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The Stats Aftermath for USC: The 5 Stages of Grieving for an Elite Defense

The USC game angered me. I was upset during the game, I was upset after the game. I was more stressed out about a game than I've been in a long time; probably the last time I was this stressed was against Arizona in 2007. Where was this elite defense that I was so proud to have on the Ducks? What on earth happened to that swarming, sacking monster that I had seen in the last 8 games? It was lost - and like anything that is loved and lost, grieving follows.

I bet Ifo wasn't happy with his performance against USC either
I bet Ifo wasn't happy with his performance against USC either
Stephen Dunn

Stage 1: Denial

This was me during the game. I saw Ifo Ekpre-Olomu make the back of the end zone interception and thought 'there's that elite defense - now it's time to boatrace.' And we scored again, making it a 21-3 early lead.

And then there was a bomb to a totally unknown receiver (at least outside of USC). And two drives later, there was the exact same thing to Marqise Lee. Which brings up the first stat:

2nd: the ranking of USC's offensive explosiveness as measured by FEI before the game. If Oregon is known for their explosive running attack, USC is as good on explosive, long passing. This is something that should have been expected and was one of the few things that the advanced stats did predict well. The difference is knowing that a team is explosive vs. watching them hang 150 yards and two TDs on two long passes on you.

Stage 2: Anger

As the game ended and then through the night. How could this happen? How could a team that had shut down Arizona's vaunted offense completely and pretty much locked down Arizona State's offense while stopping almost anything else they saw give up this many points, this many yards, and just not have any actual stops in a game? USC was ranked in the 30s by S+P for crying out loud; they were worse than Arizona State! Eff you, S+P! Eff you, FEI! Lying liars that lie, the lot of them.

4: number of first-year quarterbacks that Oregon has faced this season in the Pac-12.(Arizona, ASU, Colorado, WSU)

1: number of 4th-year quarterbacks that Oregon has faced this season (that would be Matt Barkley)

Doing well against a first-year starter isn't the same thing as doing well against a senior - especially one as good as Barkley. And while Barkley didn't actually have that great of stats overall (35 of 55 is not particularly accurate, and <10 yards per attempt is good but not stellar - this was close to what WSU did) the one thing that he did that basically no other QB Oregon faced has done is that he didn't press. When they were down by 18 early in the second quarter all they did was flip the field immediately. Down 10 at half they went out and scored. Getting an interception early, Barkley threw a 75 yard TD on the next offensive play he had.

This is something hard, something that stats doesn't often look at, and it's something that Oregon excels at doing to the opposing team usually. Our defense works so well because of how well they mesh with the psychology of what the offense does. It's pressure, and then more pressure, and then forcing more mistakes. I've said often that Oregon has a sort of 'win more' mentality where a small mistake leads to bigger mistakes and then it's a 21-point win (like it was against Stanford in 2010 and 2011 and like it was against USC in 2010). But that doesn't work as well against really cool customers - and Barkley was a cool customer.

Stage 3: Bargaining

The morning afterwards. Okay, so some of the stats were wrong. What was right? Well, the big glaring obvious one was how S+P saw Oregon's offense against the USC defense. 400 yards of rushing was right on the money as far as the #2 team in the nation went against the #60 rushing defense, and Oregon even did well on passing downs, on passing, on...well, just about everything. Kenjon Barner had one run that had negative yardage. Oregon had a total of 3 drives that did not have TDs at the end - one was on an unforced fumble, one was on a missed field goal, and the final was on a punt where we didn't care about anything other than eating their timeouts.

USC was also really good at explosive drives, which is what FEI predicted.

So okay, both FEI and S+P completely missed on how the defense would play for Oregon (both saw this as the primary advantage Oregon had). The amazing passing defense was completely not there. Fine. But at least a couple things were right. That's good, right? Maybe it'll be better next week. Maybe it'll be good for predicting offensive performance, or at least our offensive performance.

0: the number of yards by both teams on punt returns. Seriously, not only were there only two punts all game, those punts both happened to land inside the 20 and both had no return yards. Craziness.

Stage 4: Depression

Much of Sunday. This was a championship caliber team - a team with the second best offense and defense in the nation! Sure, our overall stats weren't incredible but even basic stats were outstanding when you took garbage time out of the mix. And all that? Lies, damn lies and statistics.

