SALT LAKE CITY - Oregon defensive coordinator Brady Hoke might have been the only person in Rice-Eccles Stadium not surprised by his group's strong showing during an improbable 30-28 upset win Saturday at No. 11 Utah.
Hoke certainly appeared to be a bit elated and a very much relieved following the win, but he said he wasn't surprised by the play of his defense, one of the worst in the nation by every measure imaginable, against a quality Utes offense.
Why? Well, as Hoke puts it, Saturday's performance was something the young defense had been working toward. The months of developing young players, correcting mistakes and evolving was bound to take. Saturday, it did.
"I don't sleep a lot the night before [games])," Hoke said. "But I just think that there is a lot of improvement across the board."
There should be no illusions that Oregon's defense has completely turned the proverbial corner. The Ducks (4-7, 2-6) gave up 453 yards to Utah, and for the fourth time this season blew a fourth-quarter lead when the Utes scored on a 30-yard touchdown pass to take a 28-24 advantage with 2:16 remaining in the game.
Still, the fact remains that UO's defense demonstrated dramatic improvement when all signs of sports logic pointed toward Oregon surrendering up 600-plus yards and 50-plus points to the Utes (8-3, 5-3). The Ducks in their previous game allowed Stanford to make them look like blocking dummies while the Cardinal offense, last in the conference in yards per game (359.5) and 11th in scoring (25.1. Entered Oregon game averaging 19.9), pumped out 540 total yards in a 52-27 demolition.
Against Utah, Oregon allowed 234 yards rushing, 149 to running back Joe Williams, but didn't allow a run of more than 28 yards. Utah quarterback Troy Williams completed 67 percent of his passes (20-of-30) after entering the game completing just 54.9 percent. But he threw just one touchdown pass and Oregon sacked him twice.
"I don't know what the numbers are but it feels a little better than other games," Hoke said.
It certainly was. Maybe most importantly, UO made plays at key moments. Utah punted six times. UO linebacker Jimmie Swain forced a fumble deep in the Ducks' red zone in the second quarter (it was Oregon's second recovered fumble of the season). The Ducks tackled well in space (other than the reverse play for Utah's opening touchdown when Utah receiver Cory Butler-Byrd threw out some wicked moves on the Ducks) and routinely were able to get off the field on third down, especially in the first half.
"Today for the first time in a while we penetrated gaps, we got tackles for losses before they could get going," Oregon defensive backs coach John Neal said.
Said Hoke: "It's learning on the job and I think some of the development is showing up."
These realities prevented Utah from building a big lead (like Stanford's 21-0 advantage in the first quarter) while UO's offense stumbled. The Ducks trailed just 7-3 at halftime in a game that could have been 28-3 at intermission had UO's defense played like it did in most every other game this season.
Oregon's defense gave up more points in the second half, but one of Utah's touchdowns came on a misplayed punt by freshman wide receiver Dillon Mitchell that resulted in a fumble recovery for a touchdown by the Utes that made the score 21-17 early in the fourth quarter.
UO's improvement, however, must be accepted with a bit of a caveat. Neal said the Ducks benefited from facing an offense similar to Stanford's a week after losing to the Cardinal.
"The things that we did poorly against Stanford, we had another week to correct," Neal said.
Consequently, UO's players were able to learn from mistakes made against Stanford and apply the new knowledge base and skills to handling Utah's offense.
"They are a really heavy run team," Oregon freshman linebacker Troy Dye said of Utah. "They have a lot of pulling guards just like Stanford did."
Oregon redshirt sophomore defensive end Justin Hollins said a huge key for the defense was not making costly mistakes early that led to easy scores for the opponent.
"We stopped shooting ourselves in the foot," he said. "Doing that kind of takes away the juice, like last week. This week we got after it and we kept that juice going, and we kept that competitive edge."
Maintaining that "juice" Hollins spoke of, involved not becoming demoralized by an avalanche of mistakes and points. Trailing just 7-3 at halftime helped Oregon's confidence grow. They could see their hard work paying off.
"Everybody was on their assignments," Hollins said. "We were fundamentally sound and we just got after it."
Hollins said defensive players pushed one another to improve by helping alert teammates to deficiencies in their game that maybe they didn't notice.
Oregon wide receiver Charles Nelson, who played safety last season, said he's witnessed all of the work the defenders have put in. He said many of the younger players are being forced to do a lot of self-reflection now that they are being relied upon.
"When it's something you fail at multiple times, you have to take it, learn from it and better yourself," Nelson said.
So now what?
Oregon will face Oregon State (3-8, 2-6) in the 120th Civil War on Saturday. The Beavers rank 11th in the conference in total offense (361.4 yards per game), but on Saturday won 42-17 at home over Arizona (2-9, 0-8).
Certainly, the Beavers will at least see an Oregon defense feeling much better about itself.
"It was a confidence booster," Dye said of the win over Utah.
Maybe more importantly, the outing relieved the defense of some stress. It's a unit that will return 10 starters next season, and about 15 other players who have contributed. Better days likely lie ahead, and now they have something to build upon after a season of seemingly endless negativity having been thrown their way.
"We pushed back on some momentum that was trying to run us over," Neal said.