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Notes On Duck's Defense (Looking For Atonement)

As I mentioned earlier this am Oregon’s defense is a little bit under siege up in Eugene. Duck fans are not very happy with the performance of Nick Aliotti’s defense which gave up 44 points and a whopping 598 total yards against Southern Cal. Prior to date Duck’s defense also gave up huge chunks of yards and points to a potent Boise State offense on their home turf (424 yards and 37 points) [See]. The bloggers at Addicted to Quack are calling for the firing of Nick Aliotti.

Aliotti is of course a very familiar (nightmarish) name for all of us here on BN and if that last name doesn’t ring bell, I will just bring up the date: December 5, 1998 (and you can take it from there). Still unlike Bob Toledo who threw Aliotti under the bus by firing him after one disastrous season in Westwood, Mike Bellotti to his credit is sticking by his veteran DC. From the Portland Tribune:

Bellotti, on fans’ criticism of defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti: ""Ultimately, just put it on me."

And, "any time we lose a football game, everybody wants to place blame. That’s the way our society is today."

That is very classy and admirable on Bellotti’s part to stick up for his embattled DC (something we haven’t seen in Westwood this decade prior to CRN’s arrival in December).

It’s a good bet that Bellotti and Aliotti have been working over time this game week to get their defense back in form. Bellotti hinted at some schematic and personnel tweaks earlier in the week:

"Probably just schematically in the way we initially approach play-action passes, or down-and-distance where we think we're going to see it," Bellotti said. "Secondly, it could be personnel changes. I think we've got to find a way to be better. We went from being a very good defense to now, we've given up some passing yardage — and some of it via play action primarily — that is concerning."

Defending play-action situations — in which the offense fakes a running play and then looks to throw — was Oregon's Achilles' heel in both losses this season, to Boise State and USC.

Bellotti spoke in general terms of ways the Ducks could improve in those situations.

"The first thing is, you stop the run," Bellotti said, putting the onus not just on the secondary but the front seven as well.

Here is a little glimpse of how Boise State spliced open the Oregon defense with its play action passes (around 1:25, 1:51 and 2:18 mark of the video):

Boise State vs Oregon 2008 (via SandBagel)

Boise State was able to pick apart the Oregon defense because Chris Peterson have a well established system and a QB that allowed him to go deep (that’s a luxury not available to CRN and Norm Chow). Bellotti offered up the following thoughts in stopping the play action:

The first key to stopping the play-action pass is stopping the run, he adds, "without bringing nine people in the box."

It's a matter of "patience and training your eyes. We've been a little anxious to get to the football and aren't seeing the release of eligible receivers."

Also, "we need to make sure that we contain the quarterback, force him to stay in the pocket."

Well, against the UCLA offense Oregon defense will have an opportunity to settle down its defense. Given how our offense has struggled to put together a decent running game on a consistent basis this week, I think Oregon will put a premium on daring Bruins to beat them via our passing game. The key for UCLA will be here is to somehow get themselves in manageable situations on 2nd and 3rd downs. It will certainly help if KC can find a way to stretch the field against the Ducks, but I don’t think Chow will call plays that will depend on KC to force the action.

The Oregon defense has no shortage of talents. We mentioned Baca having to deal with Pac-10 leading sacker in Nick Reed. The defense also feature All American senior senior safety Patrick Chung:

S PATRICK CHUNG (6-0, 210, Sr.): Chung, a Rancho Cucamonga product, declared for the draft after last season but pulled out, opting to return for his senior season. A second-team AP All-American a year ago, he's one of the premier defensive players in the nation and is second on the team with 40 tackles.

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STRONGEST AREA: The secondary gets the job done. Strong safety Patrick Chung and cornerbacks Jairus Byrd and Walter Thurmond III are set to begin their third season starting together. The physical Chung is the best of the bunch, but Byrd and Thurmond combined for 12 interceptions - more than half of the team's total.

BIGGEST PROBLEM: Both starting tackles are gone, leaving seniors Cole Linehan and Ra'Shon Harris to take over inside. Both were backups last season and have battled injuries in their careers. Backup Tonio Celotto had an encouraging freshman season and will push for playing time. The tackles need to perform capably to help Oregon's linebackers and ends show their playmaking ability.

OVERVIEW: Oregon returns seven starters, including its top playmakers – Reed, Chung, Byrd and Thurmond. The Ducks' ability to force turnovers erased some of the mistakes that allowed teams to rack up yardage. The margin of error may be smaller this season if the offense isn't as productive as the unit led by Dixon and Stewart.

Well we mentioned secondary struggling against good teams early in this season. As Belloitt and Aliotti are working to address their issues wrt to scheme and personnel, in terms of health, Ducks might be in better shape heading into this game:

The UO secondary might be better prepared to face the Bruins if it can practice full-go this week, something Bellotti said three starters weren't able to do last week.

Walter Thurmond III has battled a pelvic injury in recent weeks, and the others "are just all beat up," Bellotti said.

Two players who left Saturday's game with injuries, left tackle Fenuki Tupou (knee) and linebacker Spencer Paysinger (hamstring), should return this week, Bellotti said.

Bruins will have to be patient but even more importantly stay disciplined and maintain their composure in terms of eliminating mistakes early in the game. Mistakes killed them in their only other road trip this season and if they make those mistakes again, they are going to get destroyed by a humiliated Ducks team, which is hungry to atone for last weekend’s embarrassing performance.

That brings us to special teams. Special teams have killed us a number of times in this season. It looks like the coaches are now trying out Forbath at kickoff duties, since Rotstein hasn’t had a lot of success in pinning the opposing team deep. Hopefully that competition will spark better results this weekend. Also we will need better coverage during our punt returns and Perez can help that effort by working to get more hang time in his kicks (which often goes deep but don’t give his team-mates a lot of time to get up field).

Honestly the matchups in this game look very sobering for our team. Sure the Oregon defense has been vulnerable against explosive offenses like Southern Cal and Boise State this year. We don’t have an explosive offense right now. We will probably in about a year or so … but we have ways to go. While Oregon has had difficulty defending against play action and passes down field, we haven’t had a lot of success putting together a good running game and mounting consistent deep threats. So, our offense could be set up as the perfect opponent for Oregon defense to get back in form for their stretch run. But we could give ourselves a shot if our offense plays smart, takes what the Oregon defense gives up underneath and can play mistake free disciplined football game in one of the hostile venue in the entire West Coast. We will see how it turns out on Saturday but right now it looks to be a tough uphill climb for Neuheisel and Chow’s developing offense.