FOX Sports Exclusive
How long can Oregon outrun defense?
If it looks like a Duck, walks like a Duck and quacks like a Duck, you can count on one thing: It doesn’t play any defense.
That is about the only conclusion that could be drawn in assessing Oregon’s national championship prospects after its nationally broadcast 62-51 litmus test of a victory over USC at a sold-out Los Angeles Coliseum on Saturday night.
Oregon tailback Kenjon Barner, who raced for 321 yards and five touchdowns, was sensational and redshirt freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota was precocious as the Ducks’ fast-paced spread offense ran up the most points and yards by an opponent in USC’s storied history.
But as the BCS race marches into its final month, with four teams still unbeaten, the question for Oregon will be whether it can run away from its defense?
That’s what Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti was trying to do Saturday night after his unit allowed 615 yards and forced the Trojans to punt only once.
“I appreciate you all being here,” Aliotti said with a smile to the dozen media members who greeted him as he stepped outside of the locker room. “But I don’t know why you’re interviewing me. Aren’t there any offensive players and coaches to talk to?”
The Ducks were ranked No. 4 this week in the BCS standings, behind defending national champion Alabama and fellow unbeatens Kansas State and Notre Dame. But most analysts believe that since the Ducks are ranked No. 2 behind Alabama in the two polls, and could finish their season against four ranked opponents (Stanford, Oregon State and perhaps two meetings with USC) that they’ll be in the BCS title game if they win out.
All four teams had their issues Saturday. Alabama and Notre Dame survived scares, and Kansas State lost Heisman Trophy candidate Collin Klein with an undetermined injury.
But if those can be glossed over as character builders, another ghastly defensive performance by Oregon — and the Ducks could see the Trojans again in the Pac-12 championship game — could leave some voters reconsidering their ballots, thinking they’re watching the West Coast version of West Virginia.
While an unbeaten team from a BCS conference has not been left out of the title game since Auburn in 2004, voters will have plenty of material to consider if they’re assessing who most deserves a shot at Alabama.
Oregon and Notre Dame, if they are to finish unblemished, will provide quite the contrast.
(Maybe the Coaches Kelly — Chip and Brian — ought to consider a merger, matching Oregon’s offense with Notre Dame’s defense.)
Each would have beaten Stanford at home and USC on the road — the Ducks have the Cardinal remaining and the Irish finish their season at USC. But Notre Dame, which needed another late rally to beat Pittsburgh in overtime, has won at Oklahoma — a road victory that will be hard for the Ducks to match. Kansas State has also won at Oklahoma, along with a rout at West Virginia.
The talking point Oregon players and coaches clung to Saturday night was extolling the virtues of USC quarterback Matt Barkley and receivers Marqise Lee and Robert Woods. They may have also wanted to include freshman Nelson Agholor.
But as talented as the Trojans might be, they managed only 14 points against Stanford, 24 against Washington and 27 against Cal. USC scored more points against Oregon than it did against Colorado, which might be the worst team in the six power conferences.
“We felt like if we could hold serve, that was a big deal for us,” said Kelly, whose defense broke serve on the Trojans four times, getting two turnovers in the red zone, forcing one punt and holding on downs late in the game.
Asked if it were fair for skeptics to wonder how good Oregon could be if its defense allowed 50 points, linebacker Michael Clay said: “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion. We know we can play. That’s a great offense over there.”
Those were the questions Oregon thought it had answered by blowing out every other opponent by halftime and shutting out Arizona 49-0, the Ducks’ first conference shutout since 2003. But Oregon’s schedule has been extremely soft, and Arizona did manage six trips inside the red zone.
The Ducks really don’t seem much different than usual. They stop the other guys just enough to get the ball for their offense. They frequently blitz, load the box and play man-to-man, looking for a turnover or a drive-killing loss.
Against USC, what they got was burned — repeatedly.
The first time Oregon played cover 2, Barkley launched a 75-yard scoring bomb to Lee on a one-man route. Barkley also tossed a 76-yard scoring pass to Agholor. The Ducks were flagged for four pass-interference penalties.
Finding a silver lining, Aliotti noted that “we held Marqise Lee to half of what he caught last week,” when Lee established Pac-12 records with 16 catches for 345 yards.
“I want to protect our kids,” Aliotti said. “We were a little outmatched maybe in some areas. There’s no waiver wire, and I’m glad there’s no waiver wire because I love our kids because they understand that you play until the clock says zero and they hung in there.”
Kelly said he did not believe his team had to score in the 40s, 50s and 60s to win every game, noting that the Ducks lost to Auburn 22-19 for the national championship two seasons back.
But if the Ducks can’t beat a decent team with their offense and defense between now and mid-December, the question won’t be if they can win a national championship without any defense.
It will be whether they can even get there.
More Stories From Billy Witz