Oregon’s football season thus far has been anything but consistent, there’s no arguing that point. Ups and downs. Wins and losses. Swag and frustration.
But if there was one thing that could be considered the most consistent within an overall inconsistent storyline this fall it’s the improvement, and overall attitude adjustment of the unit which has the past couple years become a platform for scrutiny.
I’m referring, of course, to Oregon’s defense.
Last season, it could be argued there was but one effort by the squad then led by Brady Hoke that could be deemed properly productive, and that came in a dramatic 30-28 victory over a Utah team that was, at the time, ranked #11 in the country. But on the whole, Oregon’s defense was nothing short of atrocious, surrendering 41.4 points per contest while allowing the opponent to compile 50+ four times.
The pinnacle of this frustrating trend by the unit which was often considered the Robin to the offense’s Batman came against the despised University of Washington, a team which, ever since the infamous “pick” had constantly come up short against their neighbors to the South. As a matter of fact, since Kenny Wheaton dashed his way into the end zone on that fateful October afternoon Oregon had won 16 of the last 19 meetings and 12 straight in the series. But on an October afternoon last season Washington saw a bay window for redemption and pounced. The Huskies were on top of their game, and Oregon was faltering like it hadn’t in decades. The result wasn’t pretty, as Washington threw 70 points on the scoreboard and probably could have toyed with 80 or more if they hadn’t taken their foot off the gas. It was the ultimate embarrassment to Oregon’s most hated rival, and the sight of purple-clad Husky fans celebrating on Rich Brooks field was enough to make even the casual Duck fan slightly nauseous.
Make no mistake, Washington was the superior team, and with revenge on its mind was not going to lose that game anyway. But a margin of victory that wide was more than just the result of Washington’s vengeance. The team, particularly the defense, quit.
It’s one of the most disheartening things to witness and yet the Duck faithful had to witness it firsthand last season on multiple occasions. With the deficit getting larger and there being less and less to play for, the players would simply pack it in and simply play the game because they had to, and nothing more.
Fast forward a year and even though Washington again took advantage of an Oregon team far from its A-game and again won going away, something felt different.
The game was out of reach by the 3rd quarter, the Ducks had a bye week approaching, it was a miserable night weather-wise, and this was not a must-win for an Oregon team that only needed to win one of the final three games to become bowl-eligible. If there was ever a situation in which it would have been reasonably understandable to quit, this would have been it.
But they didn’t.
The players continued to fight, make plays, and in the 4th quarter with the game well in hand for UW, Oregon produced a goal line stand to keep the Huskies from the 40 point margin, something the UO defense has only allowed once this season after allowing it six times last year. There have been lapses, certainly, but behind them has been a different sort of focus and attitude not seen in several years. Granted, Oregon was beaten soundly by UW, Washington State, and Stanford. UCLA didn’t have much trouble with them after the first half either. This, however, is also a major byproduct of Justin Herbert’s injury and his backup Braxton Burmeister’s inability to throw the ball down the field or improvise in the passing game when pressured. The one-dimensional offense quickly exits the field drive after drive, leaving the defense out there for the duration of the game and tiring them out.
Jim Leavitt was the first ever coach for the University of South Florida Bulls, the team head coach Willie Taggart had command of before taking the Oregon job. By 2006, he had led them to two straight bowl appearances and began being touted by the Alabama Crimson Tide, who coveted him so much that officials reportedly sent him an offer and a contract to sign. And during the 2007 season, Leavitt showed why he was such a hot commodity as the Bulls improbably skyrocketed to #2 in the country before ending up in the Sun Bowl where a certain team from the Pacific Northwest, who had also at one point been #2 that season, handed them a sound thumping.
After working as linebackers coach for the San Francisco 49ers alongside former Stanford headman and Taggart buddy Jim Harbaugh, Leavitt again made an impact when he arrived in Boulder, Colorado as the defensive coordinator for the Buffaloes. Although they had a rich history which included a National Title, the Buffs had been a bottom-dweller since joining the Pac-12 conference in 2011, and had always been easy fodder for Oregon on the gridiron. That changed on a sunny September afternoon in Eugene when the Buffaloes pulled of an, at the time, shocking 41-38 victory at Autzen Stadium that sent the two programs in different directions for the remainder of the season. Before anyone knew what happened the team generally designated for the basement of the conference had won 10 games and was South Division champions.
This performance, along with the ties to Harbaugh and USF, made Leavitt an easy pick for Taggart upon his introduction as Oregon’s new skipper last December. Although sometimes intense to the point of controversy (Leavitt was dismissed by USF after it was alleged he struck a player in the locker room), there’s no denying the results the wily veteran coach produces. Within the first few games of the season, Oregon had already matched its interception total from 2016. Jalen Jelks, a relatively unknown factor the year before, has become a stud along the defensive line. And after posting FBS ranks of 126th in total defense, 122nd in 3rd down defense, 69th in sacks, 81st in interceptions, and 102nd in tackles for loss, Oregon had vaulted to 46th, 11th, 3rd, 23rd, and 17th in those same categories by midseason.
This Saturday Oregon will welcome Khalil Tate to Autzen, a backup QB who took the reigns of the Arizona Wildcats’ offense in October and ran with it. Then ran some more. Then ran even more. In fact, Tate ran his way right into college football’s record books as nobody has been able to figure out how to slow the blazing athlete down as he’s used his motor legs to leave opposing defenses in the dust. Arizona now sits in the top 25 and with the probability of Justin Herbert returning to the field growing daily, this could well provide Oregon with an opportunity to salvage a frustrating season with a strong finish and a decent bowl berth.
But regardless of Herbert’s presence under center, regardless of the inclimate weather Arizona isn’t used to dealing with, despite the roar of the ever-rowdy Autzen crowd, Oregon will need its defense to have a strong showing to obtain victory in this one.
And if Leavitt has any say in the matter, a strong showing is exactly what we can expect. Not only Saturday…but heading forward into future seasons.