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Previewing the Oregon defense

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Analyzing Cal's chances to match scores with the Oregon offense, which will surely collapse without Marcus Mariota next year right? RIGHT?!

Don't do what UCLA didn't not do.
Don't do what UCLA didn't not do.
Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Oregon has a good defense. That said, it's a defense that isn't nearly as overwhelming as the last few years. Is that because Oregon lost five starters from last year's defense, two to the NFL? Is it because new defensive coordinator Don Pellum isn't ready as a first time coordinator? Or am I reading too much into a ‘struggles' of a defense that has only allowed two teams to score a significant amount of points before garbage time? Probably all of the above.

If nothing else, this is an Oregon team lacking in an obvious star along their front seven, with the possible exception of DeForest Buckner. Taylor Hart, Dion Jordan, Kiko Alonso, Josh Kaddu, Casey Matthews . . . that's five players drafted in the last four years. Without that type of obvious disruptive, standout linebacker or lineman, Oregon's defense has regressed a bit.

Regressed enough to allow Cal to score lots of points? That's a very different question.

Starters

DE: Jr. Arik Armstead ; NG: Jr. Alex Balducci ; DE: Jr. DeForest Buckner

Cal fan eyes will undoubtedly look towards Arik Armstead, but the best (or at least, most productive) lineman has been DeForest Buckner with 43 tackles, 8 behind the line of scrimmage. That's more than his other two defensive line starters combined. The Bears should have Chris Borrayo back to anchor the left side of the line, and that should in part help contain Buckner, but if he's not accounted for he can disrupt Cal's run game and get pressure all by himself.

OLB: Sr. Tony Washington ; ILB: Jr. Rodney Hardrick; ILB: Jr. Derrick Malone Jr. ; OLB: Jr. Tyson Coleman

As noted above, there are no obvious standout names in this group - just lots of solid players who tend to get the job done in unspectacular fashion. Hardrick and Malone rack up plenty of tackles on the inside, as does back up Joe Walker. Washington and Coleman are decently disruptive on the outside, as is back-up pass rush specialist Christian French.

There are no stars here, but there are no liabilities either, with depth to spare.

CB: Sr. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu ; FS: Sr. Erick Dargan ; SS: So. Reggie Daniels ; CB: Sr. Troy Hill

Obviously the headliner is presumed first round draft pick Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, but his cornerback partner Troy Hill has been solid as well. This is Oregon's most veteran unit with many returning starts, and it shows in the numbers. The group has combined for 26 passes defended along with 7 interceptions.

That said, Oregon has been shakier in pass defense than anybody would have expected with the personnel they have back. I wouldn't say that they are suffering from a lack of pass rush either, as Oregon has collected a respectable 20 sacks this year.

Season So Far

5.1 yards allowed/play in a 62-13 win over South Dakota
5.6 yards allowed/play in a 46-27 win over Michigan St.
5.9 yards allowed/play in a 48-14 win over Wyoming
6.2 yards allowed/play in a 38-31 win over Washington State
5.8 yards allowed/play in a 31-24 loss to Arizona
6.0 yards allowed/play in a 42-31 win over UCLA
4.3 yards allowed/play in a 42-20 in over Washington

So. Four of Oregon's six games were functionally over at halftime. The Oregon defense allowed UCLA and Washington to score some meaningless touchdowns, but basically only Arizona and Michigan State scored points when the game was still in doubt.

Still, UCLA and Washington State had success gaining yards. UCLA turnovers helped turn the game into a blowout, but Washington State avoided those types of mistakes and put themselves in position to win the game in the 4th quarter with a bit of good fortune. If you're looking for reasons to be optimistic, Washington State's offensive performance has to top the list.

What I find weird about the stats is the uniformity. Oregon's defense played about the same against Wyoming as it did against Washington State and UCLA, at least on a per play basis. Really, only Washington completely failed to move the ball. It almost feels like the Oregon defense intentionally does just enough to let their offense run away with games. A punt or two here, a turnover there, and BAM you're losing 35-10 and it's the 2nd quarter sorry go home.

