Analysis: The Trend Line of Oregon’s Defense

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My friends, we have a new writer, Evan Markel, who will provide some statistical information about our beloved Ducks. For now he will focus his study on the Duck defense in a quest for answers. He has been charged with offering the data, yet keeping it simple for those of us mathematically impaired.  

Take the extra two minutes to soak up his numbers as you will find Evan has made the statistics easy to digest. We are fortunate to have a fellow Duck fan with a Masters’ Degree in Economics,  and is working on a Masters’ in Statistics and a PhD in Natural Resource Economics. We are in for some illuminating articles!  Charles Fischer

The Oregon Duck defense has been under fire this year. Attacks have come not just from opponents, but from fans, the media, social media, and you don’t even want to know what is being said on the message boards. So being the loyal Duck I am, I’ve set out to defend the honor of my beloved Ducks.

Besides, it was on the back of an interception that Oregon won in triple overtime against Arizona State. It was our defense that won the game in Palo Alto.

So I gathered game-by-game defensive statistics for the past ten years, and decided to inspect the 10-year trends. After Arizona State posted 742 yards, I thought it might be a good idea to first look at how many yards per attempt Oregon has given up over the past 10 years. First, let’s look at how Oregon has fared against the same opponent in the past two years.

Trendline Table 1

Have a look (above) at the average gain per play for Michigan State and Stanford. Those are not typos; the yards allowed per play were exactly the same in 2014 and 2015. In 2014, the Huskies gave up only 4.3 yards per attempt, but in 2015 that figure jumped to 6.2 yards per attempt. That’s not a typo either, I doubled checked that one (it is the Huskies, after all).

So far this year, the Huskies rank 10th in total offense in the Pac-12. Last year, the Husky offense was ranked, you guessed it, 10th in the conference. So the Washington offense was analogously anemic in 2014 and 2015, yet their yards per play increased 44% against the Ducks.

Well ok, but that’s just one team. Next let’s have a look at the differences between 2013 and 2014.

Trendline Table 2

While comparing years 2013 and 2014 (above), we can see that Oregon improved defensively against Colorado, Washington, Oregon State, as well as the second time the Ducks faced Arizona in the conference championship. Looking at the lowly Huskies, you might be tempted to say that Oregon’s defense actually improved between 2013 and 2014.

Luckily we did not attend Oregon State and thus have better judgment. In 2013, the Huskies had the 2nd-ranked offense in the Pac-12, trailing only the fabled Oregon offense. Holding them to just 5.1 yards per attempt in 2013 was quite the feat.

The wettest game ever?

Kevin Cline

The wettest game ever?

Before we exclaim the massive drop off against the Cal Bears, I thought I should remind you of the conditions in that 2013 game.

Even though the game was held in Autzen Stadium, the skies inexplicably opened up and a downpour ensued. This was the game Autzen patrons were to behold the arm of Jared Goff.

The Cal QB came into the game averaging 435.5 yards passing per game. At the end of the first quarter Goff had completed 3 of 6 passes for an astounding 11 yards before he was benched.

Sonny Dikes was quoted as saying, “The ball was slipping out of his hand. We’re not quite sure why but it was.” Well Sonny, it was raining. And unlike our beloved Marcus Mariota, Goff grew up playing in sunny Greenbrae, California.

Mariota fared much better and after the game Mariota was quoted as saying, “I’ve been playing in the rain since I was a little kid. Hawaii has its passing showers, so it really doesn’t bother me.”

You can probably see where this is going. There are many factors that impact the performance of a team on any given day. That doesn’t mean we don’t want to examine the data over time, we just need to expand our sample. So let’s look at yards allowed per play over a 10-year period.

Trendline Table 3

With the 119th Civil War just wrapping up, there is no denying that the trend is on the rise. Since 2014, Oregon has allowed an increasing number of yards per play. Before kickoff of the final regular season game, I had hoped the Oregon defense would ensure that trend had already peaked.

At the half, the Beavers had less than 100 total yards of offense. It looked as though the Oregon defense would have its statistical game of the season. In the second half, however, Oregon State rallied to bring the game within reach and finished with 427 total yards of offense, blowing the top off Oregon’s defensive lockdown. Once again the Oregon defense allowed a routine 6.8 yards per play.

Kiko sacking Wilson

Ducks Illustrated

Kiko sacking Russell Wilson.

Historically, it is not uncommon for Oregon to give up lots of yards per attempt. In 2011 against Wisconsin, the Oregon defense allowed 7.1 yards per play, which resulted in the men in green hoisting a Rose Bowl trophy.

Keep in mind the defense that allowed Wisconsin 7.1 yards per play is the same defense that was anchored by Eddie Pleasant, John Boyett, Kiko Alonso and Dion Jordan, all of whom went on to the NFL.

In 2012 against Southern California, the defense was torched for 7.7 yards per play and 484 yard through the air. The next time Oregon allowed over 7 yards per play wasn’t until 2015 in a triple overtime thriller in Tempe, Ariz.

Although this is not the first time in Oregon’s history that the defense has been porous, there is no denying that in the past two years, the yards allowed per play have seen a steady climb.

While I set out to defend my beloved Ducks, there is no denying it, no way to spin it. The data clearly show that in the past two years the Oregon defense has been on a steady decline, and it is frightening to imagine the Oregon defense if it continues on its current trajectory.

