Oregon's defense gains measure of respect in win over UCLA
EUGENE, Ore. -- On Saturday, we found out what it looks like when No. 2 Oregon plays a four-quarter game against a quality opponent. We found out what happens when a defense with All-America-caliber linebackers keeps quarterback Marcus Mariota in the pocket and takes away the deep ball. We found out what happens when the Ducks have a punt blocked in their own territory and fumble at their opponent's five-yard line in the second half of a close contest. And we found out how Oregon responds when it's stuck at 14 points late into the third quarter.
It goes on to beat No. 12 UCLA 42-14.
"If you'd told me before the game we're going to win by 28 points, I'd be happy," said Ducks offensive coordinator Scott Frost. "That was the toughest 'easy' game we've ever had around here."
As college football's national championship race hits its stretch run, style points become more essential than ever. Fans of the various contenders eagerly await a chance to nitpick the others. On a day when No. 1 Alabama, No. 3 Florida State and No. 4 Ohio State all throttled overmatched conference foes by 30-plus points, Oregon spent three quarters locked in a tussle with a much more formidable opponent. Forget style points. There seemed a very real possibility, if only fleeting, that this UCLA game would be the 2013 version of Oregon's 17-14 loss to Stanford last November.
"We knew UCLA was good, and they lived up to it," said Ducks coach Mark Helfrich. "It was a back-and-forth heavyweight fight."
Anyone who has watched enough Oregon games over the last several years has seen a similar version of this script before. The Ducks let an opponent hang around, but eventually LaMichael James breaks a run here, or De'Anthony Thomas breaks a long return there, and they're off to the races. The competition ultimately can't keep pace.
As similar as it may sound, this wasn't one of those games. This was the opposite. As Oregon linebacker Boseko Lokombo said afterward, "This game was a game for us to prove not only do we have the offense, but we have the defense as well."
Oregon's perennially overlooked defense had to do its part because UCLA's own talented unit came to play. From the opening series, when Bruins stud freshman linebacker Myles Jack forced a fumble on a reception by wideout Keanon Lowe, UCLA made a statement that it would not let Mariota and the Ducks shred them like they have so many others. They matched Oregon body-for-body up front, allowing talented linebackers Jack, Anthony Barr (two sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery), Jordan Zumwalt (14 tackles, two tackles for loss) and Eric Kendricks (eight tackles) to make plays. Mariota, who entered the day atop most Heisman lists, had few open receivers to throw to in the first half.
It took a 66-yard Rodney Hardrick fake punt on fourth-and-14 from Oregon's 26-yard-line to set up the Ducks' first touchdown. After Oregon went up 14-7 in the second quarter and drove back into UCLA's red zone, the Bruins forced a Mariota incompletion on fourth-and-two.
In uncharacteristic fashion, Oregon actually went five consecutive possessions without scoring in the second and third quarters. Without the usual scoring barrage from the offense, the Ducks' defense found itself in some uncomfortable spots. The Bruins' two touchdowns, both of which came in the first half, were facilitated by short fields set up by Jack's forced fumble and subsequent blocked punt.
Outside of those, Oregon allowed almost nothing.
UCLA, which was plagued by injuries on the offensive line and started three freshmen up front, played more conservatively than usual. It relied heavily on inside runs and perimeter screens. Quarterback Brett Hundley attempted just nine passes in the first half, and the Ducks feasted appropriately. UCLA's longest drives of the night spanned 69 and 41 yards, respectively. They resulted in a Lokombo interception and a fourth-and-two stop.
"It's fun," said safety Avery Patterson, who had a fourth-quarter interception. "Our offense bails us out on a number of occasions. For us to have their back one time, it was fun to do.
The Bruins managed 283 yards of total offense, including just 94 yards after the half.
"In the second half," said Lokombo, "we always come out and dominate."
It's a good thing the defense did, because it's not as if Mariota and the offense came out of the locker room on fire. Their first two possessions ended in a punt and a fumbled snap at the UCLA five-yard line, a turnover recovered by Barr. But after Oregon forced another Bruins' three-and-out, its attack found a groove, thanks largely to running back Byron Marshall.
Once the Ducks went up 21-14 in the third quarter and forced Hundley to pass, the wheels came off quickly for UCLA. The sophomore quarterback finished a miserable 13-of-19 for 64 yards while rushing for 72 yards on 15 attempts. Oregon sacked him three times and picked him off twice. Meanwhile, Marshall finished with 133 rushing yards and three touchdowns. Mariota -- who went 10-of-10 in the second half -- maintained his Heisman cred with a respectable line of 21-of-28 for 230 yards with a touchdown.
You would never know by Oregon's 555 total yards that this was ever anything less than a typical offensive performance.
"The defense did an unbelievable job," said Mariota. "They bailed us out a few times. We were able to build on their momentum."
Schedules vary widely in college football. On the same September day that Alabama won its Game of the Century over Texas A&M, Oregon throttled Tennessee in relative anonymity. On Saturday, when the Ducks faced their highest-ranked opponent to date, the Tide were coincidentally routing the same Vols. When Florida State scored its signature win last week against Clemson, Oregon was just kicking off its eventual blowout of Washington State. The Ducks' anticipated equivalent of that Clemson game is scheduled for a week from Thursday at Stanford.
Right now, the top of the BCS standings is still a quagmire of undefeated teams. But it's assumed that if Oregon keeps winning it controls its own destiny. Florida State or Ohio State fans may still find flaws with the Ducks, but right now there's no ammo to call out their defense.
"So far we're averaging about 16 points (16.8 per game allowed), I'd say that's pretty good," said Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti. "... After eight games, we are very pleased."
He should be. Oregon's remaining opponents must be less thrilled. Ditto for Florida State, Ohio State and Baylor.