The Oregon Ducks are getting ready to make their final BCS push starting Saturday with a showdown in Los Angeles against the USC Trojans. While the attention in Eugene is always on the high-flying blur offense of Chip Kelly, it has been the defense of Nick Aliotti that has driven Oregon as one of the best units in the country.
Looking at the rankings or box scores, the Ducks defense isn’t all that impressive. They rank 35th in yards per game allowed and 24th in points allowed. At first glance, that doesn’t indicate an elite defense; but, as always, the Ducks defense can’t be judged or appreciated the same way that most defenses are because of their offense.
The Oregon blur offense plays at such a fast pace that both sides of the ball end up the field for many more plays and several more possessions per game than the average team. If you give an opposing offense an extra four or five possessions, then they are going to accumulate some extra yards.
If the defense is evaluated on different metrics, like yards-per-play and points-per-drive, then you start to get a fairer picture of Oregon’s defense. Using these metrics, the unit starts to look a bit more elite, ranking 15th in FBS in yards per play allowed (4.55) and 12th in points allowed per drive (1.25).
But this defense is even better than those numbers would indicate. On the season, the Ducks have allowed 19 touchdowns (with one coming against the offense on an interception return), but only seven of them have come when the game was within 28 points. That ranks third in the country behind only the Alabama Crimson Tide (four) and Notre Dame Fighting Irish (six) in the same conditions.
Oregon hasn’t played any games this season that were “in doubt” late, which also skews the statistical data against their defense. Their closest game was a 17-point win against the Fresno State Bulldogs in Week two where the Ducks went up 35-6 at halftime before emptying their bench in the second half. Nearly all of their games have ended with “garbage time” stats getting piled on their defense, when most of the starters have already undone their shoulder pads for the day.
Looking at games while it’s still within 28 points offers a better picture of how Oregon’s defense has played this season. At this point in the games, when the outcome is still somewhat in doubt, Oregon is playing its hardest with the starters and defensive coaches holding nothing back.
Restricting the stats in this way, we start to see how elite Oregon’s defense is this season. When the game is within 28 points, the Oregon defense is allowing just 0.89 points per drive, which ranks third in the country behind only Alabama and Notre Dame in the same situation. In those situations, the Ducks are allowing just 4.03 yards per play, which ranks fourth behind Alabama, the LSU Tigers, and the Florida State Seminoles.
The defense has been even better when they have needed to step up. The Oregon defense is ranked number-one in red zone touchdown percentage when the game is within 28 points, allowing just four touchdowns in 18 drives (22-percent). On third-down, the Ducks rank second in the nation with a 24.7-percent success rate on forcing fourth downs behind only the Oregon State Beavers.
Anyone who has watched the Ducks this season, particularly in the first half, should be surprised by these numbers. Aliotti has this team flying around on defense, creating a swarming unit that stifles and frustrates opposing offense. The box score doesn’t reflect it at the end of the night, but this defense is playing as well as any other in the country.
So while the offense gets the publicity for Oregon’s great start (which they deserve), don’t overlook the Ducks’ defense, which has quietly fueled the perfect season up to this point and will be the biggest reason why Oregon’s success continues.