No. 2 Oregon's defense holds its own
Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti is a perfectionist. That 59-14 victory over Tennessee last Saturday?
''We did OK,'' he said.
How about a 66-3 win over Nicholls State in the opener? Or that 59-10 rout of Virginia in Game 2? With Aliotti, it's almost as if the defense has fallen short if they don't pitch a shutout.
''We're trying to run away from good and be great,'' he said.
While opponents haven't really challenged the second-ranked Ducks, their defense has increasingly shown its dexterity, most recently against Tennessee and its big offensive line.
Some of the credit goes to Oregon's quick-strike offense, which has helped strengthen what the Ducks are doing on the other side of the ball. Oregon's average time of possession is just over 22 minutes a game, last among all the FBS-level teams. Twenty-one of the Ducks' 25 scoring drives have taken less than two minutes.
That means the defense is on the field A LOT. Aliotti has responded by developing a system that quickly rotates players in and out in shifts, so as to keep the defense fresh. That, in turn, helps tire opposing offenses.
''We play a lot of plays. If you look back over the past five years, we're probably at the top for most plays,'' Aliotti said.
The Ducks are tied for fourth nationally in scoring defense, allowing an average of just 9 points a game.
Last season, Oregon's defense allowed just 21.6 points per game. But the Ducks lost some considerable talent and leadership from that squad, including top tacklers Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso, as well as defensive end Dion Jordan, taken third overall in this spring's NFL draft by the Miami Dolphins.
Heading into last Saturday's game, Tennessee was averaging 48.5 points per game. The 97 total points tied the record through two games set by the Peyton Manning-led Vols in 1992.
But the Ducks limited Tennessee to 316 yards total offense and just two scores, a 4-yard pass from Justin Worley to Jason Croom to open the game, and Alden Hill's 8-yard run to end it.
''I definitely felt the pressure,'' Worley said. ''I had more throwaways than the past few weeks, which is better than a sack in that situation, but they were pretty unconventional upfront.''
Running back Rajion Neal managed just 42 yards on the ground, and more than half of the Vols' 178 yards rushing came in the second half after many of Oregon's regular players had already left the game.
''Nick and the staff had a great plan for these guys and it was basically how we could hold up against their front which was outstanding. Our guys did a great job of rallying around the ball,'' Oregon's first-year head coach Mark Helfrich said.
Aliotti has been an assistant at Oregon for 21 years. He is known for the ''Gang Green'' defense that propelled the 1994 Ducks to the Rose Bowl. Always gregarious, he keeps postgame sessions with reporters light, but it's clear he's always addressing defensive shortcomings in his head and looking to the future.
''I'm worried about Cal already,'' he said after the victory over Tennessee. ''That's the first thing I thought about.''
The Ducks (3-0) have a bye this Saturday before hosting the Golden Bears (2-1), who also get the weekend off.
Cal poses a different threat to the Ducks because of quarterback Jared Goff, who averages 435.50 yards passing to lead the nation, with 34.33 completions per game. The Golden Bears, under new coach Sonny Dykes, are coming off a 52-34 loss to No. 4 Ohio State last weekend.
''No offense to anyone we've faced, but I don't think we've been challenged yet,'' Aliotti said.