Defense defines Ducks, not drama
EUGENE — Oregon's resilient defense has received little attention while the rest of the team has made headlines.
The season-opening loss to Boise State, LeGarrette Blount's punch, his suspension and his possible reinstatement — and even a whiff of a quarterback controversy — have been the big news around the 10th-ranked Ducks this season.
All the while, the Ducks' D has steadily developed after losing six starters from last season and even a couple of key contributors to injury.
Oregon (6-1, 4-0 Pac-10) has allowed just three touchdowns to its Pac-10 opponents this season, but faces perhaps its biggest challenge Saturday when fourth-ranked USC (6-1, 3-1) visits Autzen Stadium.
The Ducks are the only team in the Pac-10 without a league loss.
"Chemistry," cornerback Talmadge Jackson explained. "Our chemistry's always been good here, but this year, we've really jelled as a whole defense and not just individual units, and we've really played team defense. There's no egos here."
The unheralded defense has twice as many sacks (22-11) as their opponents, along with 11 interceptions. Linebackers Casey Matthews (44 tackles and 2.5 sacks) and Kenny Rowe (team-high seven sacks) lead the charge. The Ducks are ranked atop the Pac-10 in pass defense and have allowed only five touchdown passes.
"They're physical up front, they're quick," said California coach Jeff Tedford, whose team lost 42-3 to the Ducks. "I think they have exceptional team speed on defense. (Defensive coordinator) Nick Aliotti does a nice job with what they're doing, with their package. They don't give up many big plays."
Since the victory over Cal, Oregon has defeated Washington State, UCLA and Washington. It has been quite a turnaround for the Ducks, who fell 19-8 to Boise State in the season opener.
In the aftermath of the humbling loss, Blount punched Broncos defensive end Byron Hout, bringing him to his knees. The next day, the senior running back was suspended by Oregon coach Chip Kelly.
The punch and suspension attracted unprecedented negative attention to the Ducks. The controversy was reignited when Kelly later announced there was a possibility Blount could be reinstated.
Oregon also had a brief quarterback controversy — at least among the fans — when starter Jeremiah Masoli struggled and Nick Costa played well.
Masoli, criticized for relying on his scrambling ability more than his arm, quickly silenced critics when he threw for three touchdowns against then-No. 6 Cal.
"I think we turned ourselves around (since Boise State) and showed that we aren't a dirty program," said Matthews, who is tied for the team lead with 44 tackles. "It'll be exciting to have people watch us and show them who we are."
Last week Oregon's defense held Washington — the team that handed USC its lone loss this season — to a pair of touchdowns and a field goal. Both TDs came in the fourth quarter when Oregon already had the game well in hand.
While the Ducks allowed 395 total yards to the Huskies, they also forced three turnovers and blocked a punt for a touchdown.
"They're doing some things a little bit differently than they've done in the past. They're pressuring more than they have in the past," Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said. "Some zone pressure things more than the man pressure they've done before, which I think has helped."
Oregon's defense has had its share of trials, too. The Ducks lost cornerback Walter Thurmond III, a senior and a leader on the team, to a season-ending knee injury against Cal. Then they lost his replacement, Willie Glasper, to a knee injury during practice about a week later.
Freshman Cliff Harris has stepped in, and already has an interception and six tackles in two games.
Kelly, who was the team's offensive coordinator before taking over for Mike Bellotti as head coach this season, agreed with Jackson, praising the unit's cohesiveness and unselfishness.
"The players know exactly how they fit within that system," Kelly said. "They play with passion, there's not one individual star on that side of the ball. We've obviously seen some injuries in the secondary, but everyone's got a chance to step up, a chance to play. They've really done a good job, and it's just really how well we practice and how well they prepare I think is the key to our success right now on defense."