A case for the defense?
EUGENE — Oregon is ranked No. 2 in the nation and on the short list of the favorites to win the College Football Playoff.
Marcus Mariota has lived up to his billing as a Heisman Trophy candidate while leading an offense that averaged 52 points and 573.3 yards during three convincing nonconference victories.
But are the Ducks’ strong enough on defense to win a Pac-12 championship?
The results have been mixed thus far for first-year coordinator Don Pellum’s unit. Entering Saturday’s conference opener against Washington State at Martin Stadium (7:30 p.m., ESPN), Oregon ranks 11th in the Pac-12 in total defense (425 yards per game), 11th in passing defense (275 ypg) and last in third-down conversions (45.1 percent).
Through three games the Ducks have allowed:
South Dakota, a team struggling to make the transition to the FCS, to rush for 172 yards (4.4 per attempt), including 120 in the first half of the opener at Autzen Stadium.
Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook to throw for 343 yards and two touchdowns, including 133 yards and a touchdown to wide receiver Tony Lippett.
Wyoming quarterback Colby Kirkegaard (284 yards, two touchdowns), running back Shaun Wick (122 yards rushing) and running back D.J. May (211 all-purpose yards) put together nice highlights reels last Saturday.
“Guys kind of realize this is not our standard,” junior defensive end DeForest Buckner said after Wednesday’s practice. “We have to turn it up and try to play to our full potential.”
Despite giving up some big plays — which coaches and players blame on a combination of blown assignments, communication errors and missed tackles — Oregon is second in the conference in scoring defense (18.0 ppg) and sacks (11) and tied for third with six turnovers (four interceptions, two fumble recoveries).
Safety Erick Dargan leads the Pac-12 with three interceptions, and defensive tackle Arik Armstead is fourth in tackles for loss (4.0).
The Ducks already have 26 tackles for loss this season, which is tied for third nationally. Oregon’s defense was ranked No. 82 in the category in 2013.
“For the majority of the games, I think we did some really good things. We showed that we can win with defense here,” said Dargan, whose three interceptions have led to 22 points by the offense. “We had some errors and gave up some plays due to minor mistakes, people not doing their job. This past week we’ve been focusing on everyone just doing their job. …
“This defense can be as good as we want it to be.”
Pellum’s side of the ball does have quality depth and leadership.
The three starting defensive linemen (Armstead, Buckner and Alex Balducci) are all physically imposing juniors. Starting linebackers Tony Washington (senior), Derek Malone (senior), Rodney Hardrick (junior) and Tyson Coleman (junior) are also upperclassmen.
In the secondary, Dargan and all-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu are seniors. Starting safety Reggie Daniels leads the team with 21 tackles. Senior cornerbacks Troy Hill and Dior Mathis should both see a lot of action against the Cougars’ spread offense.
“Looking at ourselves and reflecting on the last three games, we have to play with more intensity in the pass rush and then do a better job of tackling,” Pellum said when asked about allowing Wyoming to move the chains nine times on 17 third downs. “Last week, we didn’t do as good a job as we had before. Obviously, we’ll be calling some different defenses this week, some different calls that should help us in the passing game.”
Washington State leads the nation in average passing yards per game (517). Connor Halliday threw for 544 yards and six touchdowns, and the Cougars set a Pac-12 record with 630 passing yards in last Saturday’s 59-21 victory over Portland State.
During the Ducks’ 62-38 victory over the Cougars last season, Halliday attempted a conference-record 89 passes, passing for 557 yards, four touchdowns and four interceptions.
“A lot of teams sit back there in the same coverage, and they pick it apart. Against Washington State you have to mix it up and throw the quarterback off-balance,” Ekpre-Olomu said, “because (Halliday) is one of those quarterbacks who relies on timing a lot. If you throw off a receiver’s timing and disguise stuff, sometimes he’s just going to throw you the ball.”
Oregon’s defense is excited about the possibilities of this week’s game plan and the opportunity to make a statement in Pullman as the program’s quest for a Pac-12 championship begins.
“I think we’ve played OK, but at the same time we know we can play a lot better and we know we haven’t reached our potential,” Ekpre-Olomu said. “We have to keep working for that every single day.”