Ducks’ 2017 Defense: A Thousand Battles, A Thousand Victories

David Miller Editorials

“Know they self, know thy enemy. A thousand battles, a thousand victories.”

This quote from Sun Tzu speaks not of the past, but of the future. Likewise, the Oregon Ducks football program must not only look forward, but move forward – as a coaching staff, as a team, and more importantly, as a culture.

That forward-looking and moving culture must start with the defense. That is why I chose this quote to frame this article, because it is through a thousand battles every game, and a thousand victories every game, that this culture is forged, and enemies vanquished.

We are once again at the precipice of greatness. A new coaching staff and new recruits have rejuvenated the determination, the hope, and with it the team’s attitude. The foundation of our faith remains with our dynamic and ever-evolving offense, its upcoming receivers and the best running back in college football. But our expectations for greatness are no longer solely dependent on that offense.

The expectation for Taggart is a complete culture change.

No, the fulfillment of our expectations will be realized through a defense reborn – a defense that by all accounts will be more aggressive, flexible and able to adapt on the fly. Our hope is that out of the stygian night of Don Pellum’s tenure as defensive coordinator, and the ashes of the Brady Hoke experiment, that the Ducks’ new defense will finally match their 22nd-century offense.

What was it about our defense in years past that made it so much more successful? Was it simply that we had better players? Was the coaching that much better? Was it the fact that the rest of the Pac-12 simply hadn’t caught up with the blur offense and, with our quick scoring, simply made it easier to play defense? Yes, to all three. There are a lot of Duck defensive players starting in the NFL right now and the coaching of Nick Aliotti was that much better than Pellum/Hoke, even in the down years.

Pellum started the downhill trend. Hoke continued it.

The defense against Southern Utah University (SUU) was great, for most of the game. After the opening 70-yard TD drive (9 plays in 3:08) the Ducks defense gave up only 76 yards on SUU’s next 22 plays. It was quickly 42-7 and the Oregon video game offense was back. But then SUU got two quick scores before the half.

The first came on a 64-yard pass where SUU quarterback Patrick Tyler rolled out of the pocket and flicked it to a receiver who ran 50+ yards to the house. His defender went for the ball and whiffed. The defense had collapsed on the threat of the quarterback run. Not a great moment, but these types of plays will happen from time to time, and these teachable moments are where great coaching is paramount.

Too many defenders collapsing on the quarterback led to a 64-yard touchdown.

Yes, we want everyone to flock to the ball carrier and gang tackle. No, you cannot all flock if that ball carrier is the quarterback and he’s still behind the line of scrimmage. Oregon should have dominated from start to finish. SUU has less than 8,000 students in town with less than 30,000 people. It should have been 77-3, and the 3 should have been in garbage time.

Against the Nebraska Cornhuskers it was feast or famine. Their first two drives ended with an interception and a punt, their next two with touchdowns (the first a 95-yard drive). Though we went into half with a 42-14 lead, that lead had evaporated to 7 with 2:09 left in the 4th when it was 42-35. The Huskers’ scoring drives averaged 64 yards apiece, and that includes a 22-yard drive after an Oregon fumble. In between those drives they had six punts and three more interceptions. Great defense for short periods doesn’t always make for a winning combination, we need consistency. I would posit that without Tanner Lee being an interception machine we would’ve lost this game, maybe by a lot.

I have no illusions of grandeur, but certainly being in the Top 20 nationally in a few meaningful defensive statistics is within our reach. This season? Maybe not. Maybe that’s unrealistic, but within a season or two I expect to be back in the Top 20. Any other goal is not worthy of the attempt.

The No. 2 defense in the Pac-12 last year was University of Colorado, not exactly a hotbed of recruiting. The No. 1 defense was the University of Washington, something they built over time around a few key players, and something that took them to the playoffs. We now have Jim Leavitt, Colorado’s defensive coordinator last year. His ability, and enthusiasm alone, is like adding a single star to every player’s rating coming out of high school. Superlative much, you say? Maybe, but it’s what I believe. You cannot undervalue great coaching, especially on the defensive side.

Just like with Colorado and Washington it will take time to build a truly great defense, but in the very short term (spring and summer of 2017), he has already made the players and system we have just a smidgen better. Over the course of the season as they learn through the reality of full-speed on-the-field action, they will get a little better still, just a skosh, each and every week.

Jim Leavitt’s coaching will take this defense to another level.

By the beginning of next season this will have accumulated into something greater than the individual pieces. They will be a lot better, and that’s when we’ll really start competing to be at the top of the Pac-12, in 2018. Defensive greatness doesn’t come over night, it’s incremental, a thousand battles at a time.

Let’s be honest. Our best shot at the National Championship was against Auburn, and their 21st-ranked defense. A few plays didn’t go our way and we lost on a field goal as time expired. It was crushing. Looking back, it’s clear now that while our offense kept getting better, our defense slowly got worse.

By the time we were riding the greatness of Marcus Mariota back to the promised land, our coaching staff was no match for Ohio State’s, and our players could not last four quarters against Zeke Elliott - not with Pellum’s play calling. To get back to the playoffs will take time, and balance. That’s why my hope is for a defense that can match our offense.

Pellum was no match for a steady diet of Zeke Elliott.

We need great players, and great coaching, no doubt. But we also need discipline. We need aggressiveness. We need to bring back the gang green. When every defender swarming to the ball on every play.

Receivers and running backs, are, by nature, typically quicker and faster than defenders. So we shouldn’t expect our defenders to make one on one open field tackles on every play. Honestly, I’d be happy with a 33% success rate on that metric. But if there are two or three or four guys behind the first, it doesn’t matter.

When you watch video of the great Oregon defenses you see two unremarkable events occurring over and over. First, there’s almost always a lot of Duck defenders in the frame, flying to the ball, the first wrapping, the followers stripping and punching the ball out. Second, we “forced” a lot of turnovers. How did we do this? We got pressure on the quarterback.

With pressure on the quarterback the secondary can play a differently. With that pressure comes interceptions and quarterback fumbles. In some years, you could make the argument that our success in forcing turnovers was the reason for our success overall, or at least in the top two or three reasons. I put together the following video mostly of defensive highlights to remind you, with a little tease of the future on offense.

Because the offenses are so good in the Pac-12 turnovers can be absolutely brutal, back breaking, demoralizing. How many times did we see a team put together a great drive only to turn it over and then watch as the Ducks score shortly thereafter, often very shortly thereafter? I don’t know the answer to that question; some stat fiend can look it up, but I do know that some years it felt like that happened every game, and often multiple times per game.

After watching your defense on the ropes for a few plays is there a better feeling than watching them get a turnover, and then watching your offense quickly score? Besides a pick-six or a fumble recovery and runback I can’t think of many plays that produce more joy, for everyone: fans, players, coaches. And part of that, yes, is because as football fans we often act like juveniles and love to stick it to our opponents. Not just to score, but to rub it in their faces.

Ifo was special, and a joy to watch. This interception sealed the win against MSU in 2014.

That is the Oregon Duck defense I want to watch again. That is the joy I want to feel again. I’m confident that our offense will score enough points for us to be competitive against anyone. I want that confidence in our defense. I want to be able to make bold predictions and cheer turnovers, a lot of them.

I want the Ducks to compete for the Pac-12 title each and every year. It probably won’t happen this year, but it will happen, and soon. It will happen when we bring true balance to this team, and realize true glory. It will happen when we win a thousand battles, one week at a time.

David Miller
Washington, D.C.

Top Photo From Video

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