The Oregon Ducks: From Offensive Juggernaut to Defensive Force

Ryan Robertson Editorials 38 Comments

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2016 was the last year the Oregon Ducks fielded an elite offense. Justin Herbert was one of the best QBs in Oregon history, but constantly finding himself in shootouts kept the young player from achieving greatness in his inaugural season.

UO’s era of elite offense started in 2007 when Dennis Dixon had the Ducks on the precipice of the BCS National Championship before getting injured, and it came to a close at halftime of the Alamo Bowl against TCU in 2015.

That same period of time also saw the Ducks in one of the worst defensive periods in their long history. It often wasn’t for a lack of scheme or talent, but of exhausted defenses playing 2/3 of every game because the offense either scored quickly or went three and out. Nick Aliotti was the defensive coordinator for most of this time, and his revolutionary approach of “platoon swapping” entire units of the defense to stay fresh is still used today. Despite his best efforts, the Ducks often found themselves on the bad end of big scoring outputs from opposing teams — even in wins.

The poor defenses came to an end with the firing of Mark Helfrich and his entire staff following the 2016 season. Oregon brought in a new, talented defensive coaching staff, slowed the offense down, and — most importantly — they started to recruit defensive players with the same attention with which they recruited offensive players.

The Offense Declines

Kevin Cline

The Cal Bears held the Ducks to only 17 points in 2019, a season low.

In 2016 the Ducks ranked 5th in points per game at a whopping 43 points. Surprisingly, this led the Ducks to several close losses with a porous defense. The following year, Oregon fell to 27th in scoring offense at 35 points per game. The swift decline under the gulf coast offense was due in large part to Herbert’s injury. Backup QBs Braxton Burmeister and Taylor Alie were clearly not prepared to play any significant minutes, and the Ducks ended their historic streak of scoring 20+ points in every game.

The following year under first-year head coach Mario Cristobal, the Ducks averaged slightly better at 36 points per game, but lopsided wins early in the season boosted those numbers. OC Marcus Arroyo took a significant amount of criticism, but the issues with the receiving corps were years in the making and the Ducks led the conference with more than 50 dropped passes.

In 2019 and Year 2 under Cristobal, Oregon held steady at 35.4 points per game, with an injury riddled receiving corps and lackluster running game as the major culprits. The Ducks were held under 20 points only once, but inconsistent game planning saw many of those games score in the low to mid 20s — a stat that would have been a death sentence in the previous era.

The swift decline of the offense had many factors, from inconsistent coaching to one of the worst receiving groups in the country for two years, but the offense looks promising moving forward. The unit was never bad, per se, just inconsistently good. With the addition of Joe Moorhead, the unit may be primed to reclaim its place as one of the premier units in the country in 2020.

The Defense Rises

Tom Corno

Opposing teams had trouble running the ball against Oregon in 2019.

In 2016 the Duck defense never got going under Brady Hoke and the unit stumbled to a No. 126 ranking in points allowed per game. A pass defense that seemingly couldn’t cover anyone, a run defense that didn’t seem to understand its new scheme, and an entire defense that couldn’t tackle anyone? The Ducks were lucky their potent offense was able to win four games.

Jim Leavitt came to Eugene as DC with high expectations in 2017. The veteran coach had helped turn Colorado, a routine bottom dweller, in to a defensive powerhouse in only two seasons. His defense, led by mostly underclassmen, improved to 81st in scoring defense, lowering their points allowed by almost two touchdowns per game. In Year 2 under Leavitt the unit allowed only 25.4 points per game, good for 49th nationally.

The Ducks had started to recruit defenders at an extremely high level. With the additions of Kayvon Thibodeaux and Mase Funa on the defensive side of the ball, the Ducks looked primed for an explosive third season under Leavitt. But with mounting discontent from Leavitt at not being named head coach following the departure of Willie Taggart, the defensive coordinator departed the program and was replaced by Boise State standout defensive coordinator Andy Avalos.

Avalos brought a fantastic scheme, phenomenal defensive game planning, and a ferocity to the Oregon defense that fans had never seen. Avalos finished his first season with the No. 9 ranked defense in the country, and added the top two middle linebackers out of high school plus one of the top cornerbacks out of high school. After allowing fewer than 20 points per game in 2019, a feat not achieved by the Ducks during the lifetimes of any of their players, the Ducks look poised for potentially their best defense in history in 2020.


Tom Corno

The Ducks’ most impressive offensive game plan of the season was in the Pac-12 Championship.

The Oregon offense was a force to be reckoned with in the 2010s, but petered out toward the end of the decade. Several strong recruiting classes and the addition of a top tier offensive coordinator have set the Ducks up for success in the 2020s.

