EUGENE — Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti gets emotional when talking about his "kids."
The longtime Oregon assistant has surely become accustomed in recent years to all the attention falling on the Ducks' speedy spread offense. So when the spotlight falls on Oregon's defense, Aliotti's pride is apparent.
"Anything's possible with these kids," he said with an ear-to-ear grin. "They listen. They practice hard. They want to win."
The defense starred last weekend when No. 2 Oregon shut out Arizona 49-0. Six times the Ducks prevented the Wildcats from scoring from the red zone.
Interceptions by sophomores Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Troy Hill were returned for touchdowns, and overall the Ducks had four interceptions returned for 99 yards. Linebacker Michael Clay had 13 tackles, including two for loss, to earn Pac-12 player of the week honors.
The shutout was the first in conference play for Oregon since a 35-0 win over Stanford in 2003, although last season the defense held when Colorado only came away with a safety on an Oregon punt return in a 45-2 Ducks victory.
Arizona went into last week's game averaging more than 46 points and 600 total offensive yards per game. The loss dropped the then-No. 22 Wildcats out of the AP rankings, while Oregon leapfrogged a spot over LSU.
"I don't come in thinking about a shutout, no," Aliotti said. "I was hoping we would have one more point than they did at the end of the game, to be honest with you. We had a few more points than they did, which was nice."
Oregon (4-0, 1-0 Pac-12) runs a hybrid 3-4 defense under Aliotti. Because the Ducks' offense is so quick, the defensive unit is well-conditioned and adept at rotating in and out. And players often say the Ducks' defense is all the stronger for having to practice every day against the Ducks' offense.
"If we proved something to everyone else, that's great," said junior safety Brian Jackson. "But we always knew we were good."
Oregon's defense was questioned earlier this season when it allowed Arkansas State 24 points in the second half of a 57-34 season-opening victory. But for the most part, no starters played after the Ducks amassed a 50-10 lead at the half. Then Oregon allowed Fresno State 19 second-half points in a 42-25 win in the Ducks' second game.
Overall, Oregon's D allows an average of 18.2 points a game, fifth in the Pac-12. The Ducks give up an average of 351 yards in offense to opponents, 140 yards on the ground and 267 via the pass.
The Ducks will face something new on Saturday night when they play Washington State (2-2, 0-1) at Seattle's CenturyLink field. The Cougars have adapted new coach Mike Leach's Air Raid attack, passing for an average of 313.75 yards this season (18th nationally) while running for just 59 yards per game (second-to-last nationally).
Texas Tech led the nation in passing in six of Leach's 10 seasons there.
"It's a very dangerous offense," Oregon coach Chip Kelly said. "And because their mentality is to pass first, pass second, pass third, they're always going to be in the ballgame."
The Cougars are coming off a 35-34 loss to Colorado, which scored three fourth-quarter touchdowns. Connor Halliday completed 32 of 60 passes for 401 yards and four touchdowns, but also threw a pair of interceptions in the loss. Halliday has eight touchdowns in three games.
Marquess Wilson needs just 46 yards to pass Brandon Gibson for the most receiving yards in Washington State history. Wilson is still waiting for a big breakout game in the new offense, despite having five receptions and two touchdown catches in each of the last two games.
After their shutout, the Ducks are prepared for whatever the Cougars may literally throw at them.
"We have a lot of depth. If it comes to the point where you gotta do 100 plays, I'm pretty sure we'll be ready," Oregon cornerback Terrence Mitchell said. " I know I will be."