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Opponent Defense Preview: The Ducks

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What we’ve all been waiting for.

NCAA Football: Oregon at UCLA Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Happy day before the day before the day that decides which side of the Columbia River is superior.

As always, intros are dumb. Let’s skip it and get to the important parts:

Personnel

This year’s Oregon defense benefits from one thing above all: It’s not last year’s defense.

All kidding aside, the Jim Leavitt hire has made a noticeable difference, both in stats and the eye test. If you’ve watched any of Oregon’s games so far, it’s clear they’ve improved from last season but naturally it takes more than one year to reverse course from The Great Brady Hoke/Don Pellum Experiment of 2KSomeYears. In other words, while blatantly better than in 2015 and 2016, there’s still plenty of room to grow.

While Hoke spent much of last year pretending he was still in the B1G via trying to foist a 4-3 base upon a program that didn’t have the personnel to withstand that transition, this year marks a return to schemes that fit Pac 12 offenses much better. Just like pretty much all West Coast schools, you’ll see a lot of nickel — both in 3-3-5 and 2-4-5 — as well as a liberal application of the 3-4. From what I’ve seen, it looks like abou 80% of their downs are in 3-4 or 2-4-5. Do with that information what you will.

While most of us tend to associate UW under Steve Sarkisian Oregon football — both on offense and defense — with talented skill positions at the expense of the trenches, it’s the front seven that seem the most improved this year. The defensive line includes Jalen Jelks and Henry Mondeaux on the ends, bookending the Ducks’ own version of Greg Gaines, Jordon Scott. Scott is the huge cannon ball type of player at 6’1” and 333 pounds and, when you think about getting chased down by him, you realize how amazing it is that opposing quarterbacks don’t pee themselves in terror. He is still a true freshman though, and from what I’ve seen still has to learn to be consistently disruptive. Furthermore, after him on the depth chart there’s nobody really who comes close to his size or even breaks 300 pounds, minus a few guys who don’t see the field much. Mondeaux has been a mainstay of this defense for years and Jelks has had a breakthrough season so far. While the former is bigger, the latter is taller with the long limbs that can make an edge rusher all sorts of trouble for opposing linemen.

At the linebackers, Troy Dye was one of the Ducks’ few highlights last year and is maintaining that status as a pillar of the defense. Then there’s guys like La’Mar Winston, the true sophomore who’s become an increasingly significant part of the defense. Others to watch include Jonah Moi and Justin Hollins, as well as Blake Rugraff, who has seen quite a few snaps.

Then there’s the secondary, which is made up of a few upperclassmen and a lot of talented young players. Notable freshmen include Deommodore Lenoir, Thomas Graham, redshirt Brady Breeze, and Nick Pickett. There is a reason these guys have got a lot of playing time this young (hint: it’s because they’re pretty darn good), although of course the youth will occasionally show. Luckily, the Ducks have a few reliable veterans like Arrion Springs, Ugo Amadi, and Tyree Robinson. Springs especially seems to be most places at most times and seems to be pestering opposing offenses more often than not.

If I had to pick one thing that stands out about these defensive backs, it would be their ball skills. That was evident against Wazzu and made life difficult for Luke Falk and Co. for a good while.

What surprised me while researching Oregon’s defense was that they’re second in the conference in average yards given up per rush (first is, of course, your fellow Dawgs) while their pass defense is in the bottom half of the Pac 12 — something I’d expect would be reversed if just considering the athletes that play in the defensive backfield. Granted, part of the success in the run game is the success of the edge rush and how sacks are counted under “rushing yards” in college football (don’t ask me why) but even with that affecting it, the Ducks’ 3.3 average yards given up per rush is impressive. All that being said, they can be somewhat inconsistent. Against ASU, for example, I noticed on any given drive that they were either quite successful stopping the run or got destroyed by it. This looked especially prevalent in the later parts of the game, where a less-than-optimal D line depth affected them.

With that noted, it makes sense then that their flats can be somewhat of a weakness, although not nearly as much as they were the last two years when Oregon skill defenders demonstrated the tackling ability of a butternut squash. With their tackling and angles notably more solid this year, it takes more discipline and blocking by opposing receivers to make those flat plays work. Against ASU, for example, that happened quite a bit and the Ducks paid the price.

On this year’s Oregon defense, nothing stands out as imbalanced strengths or weaknesses; while no single position group is the absolute best at what they do, no single position group lets down the others either. In general, they just seem all around improved from last year with room still to get better.

Basically: Oregon defense this year is surprisingly solid.

Bottom Line

For one thing, if Jake Browning doesn’t throw with the anticipation we grew to love in 2016 and/or throws the wrong types of passes, allowing Oregon defensive backs to catch up to them, we’re gonna have a bad time.

On the other hand, for all the Ducks’ talent in the secondary, they’re still a young group who are — relatively — the weakness of the defense (for now). If the receivers decide to get actual separation, Jake doesn’t get rattled by the Oregon pass rush, and he then throws on time, the Huskies could have it over pretty quick. Similarly, if there’s anytime for the Washington offense to take advantage of Browning’s weirdly fantastic selling of the play action, it would be this game.

Then there’s the run game, where the Oregon defense is thriving but have a weakness in that their depth in the defensive line isn’t at a great level. Even though it might not yield really pretty results until later in the game, the Dawgs’ discipline and patience in committing to the run will absolutely pay dividends in wearing down Oregon’s box. A combination of that and some good old quick RPOs — a big part of Arizona State’s upset — could hurt the Ducks especially once they start getting gassed.

The most pressing factor, like it always seems to be, will probably be the performance of the offensive line. I feel like I’ve said it over and over but it still stands that Oregon’s pass rush has been scary at times, plus their improvement in the run game coincides with what is typically a Washington strength. If Washington’s offensive line plays disciplined in both those phases, they should wear down Oregon’s trenches sooner rather than later and the Dawgs will decisively control the game. If not, then Oregon’s front seven will seriously damage Washington’s offensive prospects.

As always, any opposing fans feel free to chime in with your insider wisdom but keep it civil — that goes to members of both fan bases.

Do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.