The Duck defense started the 2010s just getting by, followed by a massive decline in the middle of the decade, only to rebound into one of the best units in the country at the end of it all. Four five-star recruits in the last two recruiting cycles, as well as several highly-ranked four stars, give the Ducks one of the most talented units in the country moving forward. As long as they live up to the hype, the Oregon defense will be one of the best groups in the nation beginning this season.

Ryan Robertson
Yuma, Arizona
Top Photo by Tom Corno

Natalie Liebhaber, the Volunteer Editor for this article, works in the financial technology industry in Bozeman, Montana.

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Great article Ryan and I love the discussion it has stimulated in the comments below.

One aside, I can’t stop looking at that photo of Penei Sewell flying through the air. I’m guessing that is from the failed goal line pass to him? Makes me nervous to see him so exposed, but I remember totally pulling for him to get in the end zone at the time.


Last note, does anyone else want to know how Penei Sewell got airborne like he is in the last photo? A guy 6’6″ 330lbs shouldn’t be in that position too often.

Charles Fischer, Mr. FishDuck

In the Pac-12 Championship–they ran a tackle-eligible play near the goal line that did not work and you see the tackle on him!

The first major domino to fall that will influence others is the announcement by the Patriot League to cancel fall sports. Teams in the conference include Army, Navy, Boston U., Holy Cross, Lafayette, etc.


Are those teams like ones in the Ivy League–that is, do their football teams (or any of their teams) actually make money, let alone enough to support all the other sports at their schools?

Charles Fischer, Mr. FishDuck

The Patriot League has 10 full members and four associate members funding 24 sports. (13 Womens and 11 Mens)

So I think this is pretty serious for them too….


Now all these numbers ahead should be taken with a grain of salt for 2 reasons. 1) I gathered them manually from ESPN and I am not sure how efficient or accurate the numbers are and 2) I forgot to take out defensive scores I.E. INT’s returned for TD’s but I wanted to compare 2019 per drive efficiency to one of my favorite oregon seasons(2012). I did remove any drive oregon had that ended in a end of half/game and was less than 5 plays(drives meant to run out the clock).

So a quick search stated that between 2007-2019 the average NCAAF game had 26.5 Possessions. I assume this means about 13.25 possessions per team. How did oregon compare in 19 under Cristobal’s more ball control style of play oregon averaged 11.85 possessions a game with our two highest number of possessions being 14(Against Auburn and Utah) and our lowest being 10(Stanford-I wasn’t surprised)

In 2012 we averaged 13.69 possessions a game with our highest number being 16 possessions achieved twice against tenn Tech and ASU. we never had a game lower than 12 possessions(Achieved 3 times).

Now efficiency(Again I forgot to take out Defensive scores) even with that oregon scored about 3.6 points per drive in 2012 when compared to 2019 oregon scored 3.0 points per drive. I mean we all new the 2012 offense was better but if Cristobal wants to match the relative efficiency from 2012 he will need to increase oregon’s offense by about 1 TD a game.

I’m all for ball control and managing the game hopefully Moorhead can increase that efficiency up to 2012 an extra TD a game last season and we are undefeated. I’ll try later to get the per drive efficiency on Defense later.

Charles Fischer, Mr. FishDuck

If we move up the scoring to one more TD per game as you suggest, then our scoring average would go from 35.4 points per game presently, up to 42.4 points per game of which resembles the “Glory-Years” type of scoring and I would be quite pleased with.

I just don’t know if that corresponds with what Cristobal wants to accomplish.


I mean it’s probably not fair to compare(This is my fault) any offense to our best offense of 2012.I just picked that year as it was my favorite year as far as offense to watch. as far as from 2009-2015 our lowest offense production was Chip’s first year in 2009 36/ppg. after that we never dropped below 43 points(2015) so even 42 PPG would be just a hair lower than that of the heyday of the oregon offense.

Although it would be quite impressive if Cristobal can increase the efficiency up to match that of 2012. managing the pace of the game, Keeping Possessions below 12 a game putting up ~40 PPG I imagine it’s hard to keep efficiency so high when you have very few plays that are actually homerun plays. my guess is the style of play that Cristobal is aiming for will never equate to the level of efficiency that we had in 2012. I just don’t think that a team that has to march down the field for every single score can have a high efficiency. where as in 2012 90 percent of the plays called had that homerun potential.

Jon Joseph

Great take and info; thanks.

Of course in CFB, it would be nice if we could get stats ‘weighted’ by the quality of the opposition. It’s not like the NFL with far more roster equality.


MC changed the program philosophy. Defense and power football were his mantra. The defense thrived but the offense suffered. With the hiring of JoMo it will be interesting to see how much the offense evolves. Recruiting is part of it but philosophy more important IMO.


Agree completely. Cristobal started with a plan and setting a culture was first; recruiting was next and everybody can see how well that is working. As was pointed out so well in this article, the defense was on life support and Cristobal set out to get it to the highest level. Now, with the hiring of Morehead, the offense is evolving.

