Oregon offense gets the credit, but don't ignore Nick Aliotti's defense
The question, from an Alabama sports-talk radio host, would surely have riled up Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti if he'd heard it.
"Should we be concerned about Oregon's defense?" the host asked a couple of days after opening weekend. "I saw where they gave up 34 points to Arkansas State."
A cursory look at the box score shows the Ducks led that game 50-3 -- with more than seven minutes remaining in the second quarter. By game's end Aliotti had sent out a cast of walk-ons and scout teamers. A week later Oregon all but put away Fresno State, 35-6 at halftime, but the final score showed a more modest 42-25 margin.
And so, even after a 63-14 demolition of FCS foe Tennessee Tech last week, conventional stats show an Oregon defense one might consider middle-of-the-pack: It ranks 51st nationally in total defense (357.3 yards per game) and 66th in scoring defense (24.3 points). Much like in 2010, when Oregon won the majority of its 12 regular-season games by decisive margins en route to the BCS championship game, fans in other regions will write off the Ducks' defense as mediocre, even if other evidence suggests that's not remotely true.
Case in point: Aliotti's unit is allowing a more than respectable 4.7 yards per play, 32nd in the nation. Counting only the first halves of Oregon's three blowouts -- in which the Ducks allowed a combined 23 points -- that number drops to 4.2. Perhaps most impressively, the unit has allowed just 7-of-45 third-down conversions (15.6 percent), the third-best mark in the FBS.
But of course, those aren't the numbers that get mentioned on game broadcasts.
"I'd be remiss or not 100 percent truthful if I said [the statistics] don't bother me a little," said Aliotti, Oregon's raspy-voiced defensive coordinator of 16 years. "I'm not an excuse maker. I'd like to give up less points or less yards. But we played pretty darn good the first two games."
We'll all get a better read on the third-ranked Ducks' defense this weekend, when Oregon opens Pac-12 play at home against No. 22 Arizona. Through three games -- including an upset of defending Big 12 champion Oklahoma State -- Rich Rodriguez's Wildcats are averaging 54 points and 596.3 yards per game.
But with Rodriguez admitting that Arizona "does not have enough bodies on defense to do everything we want right now," it's conceivable Saturday's game will follow the same script as many others during the Chip Kelly era: Oregon's trademark blur offense -- led by playmakers like Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas -- will score often and quickly (14 of its 23 touchdown drives so far have taken less than two minutes). That will force Aliotti's defense back on the field more frequently, at which point allowing more yards and more points will become inevitable.
It was much the same two years ago, when the Ducks shredded opponents by averaging 47 points and 530 yards per game while holding the ball for just 27:55 in possession per game, 106th nationally. While Kelly's offense gained universal acclaim, Oregon's 34th-ranked defense went mostly unnoticed until the national championship, when it held Heisman winner Cam Newton to 2.9 yards per rushing attempt, lower than any foe besides Alabama.
The Ducks' defense played 963 snaps that season, more than all but 12 FBS teams, and allowed 4.67 yards per play, 11th in the nation. It also ranked 12th in the most important defensive statistic: points allowed per game (18.7).
"[Oregon's defense] gets somewhat overshadowed by the accomplishments of Chip's offense," said former Oregon coach Mike Bellotti, who hired both Kelly and Aliotti as coordinators. "But ... the defense is Nick's deal, and I think he should get more credit not just [for] what they've accomplished but what [the] whole team's accomplished."
It remains to be seen how the Ducks' 2012 defense will compare to the similarly veteran-laden 2010 squad, but those familiar with Oregon's personnel agree on one thing.
"They're fast," said Bellotti, now an ESPNU analyst. "Their linebackers, safeties and corners all run well."
Rodriguez agreed: "They're very athletic at every position. Sometimes you see a team that's maybe athletic at secondary or athletic at linebacker, but they're athletic at all their positions."
The Ducks' evolution into a speedier defense mirrors the program's larger philosophy since Kelly took over in 2009. Everything, from practice tempo to Kelly's interviews, is done quickly. For Aliotti, Oregon's defensive coordinator under three different head coaches (Rich Brooks in 1993-94 and Bellotti and Kelly since 1999), that's required significant adjustments in how he runs things.
"It was really hard because we went so darn fast [in practice] you couldn't coach on the field," Aliotti said, "and we went so darn fast [in games] we had to play defense like hockey, with guys jumping over the wall on to the ice."
With the amount of time Oregon's defense spends on the field, Aliotti has had no choice but to rotate in a slew of backups, including the entire second-string defensive line. The upside is that young players gain game experience. The downside is they're more prone to breakdowns.
"What Nick has done -- and it's taken about four years in Chip's system to learn it -- is if you play fast on offense, you have to play a lot of people on defense," said Bellotti. "It's been a good thing that they played somewhere between 18 to 23 players per year. It improves their depth, and it gives their inexperienced players an advantage in that they're playing real quality snaps when the game is on the line."
That depth is already being tested this season. Lingering knee injuries shelved preseason All-America and fourth-year starting free safety John Boyett after just one game. Boyett, who led the Ducks in tackles two of the past three seasons, was Oregon's most vocal defensive leader. However, his replacement, junior Avery Patterson, is hardly a newcomer. Patterson had 55 tackles in 2011.
The Ducks' strength is up front, where defensive end Dion Jordan (14 tackles, three tackles for loss) and linebackers Michael Clay and Kiko Alonzo lead a group of seven junior or senior starters. Touted freshman Arik Armstead, a 6-foot-8, 280-pound five-star recruit, runs with the second-string unit but is already making an impact.
"Our defense is playing with great effort and great intensity," said Kelly. "We've developed some depth in our first three games. They've got a great understanding of what Nick and our defensive coaches are tying to accomplish. We've got some veterans over there that have played a lot of snaps, that's helped."
Starting a few years ago, Aliotti transitioned from a traditional 4-3 to a hybrid 3-4, with linebackers who drop in and out of coverage. Aliotti's defenses are aggressive ("It's fun," said Clay. "You know you're going to blitz a lot."), which sometimes leaves them vulnerable to big plays (they allowed 49 plays of 20-plus yards during the 2010 season, 48th nationally), but also produces pressure on opposing quarterbacks (they ranked seventh in pass efficiency defense that same year) and creates turnovers (37 gained, more than all but one team nationally).
On Saturday, they'll look to wreak havoc on Arizona's fifth-year senior quarterback, Matt Scott, who has shined thus far in Rodriguez's spread-option offense, producing 395.0 yards per game. The Ducks have one advantage, though: They face nearly the same exact hurry-up spread offense in practice every day.
It's unrealistic to think Oregon will completely shut down the Wildcats. Even if the Ducks claim a decisive victory, the Wildcats will add more points and yards to Oregon's defensive ledger -- providing more fuel for skeptics in other regions.
"They're not going to put up numbers like Alabama and LSU, because those teams run the ball and take more time off the clock," said Bellotti. "Oregon's stats on defense are never going to be overwhelming unless you look at takeaways and yards per play."
Aliotti, whose celebrated 1994 "Gang Green" defense helped Oregon reach its first Rose Bowl in 36 years, will continue to walk a tightrope between celebrating the program's success and cringing at the sometimes unflattering defensive stats. But one thing makes it easier: He has his boss' approval.
"Coach Kelly, in four years, has never once gotten on the phone during a game, or come into our meeting, and complained, criticized, or said one thing negative about our defense," said Aliotti. "In fact, he's given it high praise 99 percent of the time."
It may be a little longer before the rest of the country comes around.