Personnel and What to Expect
The basics are these:
Oregon’s defense is allowing just under four yards per play. Opponents are averaging 8.7 points per game against them, although that number goes up to 10.75 points per game against Power 5 opponents. That is impressive, even if three of those four Power 5 games were against a barely alive KJ Costello, Cal backup and not good quarterback Devon Modster, and 18 year-old Bo Nix in his first start.
They are fifth in the country in red zone defense (57% scoring for opponents) with only one rushing touchdown and one passing touchdown from within 20 yards. They’re 12th in turnovers, with 12 interceptions and two fumble recoveries. (Full disclosure, four of those interceptions came last week against Steven Montez.)
And that’s that.
Even if the offenses they’ve played so far have had blatant flaws — Nix being a child, Stanford being Stanford (don’t mention their whole “beating UW” thing), Cal being on a bad backup quarterback, and Steven Montez being the inconsistent, gun-slinging decision-maker he’s always been — what they’ve done so far is impressive.
So, of their Power 5 opponents, they’ve crushed three offenses after relinquishing the lead and losing to their first. Considering their only loss is interesting in that Auburn’s kind of hard to figure out right now: they scored 27 points against the Ducks and have shown they can be offensively debilitating against teams where they have the clear advantage (55 versus Kent State, 56 against a similarly confusing Mississippi State), but can be underwhelming against the rest of their competition including only 24 points the week after Oregon against a talent disadvantaged Tulane, 28 versus Texas A&M, and 13 versus Florida.
Based solely on comparative statistics and circumstance, the Ducks’ defensive success would seemingly be much less significant — except for the fact that, based on the eye test, they look, simply, quite good. Want more on that eye test? Here’s more to look for:
Just like most everyone in 2019, expect to see primarily nickel especially 3-3-5, but also they’ll often throw some 2-4-5 in there plus the occasional 4-2-5 or non-nickel defense.
Given all their nickel, let’s start in the backend that that emphasizes. The defensive backs have continued to improve despite losing safety Ugo Amadi to the NFL, whose impact has been filled well by Verone McKinley. Opposite him is the winner of the “Hasn’t He Been Here Forever” Award, Brady Breeze, with the versatile safety and/or nickel Jevon Holland rounding them out. Opposing quarterbacks have a 29.2 passer rating when targeting Holland, which is 7th in the country. Corners Thomas Graham and Deommodore Lenoir return for their third years on the outside, a sentence which feels impossible; seriously, am I the only one who feels like it was last week that they were high risk, high reward true freshmen? While those two might not have as many flashy stats this season (one interception for Graham against Auburn, none for Lenoir), they look more complete so far in their ability to be comprehensive, consistent cornerbacks.
The secondary, in some ways — don’t hate me for saying this — reminds me philosophically of past Washington secondaries: they’re not necessarily gonna blow up every play and will, in fact, let you drive down the field at times from a lot of short gains that take time off the clock, but they buckle down when the field gets short and take advantage of quarterbacks making stupid decisions. Case-in-point: Steven Montez’ propensity to throw the ball when he shouldn’t meant four takeaways for Oregon in the passing game. In fact, they have at least one interception in every game so far this year. That’s fun.
Behind them, the inside linebacking duo of Troy Dye and Isaac Slade-Matautia is a more consistent and stronger upgrade over last year, when Dye’s opposite was split between the instinctually sound but diminutive Kaulana Apelu and the then redshirt freshmen Slade-Matautia. While Dye’s been a cornerstone of this defense for years, Slade-Matautia has especially grown to be a significant contributor who can overpower ball-carriers at the point of attack and will often be found near the top of the tackles list on a box score. That being said, their rotation including Sampson Niu and MJ Cunningham also see the field decently frequently, too.
With the outside linebackers, La’Mar Winston typically takes SAM and is generally pretty versatile as a linebacker in space who can also make noise in the pass rush, while his opposite, Bryson Young, is somewhat overshadowed by the other three starters but shows up on tape more often than you’d expect from someone whose name is relatively unknown.
The linebackers in general feel like a good distillation of this defense in that they’re not these overpowering, dominant monsters, but they simply get it done. If there’s one thing that could be exploited, I noticed a handful of quarterback runs from Bo Nix wherein the Ducks gave up 10 or 15 yard plays, but it’s not like that’s exactly relevant here with Jacob Eason being pretty un-dual threat.
Which brings us to up front. Popo Aumavae gets playing time as 0 or 1 tech player, but the anchor of the line is Jordon Scott. At 6’1”, 322 lbs, he is, simply put, thick. As a sophomore last year, Scott was on various All-Pac-12 teams ranging from second team to honorable mention, depending on which publication you’d ask. There is a reason for this.
A little wider out from one of those two will usually be Austin Faoliu or Drayton Calrberg, and off the edge you’ll find former all-everything recruits Kayvon Thibodeaux and DJ Johnson. While neither of the latter two have exploded necessarily in the way Oregon fans would probably otherwise prefer for such high profile players, that’s not necessary an indictment given that Thibodeaux is a true freshman and Johnson had to take last year off after transferring from Miami.
While it’s clear they don’t have that single dynamic pass rusher as in year past with Jalen Jelks, there have definitely been times where this unit has made themselves apparent — for example, the first half versus Auburn they clearly were debilitating the Tigers’ ability to let plays develop in the air — the main thing by my reckoning is just turning those moments into consistency.
Overall, this defense is not overpoweringly dominant in any one area, but they have something more desirable than that: being good at every area. There is no single player or unit that terrifies me, but there’s no blatant weakness to their game either.
The main thing that stands out is that there’s nothing that stands out. For Washington that means that, even when pressure is mounting and even when nothing is explosive, they really have to have a balanced attack. Sure, the running game isn’t going to have a bunch of yards or any huge plays but, if Bush Hamdan abandons it, the Dawgs’ offense is pretty much screwed.
After accepting that there’ll be very few explosive plays, that leaves the passing offense in the hands of those who can tough out Oregon’s defense and push forward. This means — you probably guessed it — Puka will God-willing have more targets and Hunter Bryant and Cade Otton should be as involved in the air as possible. Otherwise, the one mismatch that has occasionally been created against this defense (although not often enough to call it a real trend) has been running backs in the passing game, which particularly could be where both McGrew and Ahmed have moments.
Lastly, Jacob Eason’s discipline to throw the ball away when he has to and, in general, not force idiot-level passes, is so, so important. This secondary takes the ball away, simply put. Combine that with the fact that the Dawgs’ offense cannot waste possessions if they’re gonna win, and this is rendered even more true than it always is.
That’s Oregon’s defense for you.
As always, do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.