Jon Joseph

“So long as they live up to the hype.” Nailed it! But under AA, I would expect nothing less.

Looks like help is definitely on the way at WR in 2021. And JM, if given free rein will make a difference.

I see 2020 with the season hopefully beginning in October, as being a learning-curve year for an O with a new QB and re-built O line.

The Ducks definitely have RBs who play hard but do not have the quality of RBs it had during the great run on O. And of course, unless you play at Oklahoma, it’s not very often a Heisman winning QB comes along.

If the truncated season is played, I trust the D will keep the Ducks in every game as the O matures. With the majority of the difficult conference games in Autzen the Ducks could very well return to the Rose Bowl for a playoff game?

Thanks for the take Ryan; very enjoyable read.


I’ve heard some talk that some of the players going to the NFL after this year might sit this season out and just prepare for the big time, stating “its not worth it without a full season. Everything to lose and nothing to gain”. However those that need to move up in the standings will need the game time.

Jon Joseph

Insightful and detailed take on this subject up on The Athletic today.

For example, Clemson’s Lawrence will drop in the draft without recent game tape? Doubt it.

But this is likely to hit home with Penei, Holland and others?


Yea, Penel, lots to lose, little to gain. If he were to get injured playing this year that could hurt, same with Holland and others. I’ll check out The Athletic, thanks

Thanks Ryan, and I would agree that I never saw this coming on the defensive side. Between the hiring, the coaching and the recruiting–Oregon has the opportunity on that side of the ball that hasn’t been done since the Ducks wore leather helmets. Incredible…

1945 Duck.jpg

Charles, you are looking good my Man! The cheerleaders D never had a chance.

And to think that you looked this good after battling in WW2 and returning to Eugene with the Medal of Honor. Incredible.

Douglas Mai

YES Sir this D is capable of helping our offense round into form by stopping all offenses in the PAC and I expect this team to go undefeated period. Now we also have a capable back up QB if number 1 goes down and I expect that guy to lead this offense in Shough.

Jon Joseph

The team certainly has the chance to win every conference game; IF, it shows up for every conference game.


I completely agree with the analysis of the offense and defense over the period you dissect. I think the proverbial canary in the coal mine can be seen in two items. One is a 4* recruit moving from defense to offense. Oregon always use to move defenders with talent to offense, seldom if ever would it go the other way. DJ Johnson going from elite DE to TE shows the lack of depth and talent at TE. It also shows the depth and talent we have on the defensive side of the ball.

The other indicator of a change on the offensive side of the ball is the lack of true elite speed. We use to have the fastest guy in college football or at least a subset of the track team on the field. We no longer have guys who can burn it. Without this threat our receivers just don’t scare the defense like they use to.

The good news is we are moving in the right direction, as you state. The addition of Moorhead is an outstanding move. The competition at receiver has never been so exciting to anticipate. We are also in the running for the fastest recruit in the nation.

The defense has risen and continues to rise. As you state, things are looking up on offense, and I hope it all plays out as it looks to be!

Lou Farnsworth

“The addition of Moorhead is an outstanding move.” Absolutely! And an understatement IMO. Can’t wait to see what “RPO Joe” can accomplish with the talent we have. Coach Boles recent articles have me salivating.

Regarding Xavier Worthy, (“fastest recruit”), while we aren’t technically out of it until the ink is dry on the LOI, it sure looks like he is gonna be a Wolverine. But if we DO get him… oh my…..!!!


Just going after the fastest guy is a step in the right direction. It seems like the right thing to do, as the recruits still remember Oregon as the place where Devon and DAT made names for themselves as the fastest guys around. With the addition of the new ‘Hayward,’ it is time to get more track guys on the football team!

Jon Joseph

Xavier, do you really want to be the fastest guy to the locker room after your team is blown out by Ohio State?

And unlike snow, you do not have to shovel rain.

[That’s my best shot, Lou.]

Jon Joseph

And how about the WR talent ‘committed’ to date?


Great article, Ryan, fluid and concise. 2016 was so painful, but the burgeoning defense under Avalos is washing the memory away The Ducks are primed to dominate the conference again; just as the Ducks offense once left the opposition in a blur, this defense will darken any aspirations the opposition might have.

The Constitutionalist

You know, just the other day I was looking at last year’s defensive stats across all teams. I’m not claiming my memory is the best, so please correct me if I’m wrong. But, a couple of defensive stats stood out to me: scoring defense and yards allowed.

Our scoring defense started fantastic. But looking at the numbers and only the numbers, something changed about midway through the season. We went from allowing less than 7 pts/game (not including Auburn) to giving up an average of 22 for the final 8 games, which is held down from 25 by the AZ game.

