Are Ducks on cusp of defensive greatness?

If you’ve been following Oregon football for any length of time, you may have a question or two about how the Duck offense will perform this coming season. But serious doubts? No way.

Yes, there is a new quarterback to break in (Mr. Mariota or Mr. Bennett, please step up). And running back Kenjon Barner and Mr. Do Everything, De’Anthony Thomas, need to stay healthy. And the young-but-talented receivers — along with Josh Huff — need to flourish.

But still, does anybody really think the Ducks won’t average more than 40 points a game again with Chip Kelly pulling the strings?

Many observers believe Oregon linebacker Kiko Alonso's second-half interception during last January's Rose Bowl against Wisconsin was the turning point of the contest.

The Oregon defense, on the other hand? Since the dawning of the Modern Era of Duck Football (circa 1994), the defense has been generally solid — and seemingly on the upswing in recent years. But spectacular? Seldom.

I only bring this up because it gets to a question I’ve long pondered: Can you imagine what would happen if the program could put together a string of seasons that featured its usual score-points-in-bunches offense, coupled with a fast, big and ferocious defense?

Can anyone say, unbeatable?

Put another way, picture say Washington, Stanford, even USC, battling a one-two punch like that in a raucous Autzen Stadium? If I’m a player dressed in white on such a day, I’m probably feeling deflated during warm-ups. I’m probably even humming a line to the old Eric Burdon and the Animals song, “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place.”

One could argue the 2010-11 BCS Championship Game team came close to that level of crunchness. Every Duck fan remembers the explosive offense a couple seasons ago (47.0 points a game), but the defense under Nick Aliotti featuring Casey Matthews, Spencer Paysinger, Kenny Rowe, Cliff Harris, John Boyett and others was quite good (giving up just 18.7 points per game and holding Auburn in the title game to a mere 22 points).

The 1994-95 Oregon defense, dubbed 'Gang Green' and seen here lining up against Penn State in the Rose Bowl, has long been hailed as one the program's best. The Ducks gave up 250 points that season in 13 games.

Since 1994, the Ducks have frolicked on the field largely because of their offensive prowess. Beginning with the last year of Rich Brooks’ long stint as head coach, followed by the Mike Bellotti years, and then continuing through the reign of Chip Kelly; Oregon has averaged 34.4 points per game (during Kelly’s three seasons, that has risen to 43.1 points a game).

Over that same period of time (1994-2011), the Ducks have given up 24.7 points a contest.

Most observers point to the ‘Gang Green’ defensive squads of 1994 and 1995 as the best the Ducks have produced on that side of the ball in recent memory. But the 2000 and 2001 seasons and the aforementioned 2010 season also saw top performances from the defense. Indeed, that 2010 team may have been better defensively than even the celebrated Gang Green team of 1994.

Although the statistics don’t necessarily show it — blame Oregon’s quick-strike offense for keeping the defense on the field the majority of the time — Aliotti has guided a squad that has played more aggressively the past few years.

Some attribute that to Kelly’s rise to the head coaching position and his insistence on an attacking style of play, on both sides of the ball. No doubt that’s had a role, but the recruitment of better defensive players out of high school is likely the biggest factor.

Ricky Heimuli, seen here pressuring California quarterback Zach Maynard last season, was a four-star recruit from Utah in 2010.

The star system used in ranking high school players is somewhat flawed. Still, consider that over the past five recruiting cycles (2008-2012), the defensive players the Ducks have landed have averaged 3.32 stars each, according to the Scout.com database. The previous five years (2003-07), the average was 2.55 stars.

That athleticism and brawn should be on full display this season.

Upfront, the Ducks have the likes of Wade Kellikipi, Taylor Hart, Ricky Heimuli, Jared Ebert, Isaac Remington, Tony Washington and Arik Armstead.

The linebackers, described by ESPN.com’s Ted Miller earlier this week as the team’s strongest position group, include Dion Jordan (although listed as a drop end, Jordan is more of a LB), Michael Clay, Kiko Alonso and Boseko Lokombo; as well as quality backups in Tyson Coleman, Anthony Wallace and Derrick Malone.

If there is concern, it’s in the secondary, led by senior John Boyett. Calling that group a weak link is a bit of a misnomer. Two likely starters — Terrance Mitchell, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu — played starting or significant roles a season ago as freshmen. By the Rose Bowl game, they were no longer playing like freshmen.

Given all that, expect Oregon to have one of the top defenses — perhaps the best — in the Pac-12 this season. Indeed, while the Ducks are breaking in their new QBs it may be guys like Jordan, Heimuli, Clay, Alonzo and Boyett that Win the Day in September.

“While the Ducks are known for offense, their defense should rank among the nation’s best, in large part because of a strong crew of linebackers,” wrote ESPN.com’s Miller.

