Oregon’s defense lost so many players to the NFL over the last few years that there were bound to be questions. But not this many, and not this loud.
Questions abounded about how the Ducks would replace guys like defensive end/linebacker Dion Jordan, the No. 3 pick in the 2013 NFL draft to the Dolphins, and linebacker Kiko Alonso, the 46th pick in the second round of the 2013 draft to the Bills and a candidate for NFL defensive rookie of the year.
For the third straight year, the Oregon defense has improved its points allowed per game, and as if a league-leading offense isn’t enough, the 18.2 points the Ducks surrender tops the Pac-12 and ranks eighth nationally.
For a defensive unit that has not traditionally drawn heavy praise, particularly in comparison to the renowned offenses of Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich, Nick Aliotti’s group has already raised eyebrows.
“It does among people in the league, coaches and players,” said UA coach Rich Rodriguez, whose Wildcats will face the fifth-ranked Ducks on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. “They were really good defensively last year, too. They’re even better this year. They had guys drafted highly last year, and there’s five or six seniors, couple juniors and I think many of them will be playing Sundays.”
That’ll continue a recent trend, although one that is just now starting to even out.
Of the 27 Oregon players listed on NFL rosters, only 10 are on the defensive side. Only two them were drafted before 2010.
Led by linebacker Derrick Malone, who ranks fourth in the conference with 8.5 tackles per game, defensive end Tony Washington, who ranks third in the conference with 7.5 sacks and tied for fifth in tackles-for-loss with 11, and defensive backs Terrance Mitchell and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, the Oregon defense is among the best in the conference.
The Ducks also rank among the league’s best in pass defense (second, 211.1 yards per game), pass defense efficiency (first, 102.1) and turnover margin (first, 1.20 per game). The turnover margin may get Helfrich’s attention more than anything, because so much attention is paid to it during practice. There’s a reason Oregon leads the nation in turnover margin the last five years.
“It’s something we harp on every single day, just like blocking and tackling and footwork,” Helfrich said. “Like a lot of teams, we do a circuit of lots of things, offensively and defensively. We try to hammer it home in every possible way.”
It translates — turnovers have been key for the Ducks in their biggest games, both good and bad.
In a loss to then-No. 6 Stanford, the Ducks committed two costly turnovers — including a De’Anthony Thomas fumble at the Cardinal 2-yard line — that ultimately doomed them.
In wins over then-No. 16 Washington and then-No. 12 UCLA, Oregon used takeaways to douse any momentum for either team. After the Ducks scored on back-to-back drives to take a 21-7 second-quarter lead over the Huskies, Erick Dargan intercepted Keith Price on Washington’s next drive, and Oregon eventually cruised to the 45-24 win.
Against the Bruins, the Ducks intercepted Brett Hundley twice, including once after the UCLA offense drove to Oregon’s 13-yard line. Then, trailing by seven on the first play of the fourth quarter, Avery Patterson picked Hundley again and returned it to the UCLA 38. Seven plays later, Marcus Mariota found Bralon Addison for an 8-yard touchdown pass and the Ducks went on to win 42-14.
Every time an Oregon defensive player snatches the ball from the opponent, it’s as if they’re trying to hand it to an offensive teammate to say, “We’re here too.”
“I don’t know where the respect part of it lies,” Helfrich said. “I think we have a great defense, and when everybody is playing fast, sound, tackling, good things are going to happen.
“Hopefully that merits some respect.”
That’s a big deal around Eugene, where the defense has had to scratch and claw for some recognition, overshadowed by the dazzling Ducks’ offense.
“To a certain extent, our guys never doubted each other,” Helfrich said. “... There was a little chip on their shoulders — how bad this group was going to be compared to last year? When you return your entire secondary, entire defensive line, around here it was more of, ‘this guy’s next.’”