Coming into this season, there was a lot of buzz around the Oregon defense, and that continued through 3 games into the season, as the Ducks shut out two opponents and led the nation in total defense.
But since then the Oregon defense has seemingly taken a half step backwards. They gave up 597 yards to Arizona State (while forcing 7 turnovers), they gave up 31 points in one half to Stanford (though none in the second half), and they allowed Washington State to move the ball far more than any fan would have liked (though they held WSU to 4.4 yards per play).
While this has caused a bit of anguish amongst Duck fans, I'm not yet all that concerned. This is the fastest and deepest defense that Oregon has ever put on the field, and have shown what they can do when they play focused football, holding opposing teams to 13 points in the second half this season.
Unfortunately, they haven't always played up to that level. Confusion, misalignment, and missed tackles have led to some disconcerting plays. Ted Miller spoke to Nick Aliotti last week, and our defensive coordinator had this to say on the Ducks defensive performance overall this season:
I continue to love the way our kids are running to the ball and flying around and finishing plays. I'm loving their effort. I'm loving the camaraderie. Just the way they're handling themselves. They are fun to go to work with. They care about the game and that makes it fun. I'm not unhappy with a lot of things. The thing I most unhappy with is we, collectively, give up too many plays that, with all due respect, sometimes our opponents don't earn. We just make a mistake here or a mistake there. If you were talking about tennis it would be an unforced error. I think we're smarter than that and should be beyond that.
I think this is a spot on assessment. Unforced errors have simply killed the Ducks this year. From poor alignments against Tennessee, to failing to recognize motion against Arizona State, our defense has made mistakes it should not be making.
Against Stanford, there were two plays that stood out. First, there was this long TD run by Stefan Taylor:
On this play, it was as simple as poor tackling. It was a very simple play by Stanford, and the Ducks simply did not execute. Michael Clay had a shot at Taylor at the line of scrimmage, and simply whiffed the tackle. Brandon Hanna had a shot to stop Taylor for a decent gain, but missed as well.
While we can give a bit more credit to Stanford on this play, this was a play-action pass on 3rd and short. The confusion is seen before the play even starts with Talmadge Jackson III unsure of who he's supposed to be covering, and he ends up being a non-factor on the play.
The confusion spreads to the linebackers. Michael Clay gets sucked in for just a moment on the play action fake, and with 3 TEs breaking down the middle, and only 2 defenders back, it's a matter of simple numbers, and Fleener is left wide open. If Jackson had been on a receiver, or Clay had covered the middle as it was his responsibility, this play may have been stopped.
That didn't happen, and at the end of the day, that was 14 points the Ducks gave up due to easily correctable mistakes.
I think this defense could be very good. When they have locked things down, they have been very hard to move the ball against. The same Stanford offense that seemingly moved the ball at will could not run the ball during the second half, and the Ducks secondary excelled in the passing situations that were created.
The Oregon defense has the ability to dominate the UCLA offense. They did that last year, and can do so again. After the bye week, there won't be excuses for unfocused and confused play. This is a fast, strong, tenacious defense. They move better than any Oregon defense I've ever seen. They hunt down draws and screens and close on opposing ball carriers with amazing quickness.
But none of that means anything if the Ducks don't execute at the most basic level. As we move into the second half of the season, how Oregon cleans up these mistakes will be the difference between an undefeated season and a loss or two.
Against UCLA, I'll be looking for the Ducks to do just that, and play up to their potential. If they do that, UCLA will have a very difficult time keeping the game competitive.