Evan Markel
Oregon Football Analyst for CFF Network/
Knoxville, Tennessee

Top Photo by John Sperry

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Evan Markel

Evan Markel

Evan is a native Oregonian who grew up in the historic town of Oakland, once known as the Turkey capital of America. Evan attended the University of Oregon and is a Lundquist College of Business alumnus. While at Oregon he attended nearly every home football game and fostered his love for all things Oregon Duck. He currently resides in Knoxville where he is pursuing a Master of Science in Statistics and a PhD in Natural Resource Economics at the University of Tennessee. Evan enjoys hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains, and wearing lots of green in the otherwise orange Knoxville.

  • Drex Heikes

    Fascinating and illuminating. Thank you for the work. The one thing I might add is that the baseline for Oregon’s D has not been good for a long time. Yes, it’s gotten worse the last two years–but it wasn’t in a great place in 2005. In comments after the Civil War, former coach Dave Wannstedt said that Oregon has the athletes on D to be terrific, then added that until the D improves, Oregon will have difficulty competing regularly at the highest levels. Oregon’s offense has hummed since Bellotti took a chance on a certain outsider from New England. In fact, Bellotti went outside several times over the years for coordinators. Here’s hoping Helfrich is willing to do the same on D.

  • Taiki Sakai

    I don’t know if you can draw any conclusions without comparing the defense to other teams’ offense. I would guess that overall there has been an increase in yards/play gained for most offenses, so we need to see how our D compares to that trend.

  • barry clements

    Yards per play can be deceiving. When the D-line/front 7 is stacking the run well, as did our line in 2015, that drops the YPP average. Then on key passing plays we give up 10, 20, 30 yards, and more importantly, 1st downs, that gives the opponents more chances to continue their average YPP. It is the Big Plays that are the equalizer in these stats. Our secondary and LB play improved as the season progressed and I hope that bodes well for next season. Losing seniors Balducci, Talia and DeFo from the D-line concerns me greatly. Even with Manu and Mondeaux playing so well this season, we are losing very good D-linemen that will be very difficult to replace.

    We have, in the past used the YPP argument to show we are at the status quo, we are a “bend but don’t break defense”, but we should not be satisfied with the status quo. That is an OK philosophy because we have had a super scoring offense to overcome any defensive deficiencies. We have great athletes and should be in the top 20-40% of PAC defenses every year but we can’t keep using the same soft schemes and expecting better results. Instead of our bend but don’t break often philosophy, why not go to bend little and break rarely as a philosophy. I love our defensive players and saw that they played their tails off this season. We need a real hardass mindset that individual players on our defense possess, but we seem to lack as a defensive unit. Let’s expect as much from our defense as we do from our offense and maybe they will consistently rise to that level of expectations.

  • barry clements

    Will somebody please tell me why Seth Green is still listed as a commit for Oregon at QB when he supposedly has decommited?

  • John John

    pellum is clueless as a defensive coordinator, Helfrich as head coach is also clueless about defense, obviously. The head man is responsible for every facet and aspect of the team Helfrich and Pellum trying to reproduce or continue there version of aliottis system – but aliottis system was just ok to begin with, never great. And as with all copiiers , its nver as good as the real thing. Same with chip kelly’s offense system. And so, the ducks decline as should be expected. You dont win with copy cat place holders, you win with guys who have their own system and know the nitty gritty of running it. Such is life.

  • goducks58

    First of all, welcome Evan. Looking forward to your articles. As for the defense, although statistically the trend isn’t a huge jump the past couple of years, it is significant.
    With the caveat that I haven’t been on the bandwagon to fire Don Pellum, it has been agonizing to watch the _ucks play _efense. Whether it’s lack of a quality scheme to get the most out of these athletes or if it’s poor coaching – tackling, technique, keys, responsibilities – it adds up to the dread that Oregon just has to outscore the opponents. IMO, that will never allow the Ducks to reach that next level. There is truth in the “defense wins championships” adage. Historically, those teams that have excelled defensively have done extremely well in college football.
    While I agree with the overall tenor of your analysis, I will say that the Ducks have been lacking in defensive scheme for quite a while. I’m not sure if you have access to the data, but I’d be interested to see how the current defense compares to the Gang Green era.

  • William Miller

    First of all welcome Evan, and thank you for providing us readers of FishDuck with great content. Your historical analysis of yards gained per play is a fascinating read. Unfortunately, I tend to agree with your overall summary at the end though, and I don’t think there is much comfort to be found in the yards gained per play when I look at the overall state of union on defense.

    I think that the most relevant statistics (courtesy of show how bad Oregon’s defense is, and has become over the past two years.

    The average points allowed per game for seasons 2008 through
    2013 was 22.9. The average points allowed per game for seasons 2014 through 2015 to date (before the bowl game) has been 30.2, so that total is obviously going up.

    The average yards given up per game by the defense from 2008
    through 2013 was 367.7. The average yards given up per game by the defense from 2014 through 2015 before the bowl game is 455, so that total is obviously going up.

    Through the years 2008-2013 the average ranking of total defense of the Ducks was 36th in the nation. Through the years 2014-2015 the average ranking of total defense for the Ducks is 102nd.

    The bottom line is that the Oregon defense, over the past
    two years, has continually and significantly dropped in both quality and production in all the most important defensive categories. Unless something meaningful is done to improve this downward spiral, Saturdays are going to get uglier and uglier.

  • EvanM_FD

    Your comments have been heard and appreciated! Some great points have been made in your comments and I plan to consider them all in my future articles. Please continue to provide me with feedback so that I may incorporate the ideas and topics that matter to you the most! Thank you to all.