Before The Raid: Previewing The Oregon Defense

One of many things to avoid tomorrow night. - Jonathan Ferrey

Breaking down what is likely to be the 2nd best defense the Bears face in 2013.

If tomorrow's game was only Oregon's defense vs. Cal's offense, you might have an intriguing game worth watching. How well can an offense that could potentially start eight underclassmen somehow move the ball against an elite, veteran defense? I'd tune in for that!

Unfortunately, the other half of the game will likely render this half irrelevant in terms of determining the outcome. But if you're dealing with Cal's monstrosity of a schedule by dreaming about what the Bears can do against Stanford after gaining experience, this is something to pay attention to. If Cal can move the ball and score on Oregon, then they can probably do it against anybody, and that includes Stanford.

I advise you to mute Ted Robinson, tape a sticky note over the section of the screen that displays Oregon's point total and enjoy the night.

Personnel

Defensive Line: Sr. DE Taylor Hart; Sr. DT Wade Keliikipi; So. DT Arik Armstead; Jr. DE Tony Washington

Two starters from last year's defensive line are gone, including 3rd overall pick Dion Jordan, so the notion that Oregon's line might be not quite as good as last year isn't necessarily wrong. Still, they're being replaced by two players who participated in every game last year and combined for 46 tackles, so it's not like they're throwing in first year starters with no experience. I wonder what that's like?

Hart is the man to watch on passing downs after recording 8 sacks to lead the team in 2012, although Washington already has 2.5 this year. I haven't had the time yet this season to watch Armstead play, but I'm sure it's suitably depressing.

Linebackers: So. MLB Rodney Hardrick; Jr. WLB Derrick Malone; Sr. SLB Boseko Lokombo

I don't care how good you are and how well you recruit - when you lose players like Kiko Alonso and Michael Clay (182 tackles, 24 for loss combined) you're going to see an initial decline in production. Derrick Malone is doing a decent job of replacing the duo in terms of total tackles, but Hardrick has been relatively quiet on the outside. Lokombo is a solid player, but none of the three starters have exhibited the kind of explosiveness that last year's excellent group displayed all year long in terms of both attacking the backfield and playing in pass coverage.

Secondary: Jr. CB Terrance Mitchell; Sr. FS Avery Patterson; Sr. SS Brian Jackson; Jr. CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu

Four returning starters on a secondary that was arguably already the best in the nation last year. Hold on to your butts. Ekpre-Olomu is the most talented in terms of both production and likely future NFL draft pedigree, so throw in his direction less?

Against the Run

2012: 4.01 yards allowed/attempt, 53rd in the nation
2013: 3.41 yards allowed/attempt, 34th in the nation

Unfortunately, Oregon's (relative) weakness isn't something that most Cal fans will expect to be able to exploit. Perhaps Cal can find a little success running Lasco up the middle and trying to take advantage of Oregon's slightly iffy linebacker corps? Missing right guard Matt Cochran won't help in that regard.

Against the Pass

2012: 5.8 yards allowed/attempt, 7th in the nation
2013: 4.5 yards allowed/attempt, 3rd in the nation

Elite, elite numbers. Granted, I don't think Tennessee or Virginia had much that would challenge Oregon's pass defense, as both have been awful passing the ball against their non-Oregon opponents as well. But we saw the exact same secondary do it last year while facing quarterbacks like Brett Hundley, Sean Mannion, Matt Barkley and Collin Klein. Yikes.

If you're looking for hope, consider that Oregon has lost two linebackers who did a great job in pass coverage last year. It might be that Hardrick and Malone will struggle chasing down Cal's inside receivers or running backs running pass patterns. At this point, we don't have much evidence one way or the other. So it's entirely possible!!!

Advanced Stats

S&P STATS, 2012

Total Defense

Standard Downs

Passing Downs

Run Defense

Pass Defense

National Rank

2

26

2

32

13


2012 FEI+ total defensive efficiency rank: 8th in the nation

So, the obvious takeaway from these stats? FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DON'T GET INTO PASSING DOWNS! As a reminder, Football Outsiders defines passing downs as 2nd and 8 or more and 3rd and 5 or more. Last year, Oregon wasn't elite on standard downs, but they were plenty good at forcing passing downs. And when they did, they destroyed you.

Simply speaking, Jared Goff has to do everything he's done in the first three games . . . but he has to do it efficiently. The completion percentage needs to come up. He can't miss many (any?) open receivers or hold onto the ball too long.

Stats of Dubious Value

As a reminder: Below are stats that, while interesting, may have little if any predictive value on what will occur over the course of 80-100 offensive snaps tomorrow.

Turnovers

2012: 40 forced turnovers, 1st in the nation (15 fumbles, 25 interceptions)
2013: 7 forced turnovers, 41st in the nation (4 fumbles, 3 interceptions)

Perhaps the biggest difference between Nick Aliotti, defensive coordinator that some Oregon fans wanted to fire and Nick Aliotti, defensive coordinator of an elite defense? Turnovers. Oregon has averaged 32.5 turnovers per year since 2006 (never ranking lower than 32nd in the nation), with a stunning 40 coming last year. The 2012 total was fueled in large part by the above-mentioned elite secondary, and it probably helps that teams are typically throwing the ball a ton in an attempt to catch up. Of course, Cal has been throwing the ball a ton so far this year no matter the game situation, so let's just cross our fingers and hope for luck.

3rd Down

2012: Opponent 3rd down conversion rate of 32.14, 15th in the nation
2013: Opponent 3rd down conversion rate of 32.73, 35th in the nation

Exactly the elite number you'd expect from a defense that excelled on passing downs.

Red Zone

2012: Opponent scoring percentage of 68.63, 10th in the nation
2013: Opponent scoring percentage of 66.67, 15th in the nation

2012: Opponent touchdown percentage of 49.02, 18th in the nation
2013: Opponent touchdown percentage of 33.33, 7th in the nation

And they do well in the red zone, although admittedly there aren't a ton of possession from which to build a sample size. When was the last time Cal had above average red zone performances? 2006?

Conclusions

There exists the possibility that Cal's offense will do very poorly tomorrow. And if it does, the Cal fan base will be full of a type of misery not seen since . . . well, probably against Oregon last year, since that game happened so late in the year. But if it does happen, it would probably be best to not overreact. Oregon allowed 13 first half touchdowns in 13 games last year. Only USC even managed three. You have to have an elite offense to score on Oregon, and I hope that nobody thinks that Cal's offense is elite yet.

And if, somehow, Cal does score points early and often . . . well, that's just one more reason to get excited about the future. Maybe you move up the timeline for whenever you thought the Bear Raid could reach its full potential. Maybe you upwardly revise your win total expectations for this season. Maybe you're too jaded with Cal's defense to derive any potential enjoyment out of the Bear Raid, which would certainly be an impressively glass-entirely-empty viewpoint.

This game probably won't be a ton of fun - but it holds the potential for hope later in the season, and right now all we want is more hope. Hope that maybe this team can turn it around and push towards bowl eligibility, and hope that we're watching certain elements of the team coalesce into a group that can do much more in the future.
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