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Ducks tackling defensive shortcomings

EUGENE — Oregon’s 11 a.m. kickoff in the nonconference finale at Autzen Stadium gave the coaching staff a rare opportunity to watch other college football games on a Saturday night.

Viewer discretion should have been advised for Don Pellum and the defensive staff.

No. 2 Alabama gave up 43 points to Mississippi in a home loss. No. 3 TCU gave up 37 points to SMU in a home win. North Division nemesis Stanford outscored preseason Pac-12 favorite USC 41-31.

If you polled coaches on who the best defensive minds are among their peers, those heading the aforementioned teams — Nick Saban, Gary Patterson and David Shaw — would be at or near the top of the list.

So in this age of high-scoring spread offenses and less physical contact in practice, what constitutes good defense?

“A win,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said this week following the Ducks’ 61-28 victory over Georgia State. “You know everybody’s goal is perfection. We’d love a shutout, we’d love to score 60 points every week and be perfect at everything, but that just doesn’t happen. It’s why players are committed to each other, coaches are committed to players and everybody’s committed to getting better.

“But there’s always things that you don’t anticipate when human beings are involved. … I love having that early game and sitting at home watching other people suffer through those things.”

Oregon’s defense allowed a fledgling Sun Belt squad to finish with 431 yards (318 passing) and score three touchdowns in the third quarter. Three forced turnovers by John Neal’s young secondary and linebacker Joe Walker’s scoop-and-score prevented the game from getting interesting.

“I’m working through a lot of kinks with my players within our system. It’s definitely still a work in progress,” Neal said. “We need to see what we need to do to not give up the big play. Some of it is physical, some is mental. That combination of those things happening at the same time are not good.”

When asked to describe Oregon’s tackling through three games, Neal said it was “frightening.”

No. 18 Utah, which is only averaging 167 yards passing, can create a sense of dread for fundamentally unsound defenses because running back Devontae Booker is one of the nation’s best.

“He never gets tackled by one guy, ever,” Helfrich said. “He’s one of those guys where if it’s blocked for 2 (yards), he gets 4, 5, 6. His power and his ability to stay on the move but still have leverage and finish runs is really impressive.”

The Utes old-fashioned formula is simple: run the ball well, play sound defense and dominate the kicking game.

“The challenge is to be a good tackling team, keep the ball in front of us and don’t give up any big plays,” Neal said. “Every big play we give up is dangerous against a team that’s a strong running team and defensive-oriented football program.”

Oregon is ranked No. 13 in the polls but 105th in the FBS in total defense (456.3 yards per game) and 104th in scoring defense (33.7 ppg).

In two home games against inferior opponents, the Ducks allowed Eastern Washington wide receiver Cooper Kupp to set Autzen Stadium records for receptions (15) and receiving yards (246) and Georgia State freshman Penny Hart to catch nine passes for 128 yards.

“It was definitely a learning experience,” safety Juwaan Williams said. “For most of us this was our first time being out there live together. We learned about ourselves, what we need to do, what we can do as a back group. Now it’s just putting it all together.”

In the marquee nonconference matchup at Michigan State, Oregon allowed Aaron Burbridge (101 yards, one touchdown) to have a big night receiving, and Madre London (103 yards) and LJ Scott (76 yards, two touchdowns) loose in the running game.

Pellum, Oregon’s second-year defensive coordinator, believes his unit will raise its level of play now that it’s time to defend the program’s Pac-12 championship.

“I think it has improved,” Pellum said of the defense’s tackling in practice this week. “I’m excited to see it Saturday.”

As a battle with No. 18 Utah looms, Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich says the best measure of good defense for the No. 13 Ducks is getting 'a win.' AP PHOTO