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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