Breakneck offense overshadows Oregon's bend-but-don't-break D
SCOTTSADALE, Ariz. -- Oregon's offense is easily the most recognizable in the country -- the breakneck tempo, LaMichael James, the mysterious play-calling cards. But what exactly is the Ducks' defensive identity?
Cornerback Cliff Harris, arguably the unit's top playmaker and easily its best talker, ponders the question for a second before delivering this highly descriptive analogy: "We're like a great white shark in the ocean just swimming on the surface. Everything that's in front of us, we eat it up."
Harris and his largely unsung teammates don't always chew up opposing offenses -- they rank 25th nationally in total yards allowed (331.6 yards per game) -- but they do usually leave them mangled by game's end. In reaching Monday's BCS National Championship Game against Auburn, the 12-0 Ducks have limited foes to an impressive 18.4 points per game (12th nationally) in large part by producing 35 turnovers (third nationally).
A few Pac-10 opponents left sizable imprints on the scoreboard -- USC put up 32, Stanford and Arizona State 31 -- but their paths to the end zone narrowed considerably when it mattered most. Oregon ranked fifth nationally in red zone defense (67.6 percent and became particularly stingy the further the game went: In 12 games, Oregon allowed a combined 83 second-half points and held all but four teams scoreless in the fourth quarter.
"I think [Oregon's defense is very underrated," said Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, the man who presents the Ducks' stiffest challenge to date. "I don't think they get what they [deserve] because all the attention goes to their offense. For anybody to hold teams to what they have, I take my hat off to them."
Much like his unsung unit, Ducks defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti is practically the antithesis of his counterpart Monday night, Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. While Malzahn, five years removed from high-school coaching, is considered a rising star and a guru of the no-huddle spread offense, Aliotti, 56, is a career assistant who's spent 21 years on Oregon's staff (over three separate stints) and whom Ducks fans have mockingly referred to in the past as "Nick Allow-a-lot-i."
"I won't put myself in any guru category," said the animated and often hilarious coordinator.
But this year's defense is arguably the best unit he's orchestrated, one that's allowed Oregon's fewest points per game since 1980 but went largely unnoticed over the course of the season and is probably the last thing on people's minds heading into a much-hyped showcase of two prolific offenses.
"We feel like the red-headed stepchild," said Aliotti. "The defenses are going to have to play a little bit during the game. Maybe we'll just get on the field when we're giving our offenses a chance to rest."
Aliotti's defense isn't necessarily defined by one overriding philosophy. He's changed his approach from year to year based on the personnel. Last year's team, which suffered a rash of injuries to its secondary early in the season, stuck mostly to the basics and was shredded late in the year by quarterbacks like Stanford's Andrew Luck and Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor.
This season, with a secondary led by stalwart cornerbacks Harris and Talmadge Jackon to go with veterans up front (senior defensive tackle Brandon Bair, senior defensive end Kenny Rowe) and at linebacker (seniors Casey Matthews and Spencer Paysinger), Oregon has been much more aggressive, blitzing "more than any team we've played," said Newton. Harris, a sophomore starter leads the nation with 20 passes defended, estimates the Ducks stay in man coverage 60 percent of the time.
The extra risks sometimes result in breakdowns early (like Arizona receiver Justin Criner's 85-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter of their Nov. 26 game) but seem to pay off with back-breaking turnovers later (rover Eddie Pleasant's 46-yard fumble return to help break open a 31-31 game against Stanford).
"I guess you can call it a 'bend-but don't break' defense,' if that's someone's opinion," said Oregon's All-American safety John Boyett. "When you come into a game and a team gets a couple of early scores, it's more a matter of settling down and making a few adjustments."
"It's a pretty neat thing," said Bair. "We don't come out any harder in the second half then the first half. It might look that way but we're still doing what we do. We're really consistent.
"The biggest thing for us is we play with relentlessness. We have a vision of what this defense is supposed to look like: Constantly running to the ball and having the entire team there making tackles."
Presumably, it's going to take a team full of Ducks to bring down the 6-foot-6, 250-pound Newton, who outweighs all but three of Oregon's defenders. A unit that's feasted on interceptions (20, including five each by Harris and Boyett) will need to fluster the typically unflappable Heisman winner (he's thrown six interceptions all season).
"We're definitely going to bring pressure," said Matthews. "If you bring three or four rushers, he can sit back and pick you off. You've got to get pressure on him and force him to make bad decisions."
No one's managed to do it yet, but Oregon may be as equipped as anybody. Consider: Newton leads the country (and would currently set an NCAA record) with his 188.2 pass efficiency rating, but the Ducks rank sixth nationally in pass efficiency defense (101.7). That puts them one spot ahead of Auburn's arch-rival Alabama, which came closer than anyone this season to stopping Newton (who notched 255 total yards) and the Tigers (who rallied to win 28-27).
"Obviously, Cam Newton's the head of the beast" said Bair. "We've got to make sure that we're good on all aspects."
Oregon's defenders speak almost universally with confidence and swagger. Their frenzied defensive coordinator, on the other hand, nearly brought down the house with his self-deprecating shtick this week. "I've been sleeping like a baby," he said of preparing for Newton and the Tigers. "I wake up every two hours and cry."
Toward the end of a roughly half-hour media session on Wednesday, Aliotti -- without any prompting -- suddenly morphed into locker-room, pep talk mode.
"If we can just get ONE MORE STOP than they do!" he shouted to a circle of reporters. "One more! One more for the Duckies! ... Then that will be good."
That might not be good enough for Harris. The great white shark wants to devour the Tigers.