When the 2018 football season began, the talk in the north was all about Washington, and the Oregon Ducks still seemed far from the 75-point-scoring days of Chip Kelly (I exaggerate, but I think you know what I mean). When you’re lighting up the scoreboard, defense tends to take a back seat in the discussion and penalties are pretty much swept under the rug.
Why do I bring this up? Because we’re finally discussing Oregon’s defense. Not the fact that we still don’t know if Justin Herbert is playing (but we should find out today) or the fact that they enter this game #41 the country in total offense after hitting a losing streak in the last two weeks.
What we need to discuss is that they are tied for 6th in the nation in defensive touchdowns, but 68th in first down defense and 93rd in third down conversion percentage defense. These numbers have been on a decline in the month of October. It seemed to start when the Ducks beat UC Berkeley but allowed the Bears to rush for 241 yards, 123 of which belonged to quarterback Brandon McIlwain. The Ducks’ rushing defense rank dropped from 4th in the country to 25th that week and, now, they sit at 40th.
Is this steady decline a reason to believe we’ll win on Saturday? Well, the one thing I love about college football is that anything is possible. Both the Ducks and the Bruins are coming off of nasty losses and both may very well be starting back-up quarterbacks (wait...was Wilton Speight our starter and DTR was the back-up? I have no idea). Let’s take a look at the Oregon defense.
Redshirt senior Jalen Jelks is the veteran on the line and he came into 2018 with a host of accolades. He was named to the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and the Chuck Bednarik Award watch lists. He was on the preseason All-Pac-12 first teams from Athlon Sports, Lindy’s, and Phil Steele. Sophomores Jordon Scott and Austin Faoliu round out the front starters and each has almost two dozen tackles at this point in the season.
The Ducks start all upperclassmen at linebacker and Troy Dye is the big story in this group, with four consecutive games of double digit tackles. He is tied for fourth in the Pac-12 and is leading his team in tackles and has one fumble recovery so far this year. Senior Kaulana Apelu is right behind him in tackles and, to his credit, actually started with the Ducks as a walk-on. Redshirt senior Justin Hollins is third in tackles but leads the team in tackles for loss and sacks while junior La’Mar Winston Jr. rounds out this group. Winston, Jr. has the longest fumble recovery on the team at 61 yards.
The Oregon secondary is the group that is going to give our receivers trouble. Three of these players, Ugochukwu Amadi, Jevon Holland, and Deommodore Lenoir, are three of only five players in the Pac-12 with three interceptions in this season. Amadi is 20th in the country in interceptions per game, averaging about a half a pick per game, and he is also credited with six pass break-ups this season. Sophomores Nick Pickett and Thomas Graham Jr. are also putting up the tackles. So, our receivers are going to have to turn on the jets if they want to have a prayer of outrunning these guys.
While I’ve seen a steady decline in numbers for Oregon’s defense, I don’t have any reason to believe this game is going to be easy by any stretch of the imagination. We saw a major decline on both sides of the ball for UCLA last week. With Oregon losing as well, I’d hope to see both teams come out of the locker room with their hair on fire. I’d feel a lot better if this game was at home, but we’re traveling to Autzen, which isn’t exactly a friendly place. Buckle up, grab the popcorn, and hunker down. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.