Don’t get me wrong, that’s still a considerable improvement, but there’s no acceptable excuse for a ‘top defense’ to give up 30+ points to some of the teams we played in the latter half of the year.

When it comes to yards allowed, we’re still a bit behind the playoff contenders. We’re 23rd in the nation for pass/rushing yards allowed per game and 33rd in total yards allowed over the season. Again, this is a flawed metric when looked at in a vacuum, but again, we’re talking about the PAC12 – we’re playing inferior opponents. A ‘top defense’ shouldn’t be giving up 330 yards per game to PAC12 .opponents.

Especially not when we’re chanting in unison, “We Want the Ohio State!” – a team that allowed 1,000 less yards total despite playing an additional game, and averages almost 100 less per game.

So while we certainly have the best defense in the PAC12, there’s a lot of room for improvement, and I can’t wait to see it – because, side note, I was at the TCU game and that’s not something I’ll ever forget, nor something I’d ever like to experience again.

The future of Oregon football has never looked so bright.

Mike West

It is ironic you mention thoughts I have had. UW, WSU and ASU torched our very good (and very effective) secondary.

That makes them appear like a phantom menace on defense.

But if you look at how the defense performed against two very very good offenses to end the season, you’ll recognize they held 33 point a game Wisconsin to 20 points on offense, and 32 points per game Utah to 15.

Which begs the question of how well the defense would have performed against the playoff teams. I believe the answer is revealed more in the Rose Bowl performance and the Auburn game. Give Avalos and company more than two weeks, and they will find ways to “slow your roll”.

It’s too bad we more than likely will not see our defense play this year. Especially against Ohio State. I’m quite confident Avalos had treats in store for not only the Buckeyes, but I definitely was looking forward to watching North Dakota State crater in Autzen.

The defense was as good as advertised last year. Most especially when they had ample time to prepare. Too bad we won’t see their ceiling this year. Or what they would be capable of. The future looks bright nonetheless.

Jon Joseph

MIke, I have NO DOUBT that the Ducks D would have played far better in the Peach Bowl than did Oklahoma. Of course, your quality HS teams probably played better D than did the Sooners.

But as we all know, OK has an easier stroll to the final 4 than any team other than today’s Clemson.

Holding down the Wisky D was something. But IMO, Utah was all hype and the beneficiary of playing a very weak schedule. Like OK and Clemson, it almost paid off for the Utes. But unlike Oregon that I believe would have taken LSU into the 4th Q, I think Utah would have lost in the same manner as did OK.

By the way, our tOSU bet is unfortunately postponed to 2021. Accordingly, I believe we are now wagering for a triple shot of something or other?

BTW 2 – That hurricane-like wind that blew through Vegas on 7/10? That was caused by Clay and the SC staff exhaling.

Jon Joseph

Great take. IMO, the next big step is for the team to compete against itself and not play down to the competition. The Ducks was a far better team than was ASU in 2019, and the team should have blown out Wazzu and the Beavers in Autzen.

Of all Saban has done at Bama, I find the most impressive stat to be that after his 1st season in Tuscaloosa, Bama has not lost to an unranked opponent.

Ohio State last season was an incredibly gifted, balanced team that easily could have won the title had it played OK in the semifinal game instead of its nemesis, Clemson.

Of course I wish the season was going to play out as scheduled, but missing Fields is fine with me.


Nice posting Ryan, you made a very good and interesting story out of it, great observations, well done.

You made one statement that I think is correct but I would like you to expand on it a little, when you said The Ducks were held under 20 points only once, but inconsistent game planning saw many of those games score in the low to mid 20s — a stat that would have been a death sentence in the previous era.” Could you clearify or expand on the “inconsistent game planning” ??

Jon Joseph

I see it more as a failure of being ready to play, rather than a failure in the plan of play?

I do hope under JM the O will be able to adjust far better in-game than it did last season. The 1st drive in the Rose Bowl last season? Brilliant!

But then the O simply disappeared.


ok, makes sense. After that first drive Wisconsin could not have adjusted that quickly so it had to be all on the Ducks coaching more then anything else.


There was a conservative umbrella over the offense. If Oregon had a lead or the score was close, the offense was dialed back. When it had to score points, the play calling was more aggressive. Herbert pulled out wins against Wazzu, UW, and the Rose Bowl in the 4th quarter. The offense was on fire the second half against ASU. Had the D not given up an 81 yard bomb on 3rd and forever late in the 4th, I’m confident Herbert wins that game too (we lost 31-28). The D surrendered the lead on the last drive against Auburn. The D lost the ASU and Auburn games IMO. One missed tackle against Auburn and one long bomb against ASU. That doesn’t mean I’m satisfied with the offense but it’s in line with MC’s philosophy of building the program around a stout D and conservative ball control football. I’m hoping JoMo makes inroads against that philosophy and is more aggressive on offense.