After years of criticism, it’s time to give Aliotti his due

Go on, admit it…you’ve done it. Under your breath. Screaming at the TV. Inside Autzen stadium. At one point or another, every Duck fan has yelled at Nick Aliotti. If you’re like me, you’ve done it a lot. And, if you ask Nick, he’ll probably tell you that it’s been deserved.

That’s not the case anymore.                                              

If you haven’t been paying attention, the once often-maligned Oregon defense is good. Really good. What Oregon will put on the field September 1st will be a defense built on speed, speed and more speed. This isn’t new necessarily as far as intent behind the schemes goes, but now thanks to Aliotti, that intent of fast-paced attack has the thoroughbreds to execute it properly.

During Aliotti’s stints as Oregon’s Defensive Coordinator (yes, there have been multiple), his teams have been known to give up massive amounts of yards, often living by the motto “bend-but-don’t break.” Yards didn’t matter, points scored mattered. As long as the defense could hold opponents to under 25 points, the Oregon offense has been good enough to score more, leading to a lot of close nerve-racking but memorable victories.

However, since Chip Kelly took over for Mike Belotti in 2009, it seems as though Aliotti and the defense have been turned loose, transforming into an attacking, blitz-happy squad that prides itself on confusion and getting to the quarterback. Oregon has often been a blitz-happy front, but that backfired many times.

The UO has also been a place of experimentation, remember the “edge defense” under Rich Stubler? And Aliotti’s “Man-On-An-Island” secondary approach resulted in the largest passing totals ever given up in the history of the Pac-10 in 2002, though it worked great when he had highly-experienced corners capable of covering receivers without safety help like Rashad Bauman/Steve Smith.

Unafraid to evolve, able to take criticism, and the ability to survive many calls for his head, the patience shown by Oregon and belief in Nick Aliotti’s ability to coach are really starting to pay off big time.

Can the new philosophy be simply a matter of Aliotti finally being allowed to run the defense the way he wants? Is it Chip demanding a more aggressive defense that is proactive, a necessity with the minimal time of possession that results from the offensive philosophies now utilized at Oregon? The specific cause may not be revealed by the coaches, but Duck fans must be pleased with the results.

Since Coach Aliotti returned as defensive coordinator, his squads (especially the secondary) have grown increasingly more stingy, particularly ever since John Neal was named Secondary Coach. After the difficult 2002 season when the secondary was repeatedly torched signaling the death of man-on-an-island, when in a wto-game stretch against ASU and USC Oregon gave up nearly 1,000 yards passing, the defense has not been ranked lower than 5th overall in the conference. All the while, Oregon’s offense has ranked last in time of possession every season since 2008, putting added pressure on the defense to play at high levels through fatigue.

FINDING REDEMPTION

Nick Aliotti has been a lightning-rod for criticism at Oregon. A graduate of  UC Davis, Nick is in his 21st overall year at Oregon, a place he proudly calls home. After leaving for the Rams and the NFL in 1995 when Rich Brooks was hired away shortly after the Rose Bowl, Aliotti returned to Eugene following several years in the pros and a stint at UCLA to oversee the Oregon defense in the most successful era of Oregon football.

His defensive squads, however, were not at the forefront of the resurgence. Innovative offenses, superb special team play, and once-in-a-generation leaders such as Joey Harrington and Dennis Dixon have been the overwhelming factors in leading the Ducks to a 111-41 record since 2000, including victories in the Fiesta and Rose Bowls. The defenses during this era had their superstars like Haloti Ngata, but the mainstay was the under-recruited/undersized/overachieving athlete that may not have always had the premier blue chip talents but made up for it with sheer tenacity and will to win.

Looking beyond the numbers, however, it is easy to start to appreciate what the defense has done, despite the position they are often put in by an offense that rarely takes more than two minutes to score.

Often burdened (tongue-in-cheek) by playing with a 25+ point lead, the defense is usually in a position of playing against teams slinging the rock all over the field in a feeble attempt to mount a comeback. Yards are more easily racked up, and meaningless touchdowns are scored against Oregon’s second and third stringers. When it counts most though, especially in the last three years, Aliotti’s squads have borderline spectacular. When teams get desperate, that’s when Oregon’s defense becomes nearly unbeatable. The contrast between yards and points surrendered in the first half of games vs. the second half has been almost unbelievable.

Since 2009, Oregon’s defense has allowed a meager 20.9 points per game.  They only gave up 21 to Auburn and their Heisman winning quarterback, a team that had been an unstoppable offensive freight train all season. They forced two turnovers in the final 17 minutes of last season’s Rose Bowl win. Time and time again when called upon, Oregon’s defense has been the savior. The confidence Nick has in his team would not be possible without the team having confidence in him.                                        

THE BEST LINE

While he has been the subject of many headaches over the years for fans, Aliotti has been the saving grace for those in the media looking for a great quote. Asked two years ago before the BCS championship game how he had been sleeping while game planning for Cam Newton, Aliotti dead-panned “Like a baby…every two hours I wake up and cry!”

Never shy with the media, Nick has become a modern-day Buddy Ryan, with fast quips and an even faster smile, reassuring not only fans, but his players, that he is firmly in control.

Aliotti’s personality and charm have come in quite handy over the past decade, as Oregon has seen the overall talent level and depth skyrocket on the defensive side of the ball. No longer tasked with sending undersized lineman out to overachieve, Aliotti has been instrumental in landing studs like Haloti Ngata and Arik Armstead, program-changing talents that keep pushing Oregon into the upper echelon of the college football world.

