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Cal vs. Oregon: Previewing the Ducks Defense

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The Ducks have a little bit of trouble defending the pass. Can you think of anyone who might benefit from that? Anyone at all?

Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

This game looks a little bit different than it did in August, doesn't it? As it turns out, Oregon's coronation as back-to-back Pac12 Champion may have been a bit premature. Even so, the Ducks have five wins and have been competitive in their losses (with one notable exception, but we'll get back to that). They have plenty of talent, and are riding their first win streak of the season after escaping Tempe with a 3OT win last Thursday.

The Golden Bears will head to Oregon and attempt to stop a three-game slide. We already know that the team is...hungry...to beat the Ducks, but how well do they match up against them? I'll give you my take on the Oregon D, and you let me know what you think in the comments.

The Story so Far...

The first whispers that something was amiss in Autzen began when the Ducks allowed 42 points to Eastern Washington in the opener. Oregon led whistle to whistle, but allowing five passing touchdowns to the Eagles didn't inspire much confidence. A narrow loss to Michigan State looks better and better every week, and the Ducks earned plenty of style points against Georgia State, but much of that goodwill was lost in the debacle with Utah. Travis Wilson's superlative performance—four TDs passing, 100 rushing yards and a rush TD—exposed 62 points of weakness in the Ducks' defense and leveling Oregon's record at 2-2.

Colorado helpfully allowed the Ducks to regain their footing, conceding a 41-24 victory. Washington State would not be so kind, bouncing back from their loss to the Bears on the strength of Luke Falk's 505 passing yards and five touchdowns. Granted, the Cougs had two overtimes to rack up the stats (Falk had 74 pass attempts), but Oregon's secondary could not slow down the Air Raid. They had better luck against Josh Browning, holding the Huskies to 20 points and Browning to under 200 passing yards.

This defense has struggled to contain good offenses and especially those with good quarterbacks, but has generally allowed the offense enough room to keep up. They were juuuuuust good enough in Thursday's 3-OT thriller against ASU. Mike Bercovici had 398 yards and five touchdowns, but also threw two picks, including one in the end zone in the final overtime. The final numbers? 742 yards and 37 first downs for the Sun Devils.

The two overtime games might be causing some grade inflation here, but the season numbers are ugly too: The Ducks rank 116th in passing yards allowed (489 ypg), 87th in rushing yards allowed (189 ypg), and 110th in scoring defense (37.9 ppg). It's hard for me—with my admittedly untrained eye—to pick out exactly why, though. DC Don Pellum is in just his second year at that position, but he's bounced around the Ducks' defensive units since the nineties. The defense lost some contributors up front in DE Arik Armstead and LB Derrick Malone Jr., among a few others, but that amounted to a fall-off in depth more than in talent. The secondary was hit harder, losing their leading tackler and biggest ballhawk in S Erick Dargan, as well as two members of their cornerback rotation. Even so, most of this year's starters saw some game time due to injuries last year. Their havoc rate is down about a percentage point from last year, but that's not anything egregious. So what gives?

Defensive Line

Starters: Sr #44 DeForest Buckner, Sr #56 Alex Balducci, Sr #55 Tui Talia OR So #92 Henry Mondeaux

If the issue is up front, the Ducks sure aren't inclined to do anything about it. They've had the same front seven for every game this season, with the exception of splitting starts between Tui Tala and Henry Mondeaux at DE. On the other side of the line, DeForrest Buckner has been the star of the unit, leading the team with 11 TFL and six sacks. He's easily the biggest name on this defense, owning 33 career starts and making a number of awards lists including the Bronko Nagurski watchlist for best defensive player. Mondeaux, the only non-senior starter, has been making good impressions as well, with his four sacks good for second on the team.

Linebackers

Starters: Sr #33 Tyson Coleman, Sr #48 Rodney Hardrick, Sr #35 Joe Walker, Sr #96 Christian French

Consistency follows here, with a combined 87 starts among the all-senior lineup. ILB Rodney Hardrick has started 36 consecutive games, and owns the second most tackles on the team. Joe Walker, his partner on the inside, bests him with 40.5 tackles, and boasts the linebacking corps' only interception. Tyson Coleman could give the Bears trouble  as he adds to his 8.5 tackles for loss. Christian French is the least experienced of this group, having made all of his eight starts this season. Juniors Torrodney Prevot and Johnny Ragin III (who spent his freshman year at Cal) rotate in generously as well.

Defensive Backs

Starters: So #3 Tyree Robinson, So #6 Charles Nelson, Jr #8 Reggie Daniels, So #1 Arrion Springs

Here would seem to be the land of opportunity for the Golden Bears. The secondary only starts one upperclassman in S Reggie Daniels, and the other three starters combined for just two starts before this season. Eight guys have started games, and more than a few have shuffled positions around the defensive backfield. No one has quite stepped up to replace Erick Dargan, but there's been something of a youth movement to do the job by committee. Tyree Robinson leads the team with three INTs, and his backup, freshman Ugo Amari, has two of his own. Arrion Springs is the CB on the other side, and was the one to pick off ASU's Mike Bercovici to seal the game last week. Look out as well for S Charles Nelson, a wide receiver who has made an impression with two double-digit tackle performances in three starts on defense.

Andrew's Take

I've had a hard time reading the Ducks this year (and most other teams, as evidenced by my performance in the CGB pick-em league). They're clearly down from last season, but they're still two possessions away from being 7-1 right now. Their secondary is clearly a liability, and I'm starting to think a couple of early shots against some weak DBs could be just what Jared Goff and this offense need to get their early-season mojo back. I'll make the standard disclaimer that the Bears have to gain some credibility with the run, but now that Lasco appears to be back I'm more optimistic on that front. I'm hedging because the wisdom of the comment section dwarfs my own, but I kind of like this matchup. My prediction? Goff doesn't need 74 pass attempts to throw a bunch of TDs.