Oregon’s defense substantially improved on all metrics that I track and across virtually every situational category compared to last year as the Ducks were far more deeply invested in the Mint defensive structure. In the aggregate, they successfully defended 60.1% of opponents’ plays prior to garbage time (350 successes vs 233 failures, given the down & distance), at an average of 5.7 adjusted YPP and 12% achieving explosive yardage.
Those are championship-caliber numbers in total, though they just barely meet the threshold and there’s room for improvement to become an elite defense in some of the individual categories.
The most significant improvement and clearest point of emphasis in the “Mintification” of the defense (a term I am somewhat embarrassed to have seen caught on) is in efficiency pass defense. The Ducks improved to a 61.1% defensive success rate against the pass (226 vs 144), an enormous jump of six and a half percentage points from 2022’s rate. They also improved by more than half a yard in passing average allowed, from 7.1 adjusted YPA in 2022 to 6.4 in 2023.
These pass defense improvements are borne out across down & distance situational categories as well (insufficient data for 3rd & short/medium and 4th down passing analyses):
- 54.9% on 1st down, up 3.3 points
- 71.4% on 2nd & short, up 24.1 points (!)
- 66.8% on 2nd & medium, no change
- 63.6% on 2nd & long, up 3.9 points
- 73.5% on 3rd & long, up 12.5 points (!)
Pass defense in the 70s on 2nd & short (the low-risk “take a shot” down for the offense) and 3rd & long (the “get off the field” down for the defense) are incredible numbers to have and vital to shutting down opposing offenses’ scoring. However, while Oregon did improve compared to 2022 on 1st down pass defense and are above average at about 55%, they could still stand to improve a few points to achieve championship caliber here – that would produce more 3 & outs.
The defense in 2023 allowed about 14% of opponents’ passes to gain 15+ yards. In 2022, the explosive pass defense number was 12%, and this is the only metric of the six major ones I track through charting that got worse compared to the previous year (the only one out of 12, if offense is included). It can be explained by playing the Huskies and their explosive passing offense twice – if either one of the October or December games is excluded from the dataset but the other retained, then the figure falls to 11.5% and the Ducks would have improved slightly. However, that still wouldn’t meet the championship threshold, in my experience, of 10%, and it’s clearly the area that needs the most work regardless.
Rush defense improved in all major metrics compared to 2022: up more than three and a half points to 58.2% defensive success rate (124 vs 89), allowing a third of a yard less on average at 4.37 adjusted YPC, and fewer than 8.5% of opponents’ designed rushes gained 10+ yards (the best explosive rush defense I’ve ever charted for the Ducks and the second best in my entire history behind Georgia in 2021 at 8.1%).
While this was the best efficiency rush defense Oregon has fielded since 2014 (even the excellent 2019 defense was relatively vulnerable to efficiency runs at a barely above average 53.3%, although that squad was elite at YPC and explosive rush prevention), they were still about two points below the championship threshold of 60%. Part of this is simply the challenge of the Mint defensive structure, which deliberately selects pass-stopping instead of run-stopping linebacker body types and has them play back in a “spill & kill” philosophy that sacrifices some immediate up-the-gut run-plugging to gain advantages elsewhere. I suspect this area will always lag a little behind the other defensive metrics for structural reasons as long as this system is in place; it was, relatively speaking, the weakest area in Georgia’s defense as well when I studied Coach Lanning’s defense there prior to coming to Oregon.
The way that this “Mintification” effect played out was most clear in the situational numbers for rush defense. Oregon enjoyed improvements over 2022 to highly effective rates on early downs: 68.5% on 1st down and about 60% on 2nd down regardless of distance, up around nine percentage points for each compared to the previous season.
However, the defense declined in effectiveness by about two and a half points on 3rd & short compared to 2022 to around 44%, the only analyzable situation on either side of the ball in which the Ducks did worse than the previous year (opposing offenses switched almost entirely to passing on 3rd & medium/long so there aren’t enough data to examine). Giving up a little over half of 3rd & short conversions is pretty normal in college football so that’s not an embarrassing number, in fact it’s slightly better than average, but it’s indicative of the defensive philosophy and possibly an area where the staff may wish to concentrate talent enhancement to get off the field earlier.
Oregon had two nose tackles, Popo Aumavae and Taki Taimani, and two other defensive tackles over 300 lbs, Casey Rogers and #95 DT Ware-Hudson. They played the remarkably versatile 290 lbs Brandon Dorlus all over the line, he’s officially listed as a DE but I saw him line up everywhere from a 3-tech to a 7. South Carolina transfer #1 DE Burch surprised me by bulking up to 290 lbs and playing 5-tech instead of slimming down to play the pass-rushing weakside “Jack” OLB I expected him to. Veteran Mase Funa started at strongside OLB, with journeyman Jake Shipley backing him up. As expected for such an experienced and well coached group, they performed very well on my tally sheet, each one over 83% in assignment discipline except Rogers who came in at 76%. Burch had a truly exceptional year with over 92% grades in outside run-stopping, one of the best I’ve ever recorded at setting the edge and shutting down even NFL-bound offensive linemen.
