game, and 66th in scoring defense surrendering 24.3 points per game. These pedestrian numbers lead many to write off the Ducks defense.
But looking deeper, we see that the defense is actually pretty darn good. The Ducks are allowing a respectable 4.7 yards per play on defense, good for 32nd in the country. If you only count the first halves of the Ducks’ early blowouts when the starting defense was on the field and in attack mode, that number drops down to 4.2. Most impressively, Aliotti has his defense stepping up on third downs, holding opponents to 7-for-45 on third-down conversions (15.6 percent), which is the third best mark in college football.
That isn’t to say that Aliotti is content with how his defense is playing. ”I’d be remiss or not 100 percent truthful if I said [the statistics] don’t bother me a little,” Aliotti told Sports Illustrated. He’d like to see the unit give up fewer yards and fewer points, but is happy with the way the defense has played in their first three games.
Now the Ducks will see just how good their defense can be. They’ll have their stamina tested as Arizona will push the tempo with their spread-option attack. Luckily, the Ducks have some experience running against that kind of offense in practice. That offense they see every day in practice will also likely work against them as they run Chip Kelly‘s trademark blur offense which scores in a hurry (14 of 23 touchdown drives this season have taken less than two minutes), giving the defense little to no time to recover on the sidelines.
Aliotti has learned to adapt, though, to that limited recovery time. The Ducks have recruited better athletes at every level of the defense to handle the fast pace and works two-deep at most positions, switching players out with a hockey-like mentality, “with guys jumping over the wall onto the ice.”
How well this unit is this year will be put on display tonight as Rich Rodriguez is going to test them like that have yet to be tested this year. The depth, talent, and athleticism of Aliotti’s defense, however, is going to be the difference between a wild shootout, and just another Ducks blowout win.