This has been a pretty strange season for the Ducks. As I said earlier week, it never felt like we got to know this team as it beat up on average competition for most of the season.
Well, an identity has emerged, and on defense it's not one that many Duck fans expected. In what seems like a very short time, the Oregon defensive line is playing at the highest level since Haloti Ngata anchored the middle of the Oregon defense. The Ducks struggled early, especially the play of the ends. Terrell Turner was not playing well. Dion Jordan looked lost. The defense tackles weren't getting pushed around, but weren't making many plays either. But over the course of the Pac-12 season, the improvement has been building into the domination we saw last week against Stanford.
Wade Keliikipi and Taylor Hart have been anchoring the middle of the defense. They don't make plays at the rate that Brandon Bair or Zac Clark did last season, but they have a physical presence that we've been sorely lacking the past. These two do not get pushed around, even by Stanford's elite offensive line. But they take up space, and allow Oregon's talented linebackers to make plays.
This success has opened the way for Oregon ends and outside linebackers to wreak havoc on opposing protection schemes. In conference play, the Ducks are averaging an astounding 4 sacks per game, nearly 50% more than any other team. Josh Kaddu and Dion Jordan have become sack machines, bringing pressure constantly. But the beauty of the interior line play is that it allows Nick Aliotti's defensive schemes to be used to their full potential. Even the top QB in the nation had no idea where the pressure was coming from last week. And when the Ducks didn't bring pressure, that was confusing as well, directly contributing to Andrew Luck's first interception of the day. The Ducks mix their blitz packages and coverages in ways that no QB can keep up. They can do this because of the interior play, and the versatility of their front 7.
With this group playing at such a high level, it makes the job of the secondary inside linebackers and secondary much, much easier. How good have Michael Clay, DeWitt Stuckey, Eddie Pleasant, and John Boyett been this year? They've been pretty spectacular, not only because they are all great players, but because they have such consistency in front of them.
This week, they face the most dangerous offense they have all year. Though USC is battling some injury issues, they are still playing at a higher level than they have all season. They have true deep threats in the receiving corp, and have a running game to keep the Ducks off balance.
But despite the threat that USC poses, I'm confident that this Oregon defense will be able to handle the Trojans. I'm not expecting a shut-out, but I am expecting the Ducks to hold the Trojans well below their season averages.
With the way that the Ducks are playing, and the talent and depth across the board, there is no matchup where USC will be able to assert its will. USC's receivers will get open, but with the front 7 bringing pressure, Matt Barkley will have little time to find his open men. The USC rushing game is competent, but Oregon bottled up a much more dangerous Stanford running game last week.
As much attention as the Oregon offense gets, the defense is what has me excited about this weekend.