A bigger question is whether this is the beginning of a trend in Eugene; namely is Oregon on the cusp of becoming defensively blessed for a period of time?

Combine a consistently great Oregon defense with the madness inside Autzen Stadium, and Duck foes would find themselves in a world of hurt.

Perhaps.

Keep in mind that seven likely starters on opening day will be back next season, and all around them and behind them stand more young, talented, highly-recruited players.

Recall, too, that Oregon is consistently making a run at top prep stars around the country now. The ‘Oregon Brand’ — seemingly a goal just a few years ago — is now a reality.

The real question may be: Why not?

One of the most famous lines ever uttered about the Oregon football program came in 2003 after the Ducks upset No. 3 Michigan at home. Autzen Stadium, wrote The Michigan Daily’s J. Brady McCullough, is “where great teams go to die.”

Give the Duck program a killer offense and a killer defense and the new saying may be: “Play Oregon anywhere … and prepare to die.”

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  • DonealDuck

    Statistically, the 2000-1 Matthews, Rowe, Paysinger, Boyett, Harris defense was the best during the truly ‘modern’ (1994 and after) era of Oregon football in the only statistic that really counts – points; being the only Oregon defense to hold opponents under 19 points per game scoring average.  ‘Gang Green’ of 1994-5?  Allowed a whopping 5 points more during the same 13 game season that nudged it just over 19 points per game allowed. No other year is even close as these two squads are the only ones who held opponents under 20 points per game.

  • Steve Maher

    It’s hard to compare defensive squads 16 years apart. But a couple things favoring the 2010-11 defense in that regard: 1) There is more scoring today overall in college football than back then; 2) And today’s quick-strike Oregon offense means the Oregon defense is on the field plenty and facing more plays.

    • DonealDuck

       Yes, I agree, Steve.  I thought about adding those factors into my comment, but I dislike it when people ramble so long with comments, so I decided to keep mine short and leave those off.  It is also why I discounted any team before my arbitrary 1994 ‘modern’ cut-off; who wants to even consider the ‘0-0 ‘toilet bowl’ team’, even if it didn’t ‘allow’ very many points?!  lol :-)   And yes I notice I mistyped 2010-11 as 2000-1.   Thank you for correcting.  Thanks for the article, Steve.

  • FishDuck

    Steve…we love your pondering as it gives us excitement for the upcoming season, and hope for the future.  I had not thought about seven for certain being there in 2013 as well, and thus Oregon is building a defensive nucleus…that we hoped we would someday see.

    We are going to have more defensive highlights to address in the videos this year!

  • Coastal Duck

    Unfortunately – if you want to look at it from this angle – the weak ooc sked will give a skewed early-season stats.

    We may get an ‘inkling’ of what we might expect out of our defense, but the true test will be the Wazzu game where we might have to play 7 DBs (lol)

    The offshoot of a great defense paired with a great offense is to expect the margin-of-victory to increase. This is probably a mistake.

    The PAC-12 as a whole has upgraded its talent level, but the only way we tell that is from the results of the 36 ooc games – new coaching regimes notwithstanding.

  • Dmcewing

    Nice article, literally counting the days till Game #1. I’m not ready to compare this team to previous squads but it sure looks promising. Other guys besides the starters will shine especially with the weak schedule. It’s an odd feeling for me but at this point I’m feeling great about the defense and shaky about the offense. First time i’ve felt like that since 08′. Awesome defense and a very good special teams unit should allow the offense to catch up by about the 3rd game. WTD

  • Steve Maher

    Interesting point about the special teams, Dmcewing, particularly when you consider the impact of Jackson Rice. When the Ducks do need to punt, they have arguably the best punter in the country to pin opponents deep and allow what should be a special defense to take over.

  • Scott

    unbeatable! =D

  • http://www.facebook.com/Lanhamhimer Christopher Lanham

    It is one thing to take what I say & publish it; it is completely different to take what I say & publish it for yourself.
    Chris Columbus the 3rd AKA Money Cowboy.
    http://ceeels.yardbarker.com/blog/ceeels/the_duck_formation/10967918 10 days ago

    • http://www.facebook.com/Lanhamhimer Christopher Lanham

      You know I’m flattered, but sometimes I wish they would just let me report, things I come up with, & come up with their own stuff… maybe this guys & the NFL Network (Warren Sapp) think the same way, but it is way, way to coincidentle to me.
      Christopher Columber SR(reporter!)
      [http://ceeels.yardbarker.com/]

      • http://www.facebook.com/Lanhamhimer Christopher Lanham

        Steve Maher is now on my short list of people (coincidence?) that I will be keeping my eye on now… like an elephant I will not ever forget this one here.