The experiment in 2023 was that the four other defensive players who saw extensive meaningful time were all freshmen on the edges: #17 OLB Purchase, #44 OLB Tuioti, #10 DE Uiagalelei, and #32 OLB Winston. It paid off, with high marks on my tally sheet for all of them over the 78% mark, with the one redshirt freshman in Winston coming in at over 90% in playing his assignment properly.
The inside linebackers are trickier to grade. Overall, this unit’s cumulative grades are up more than seven points compared to 2022, as significant roster turnover to get more appropriate body types for the defensive structure meant only one returner to this group in #2 ILB Bassa. His individual grades are about the same as they were in 2022, about 72% - the same physical issues in getting off blocks from big offensive linemen and bringing down the toughest backs and tight ends persist. But Bassa played the majority of snaps and his leadership in identifying and signaling the play to his teammates was obvious, so much so that there’s a measurable tick down of a little under two percentage points in defensive effectiveness across the board when he rotated off the field outside of garbage time, controlling for all other factors.
For the first six games of the season, the inside backer I believe was the choice to be the other starter beside Bassa, Iowa transfer #4 ILB Jacobs, was unavailable with injury. As such he only has half as many snaps to evaluate, and with so much rust to knock off (he missed the entire 2022 season with injury as well) his dataset should probably be taken with a grain of salt. Jacobs’ physical build is great for the position at 6’4” and has no difficulty engaging blockers and ballcarriers. He graded out much better against the run, about 78%, but his pass defense grades could use some improvement at just 70%, especially on not biting on play-action fakes given the nature of the defense asks for pass defense first and foremost.
Converted nickelback Jamal Hill, who would become the third backer once Jacobs was available starting in week 8, got less than half the snaps however, as they rotated a whole cast of other backers during the first part of the season with Jacobs out – baseball player #28 ILB Boettcher, redshirt freshman #26 ILB Jackson, and ASU transfer #21 ILB Soelle.
Jackson continued to get a few meaningful reps every game as the fourth backer with Jacobs in the lineup, but Boettcher and Soelle didn’t. Hill graded out fine as a rotational backer, and the rest I don’t have enough non-garbage time snaps to confidently grade though I’ll say that Jackson’s speed to the play impressed me and clips of his made my review articles several times.
Despite the loss of NFL first round draft selection Christian Gonzalez, the cumulative grades in the outside cornerback unit went up in 2023 compared to 2022. Alabama transfer Khyree Jackson graded out at only about two and a half points behind him on my tally sheet at 82.5% in coverage during his one year as replacement, though curiously he was the corner that opposing QBs went after the most, and he missed a bit of time with injury and sat out the final game.
The overall jump in performance came from the other starter, #6 CB Florence, stepping up and playing at a high level at 81%, although he missed a significant amount of time with injury. Trikweze Bridges, a converted safety who was pressed into starting in 2022 opposite Gonzalez, became a backup in 2023 and his grades jumped nearly 20 points, although on a much smaller sample size so that’s to be taken with a grain of salt. The outside corner with the third most meaningful snaps in 2023 was #8 CB Manning, he graded out at 79% after a promising 2022 but without quite enough to evaluate for growth comparison.
Injuries and unavailabilities played a significant role in the secondary rotation and makes some of the evaluation difficult. In the first four games they had a flexible system in which #25 CB Reed would play slot corner in certain situations, #0 DB Ty. Johnson would switch between nickel and deep safety, and they had options to play Fresno St transfer Evan Williams down in the box or backed out at the boundary.
But when Bryan Addison left the lineup in week 5 for personal reasons and subsequently transferred out, and at about the same time outside corner injuries started to mount, the staff reigned in the rotations almost entirely. They kept Reed on the sidelines or only put him in as a reserve outside corner, brought Steve Stephens off the bench to play field safety, and had Johnson play full-time nickelback. There were five other safeties on the roster (a junior, a redshirt freshman, and three true freshmen) but we only saw one of them, Cole Martin, for a handful of meaningful snaps and the rest not at all, with a few of those players struggling with injuries.
This resulted in the same three players – Johnson, Stephens, and Williams, the last with a club on his hand for the last several games of the year – to play virtually every meaningful snap from week 5 onwards. That’s pretty unusual for a Power-5 program; for fatigue reasons alone most programs prefer to relieve their safeties at least somewhat, even if it means a temporary step down in performance.
Beyond that I just didn’t think any of those three were in ideal situations: in my opinion Williams is much better in the box (79% grades) than as a deep safety (66%), Johnson is much better deep (76%) than playing press man as a nickel (63%) as this defense asks him to, and Stephens has graded out as the lowest performing defensive player for two years running on my tally sheet (52%).
I would have liked to see Reed go back to playing slot corner (75%), with Johnson taking over for Stephens deep, and if they had to play Bridges on the outside to make that happen due to Florence and/or Jackson being out then I still think that would have balanced out better between fatigue relief and playing guys at better positions for their skillsets.
More reading: 2023 Offensive Statistical Review