Will Nick’s squads ever resemble the steel curtain Steelers? Probably not. The ’85 Bears? Highly unlikely. Even the shutdown ability of TCU, who manage the top defenses in the NCAA despite also operating a spread variant offense? Probably not–there is too much offensive talent in the Pac-12 to keep opponents down forever.

What he has done, however, can no longer be ignored. Oregon is not a one-trick pony, winning games 50-45. The defense is young, fast, and big. They’re aggressive and mean. And, with the right personnel finally in place, they’re poised to lead Oregon to new heights.

Let’s give Nick some credit. The days of sitting back idly and murmuring curse words at him under our breath(and yes, I’m talking about myself here as well) are more or less over. The calls for his head or”Anyone But Aliotti!” have subsided. Heck, fans don’t even cringe as much anymore when it’s 3rd and long, knowing the trend all too well for years that if it was 3rd & short the Ducks would probably force a punt, 3rd & long and inevitably teams would ALWAYS get the first down.

The numbers don’t always lie, and they don’t always tell the truth. Sometimes, you just need to sit back and watch what is happening to appreciate it.

Oregon’s defense is good. Now, it might be the offense that needs to keep up.

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Joel Gunderson

Joel Gunderson

Joel Gunderson grew up in a small town, where the only thing he did for fun was worship the Oregon Ducks. He later moved to Eugene, where he studied journalism at the U of O. After working in radio, he married the woman of his dreams and settled down. Joel now spends his days studying Journalism and the fine world of grammar, all the while worshiping the ground that Charles "Chip" Kelly walks on! Follow him on twitter @gundy85

  • Charles Fischer

    As I have been studying his defense while making the Tutorials lately…I have to come to appreciate all the more the blitzes he uses and the timing of when to use them.  We are poised to have the most entertaining defense ever at Oregon because of his strategic planning on the field, and recruiting off it!

    • Excelath85

      I agree completely…I have been real hard on Nick over the years, but its hard to argue with what he’s done!

  • Craig Evans

    In the days of Bellotti, the overall defensive talent was not there like it is now.  Obviously the level of recruits has risen, but back in the day it seems like the Ducks best were encouraged to play on the offensive side of the ball.  Also I don’t think enough credit is given to Aliotti’s assistants.

  • Dbloom4321

    I think our scheme’s still suck! We have some terrible delayed blitzes and often send multiple people into the same hole and just create a pile of mess instead of gaps to attack. He still leave’s our corners on islands and we still find a hard time to get any pressure on the quarterback. Nick’s defenses have only got better because he has gotten better players and with our offense putting so much pressure on the other offense to score it creates turnovers. I’m sorry but I will still be yelling for AllowAloti to get the boot.

    • http://www.FiShDuck.com Kurt Liedtke

      Oregon was 4th in the country last year in total sacks…how much more pressure on the QB could you possibly want?
      The ducks had 44 sacks, the leading team in the nation (Texas A&M) had 51. The Ducks led the Pac-12 by a wide margin (Stanford was the 2nd best in the conference, tied for 11th overall in the nation).

      Oregon also had 17 interceptions, ranking them tied for 17th in the nation, and were tied for 6th overall in defensive touchdowns.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1411643528 Rob Decker

        Agreed….its so easy to NOT see whats right in front of you….I am completely satisfied with the yearly progress….if this year is an improvement on offense AND defense we will be BCS victors!

  • Bespenson

    weird, you don’t tell in that long article anything about what will make this defense good, other than using broad terms like fast, young, mean, aggressive.

  • oregon111

    this article was a little on the generous side…

    Oregon was trading TDs with Wisc. in the RB until the Kiko int + the Mitchel strip

    the scheme has defintily improved – the 3-4 drop end and blitz packages are quite good, although some of the experimentation had some really bad plays – like when the drop end covers the RB on the wheel route all the way to the end zone

    On the down side, I am still seeing some third down plays where WRs can catch the ball for 1st downs – while the secondary is giving them a big cushion

    On the upside, not nearly as much of that as there used to be

    the article praised the signings of Nata & Armstead – USC gets 3 of those kinds of guys every year

    recruiting defensive players is STILL not nearly where it needs to be – especially compared to what kind of offensive talent the Ducks are signing

  • Robert

    I get this article is about Nick and the love/hate relationship most Duck fans have with his performance over the years.  We all love him now that he is taking huge strides to bring the play of the defense up to the level of consistency and excellence displayed by our offense.   However, any mention of the improvement in the defense I think needs to begin with Coach Azz and the toughness he demands from his guys up front and the new schemes he brought with him.  Nick deserves a lot of credit, but coach Azz is the only member of the staff that changed when Kelly was hired and funny how the defense changed too… Go Ducks!!!

  • NewportDuck

    Overall this is a nice article.  A little constructive criticism, because we’re all fans here!  I kept waiting for a unique or original perspective.  The “love Alliotti/love him not” topic is kind of an overplayed song.  It really could’ve used some factual support as well.  You could’ve looked at Oregon’s defensive stats over the years, and tried to find some trends, statistical backing, etc. for Aliotti’s wins and losses.

    Also, to the comment about Ngata and Armstead — it would be interesting to look at the lesser-heralded recruits that have blossomed into All-Pac-12 or All-Americans.  I know the whole coaching staff contributes to the recruiting process, but the defense has really found developed some gamers from supposed “3 star” recruits.

    Keep up the good work!