Against the pass

2013: 5.5 yards/attempt allowed, 3rd in the country
2014: 6.9 yards/attempt allowed, 58th in the country

This is a pretty precipitous decline from spectacular to merely OK. Michigan State found lots of success through the air, Washington State of course managed to make a game of it by throwing the way they always do, and neither UCLA nor Arizona was exactly shut down by Oregon's secondary and pass rush. Perhaps the departure of Terrance Mitchell means more than we might have otherwise guessed.

Still, Oregon mixes in plenty of sacks and turnovers, and that will make up for allowing some yards more often than not.

Against the run

2013: 3.82 yards/attempt allowed, 36th in the country
2014: 4.25 yards/attempt allowed, 68th in the country

UCLA and Arizona both got tons of traction on the ground, but it seems unlikely that it's the type of thing that Cal can duplicate, both because Cal's running game is weaker, and because the offense is very likely going to enter 'throw the ball to catch up/match scores mode.

Honestly, I'm perplexed as to why Cal's running game hasn't been better. Daniel Lasco seems like a solid, Justin Forsettesque running back. The offensive line is decent. Teams should be overplaying the pass because of Cal's proven ability to throw downfield. And you've got two offensive minds who have shown the ability to build a potent run game at most of their previous stops. And yet Cal 108th in the country in yards/carry, and has rightly abandoned the run in most games this year. Baffling.

Advanced stats

2013 S&P: 25th in the country
2014 S&P: 20th in the country

2013 FEI: 16th in the country
2014 FEI: 27th in the country

The advanced stats can't decide if Oregon's defense has regressed or not, but the difference is relatively minor. Frankly, I'm looking at Oregon's FEI component stats (all mediocre at best) and trying to figure out how the Ducks rank so highly overall. Presumably a big strength of schedule boost? The computers do love UCLA, Arizona and Washington State's offenses, a little bit too much for my tastes.

So yeah, if you put a ton of stock into these numbers then it's pretty much the same Oregon defense as last year. I don't see how a team that is allowing 1.5 more yards/pass attempt hasn't regressed a bit, but sometimes the computers know more than I do.

Turnovers

2013: 29 forced turnovers (17 interceptions, 12 fumbles), 17th in the country
2014: 14 forced turnovers (7 interceptions, 7 fumbles), 30th in the country

Forcing turnovers has been a hallmark of the Oregon defense ever since they made the transition from decent program to Death Star. It's no different this year, with Dargan and Ekpre-Olomu pulling in most of the interceptions. I love back shoulder sideline fades this year, but no matter how great Goff and Lawler are, I'm not at all comfortable throwing them on Ekpre-Olomu's side.

Conclusions

I have a concern about the Cal offense. So far this year, the Bears have played the following FBS teams, with their F/+ defensive rank in parenthesis:

Northwestern (52)
Arizona (43)
Colorado (94)
Washington State (90)
Washington (55)*
UCLA (44)

Cal has faced two really bad defenses, and destroyed them. Cal has faced four average defenses and only saw a ton of success against one of them (Arizona). Don't get me wrong - the offense is vastly, vastly improved. But the crazy three game scoring streak against mostly awful defenses masked our eyes to some problems that have revealed themselves over the last two games. When teams have the talent and/or scheme to take away the deep ball or get pressure on the quarterback, Cal's offense can become very average very quickly.

*I do think the rating systems are severely underrated Washington's defense, mostly because of an extreme outlier game against Eastern Washington and a wretched strength of schedule modifier.

After last year, an average offense is still a nice thing to have. But against Oregon you can't settle for average. Unfortunately, Oregon also has probably the best defense Cal has faced this year.

There is a scenario in which Cal makes this competitive a la Washington State. If Borrayo is back and healthy and helps to contain Buckner, and if the line can generally keep Goff upright and give him a bit of time, then there will be receivers to find. Oregon's secondary is no longer ironclad. Washington State provided a template for a bit of offensive success.

Unfortunately, Cal doesn't have the pass rushers Wazzu does to disrupt Mariota and provide occasional stops. Cal's offense will probably have to outperform what the Cougars did against the Ducks.

There is a scenario. And there is nothing that would make me happier than the Bear Raid awakening from a two week slumber to suddenly tear apart the Oregon defense. I just can't say it seems likely for a team that has put together just three scoring drives longer than 32 yards over the last few weeks. Prove me wrong, Bears.