If we give up 51 to a USC team that's been meh for much of the season, how can we play a high-caliber team like KState? Wouldn't the highly efficient Alabama team just roll over us? What would the Georgia offense do? We'd lose. And lose bad. And then lose Kelly to the NFL while suffering sanctions, and...ugh. We're done for. This was the last, best chance for a national championship for Oregon in my lifetime, and it just went up in smoke. Sure, we won - but so what? We got embarrassed nationally. If we do get in to the NCG somehow, we'll just lose. Right? Bah.

0: number of seconds Oregon was losing in the USC game.

9: number of first downs above USC's average that USC gained.

-6.6/-53: the difference between USC's average penalties/penalty yards per game and how many they had this game.

18/162: the difference between USC's average attempts and yards/game and how many they had this game.

-20.9: Oregon's proximate value on defense for the USC game as defined by FEI. This was 23.6 point worse than their next worse performance, which was the game against Colorado. (2.7)

Stage 5: Acceptance

What finally got me over was this bit of ribbing from my wife about my reaction to the game. Let me sum up.

There's a team that gave up over 150 yards more than their average to a QB that has been at best inconsistent, on the road. This is a team that has had an outstanding defense all year long and then somehow makes the opposing QB look like a worldbeater this day. And unlike many games, they had to rely on their offense to pull out the victory.

That team: Alabama. Alabama made Zack Mettenberger look like an all-world QB. He was able to throw on Bama for much of the day. LSU scored significantly over their average on offense, threw for more than at any time this season (against Alabama!), scored more than Alabama allowed all season, and in general looked great.

Now, does anyone think that Alabama is a bad defense? Maybe it's not the most amazing one in the history of ever, and it's clear that it can be beat - but it's certainly still a very strong defense and one of the best if not the best in the nation. Does anyone think Alabama can't win a title now?

That's what happened to the Ducks to a large degree. Yes, 51 points were given up (though realistically only 45 are non-garbage time). Yes, Barkley and Lee and Woods and Redd and Agholor looked great. No, we didn't get sacks and didn't get a lot of pressure. And we gave up more explosive plays this game than we had almost the entire season. At the same time, we forced three turnovers, a punt, and did enough.

Is the Oregon defense overrated? Yep. Playing against weak QBs with not a ton of experience helped our stats, as did our defense getting opportunistic early, our offense doing great, and teams simply fearing Oregon. USC didn't fear us, and they showed what happened when composure was kept. Oregon's D is certainly not as good as a #2 overall ranking in the world.

.3: The number of yards per attempt difference that USC had per pass compared to their average.

14: the number of plays USC had against Oregon over their average

-45.2: the FEI proximate value of USC's defense for the game. This was lower than Baylor's defensive performance against West Virginia.

-1.8: The value of Alabama's defense against LSU.

The fact is that USC played better in many ways than they ever have this season, at least on offense. They had fewer than average sacks (though they only average about 1.3 sacks a game), much fewer than average penalties. They had close to their average in completion% (-1% off). They had fewer fumbles than average. They turned the ball over about as often as they normally do. Some times another team plays amazingly, and sometimes your team doesn't play as well as you'd hoped they would or how well they've played before. Alabama can tell you all about their defense not playing as well as they'd have liked as well, and Notre Dame certainly can tell you how lucky they got.

Oregon didn't get hugely lucky. They didn't play as well as I think they are capable of and made some fairly big mistakes here and there. They were hurt by phantom penalties and missed calls. They did get lucky on an interception that was dropped - but that was about it. Everything else, Oregon earned.

So I guess I'll accept that Oregon isn't the elite defense that I thought they were going into this game. They're still a very good defense and will likely not have any major tests for the rest of the regular season; they will be facing a backup QB in Cal, two potential first-year starters at Stanford and either Mannion or Vaz, neither of whom has a ton of experience. And if they end up facing USC in the Pac-12 championship it won't be on the road - otherwise it'll be the Arizona schools again or the freshman at UCLA, and the road goes through Oregon. That doesn't mean Oregon as a team won't be challenged and it doesn't mean that Oregon won't give up more points and yards - but it won't be this bad again for a while.

I can live with that.

Finally, let me know if you liked this format or would prefer a bit more by the numbers analysis after the game, or if you'd like something else. Thanks!