Oregon Ducks

Oregon's defense faltering in Pac-12 play

Oregon Ducks

EUGENE - Oregon defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt was all smiles when he met with the media on Wednesday outside of the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex. He was also very anxious to get out to the practice field. About 90 seconds into the interview session, Leavitt moved one foot toward exiting while asking, "Anything else?"

Well, yeah. Can't get away that easily when we get you once a week and the defense is getting lit up as of late. The Ducks (4-3, 1-2 Pac-12) have given up 143 points (35.6 per game) in four Pac-12 games after allowing just 69 in three non-conference games. So, who could blame Leavitt for wanting to get the practice. Like the Ducks' offense - 17 points in the last two games - the defense has plenty of work to do.

But unlike the offense, which is operating without quarterback Justin Herbert, the Ducks' defense doesn't have an obvious excuse to lean on. The main 11 starters have remained mostly the same with a few depth chart changes and a couple of players missing games here and there. Only inside linebacker Kaulana Apelu has been lost for the season. 
 

What's happened to the defense is simple. It went from playing very average offenses to facing quarterbacks that can put points on the board. UO has allowed 12 touchdown passes in four Pac-12 games and now faces the challenge of contending with UCLA's Josh Rosen, who has thrown for 17 scoring passes this year. UCLA hosts Oregon at 1 p.m. Saturday in the Rose Bowl. 

It's bad enough giving up touchdown passes. But Oregon isn't even intercepting any to balance things out a bit. After intercepting six passes in non-conference play, the Ducks have picked off just one pass in conference. 

"We do it all of the time in practice, we've just got to translate it into the games," Robinson said.

Getting interceptions against scout team quarterbacks is not the same as facing Pac-12 starters. The quarterback foursome of Arizona State's Manny Wilkins, California's Ross Bowers, Washington State's Luke Falk and Stanford's Keller Christ have given the Ducks problems. Even Bowers, sacked seven times, managed to throw for three touchdowns with no interceptions. The one interception for UO in conference came at Stanford on a dropped and tipped slant pass in the end zone that landed in the arms of freshman cornerback Deommodore Lenoir.

Maybe the most concerning problem is that those same quarterbacks have had poor games against other teams. Falk threw five interceptions in last week's 37-3 loss at Cal. Bowers threw four in a loss to USC. Wilkins threw two at Stanford. Chryst had two picked off at San Diego State. So, they've given up the ball. Just not to Oregon. 

Back to Rosen. He threw for three interceptions and zero touchdowns in a 47-30 loss last week at Arizona. He now has eight on the season, tied for the second most among conference starting quarterbacks.

He is a bit of a gunslinger that likes to take chances. So, if Oregon is going to pull off the upset, the Ducks must find a way to pluck a few of his passes out of the air. 

"We're always focused on turnovers whether that's stripping the ball out, punching it our, quarterback throwing it and get it," UO safeties coach Keith Heyward said. "We just haven't made plays."

Leavitt pointed out that the Ducks have had chances at intercepting a few more during conference play, but failed to catch the ball. 

"Those are missed opportunities," he said. 

With the offense struggling so badly, the defense can't afford to not force turnovers. The mediocre play of backup quarterback Braxton Burmeister, a true freshman, has resulted in too many short drives that result in no points. Oregon's defense was on the field for 37 minutes during its 49-7 loss at Stanford. That's too much pressure to put on a young and rebuilding defense. 

 

"Obvious we feel like we have to stop the opponent no matter whether the offense is playing like it was before or playing like we are now," Heyward said. "We just have to take care of our own side of the ball and get stops."

Part of the problem is some of the youth of the secondary. The Ducks are have started safety Nick Pickett and cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. Lenoir has seen his playing time increase. They represent the future of the Ducks' secondary. Sometimes growing pains can be tough. 

"They're trying," Leavitt said. "They're doing the best they can. They are going to be great players. I'm really excited about them."

---

Oregon at UCLA

When: 1 p.m., Saturday, Rose Bowl, Pasadena, Calif. 

T.V.: Pac-12 Networks. 

Betting line: UCLA minus 6 1/2.

Records: Ducks (4-3, 1-3 Pac-12), Bruins (3-3, 1-2).

Last week: UCLA lost 47-30 to Arizona (4-2, 2-1). Oregon lost 49-7 at No. 22 Stanford (5-2, 4-1).

Coaches: Ducks' Willie Taggart (44-48, 4-3 at Oregon); UCLA's Jim Mora (44-27).

Fear factor (five-point scale): 5. Oregon should run wild but unless the Ducks get some big plays from Burmeister they won't have much of a chance of keeping pace with Rosen and his fleet of receivers.

Redshirt sophomore tight end Caleb Wilson leads the Pac-12 with 7.6 receptions per game over five games. He has caught 38 passes for 489 yards and one touchdown. Redshirt senior wide receiver Darren Andrews is second at 7.3 receptions per game. He has made 44 receptions for 591 yards and seven touchdowns. Redshirt junior Jordan Lasley leads the conference in receiving yards per game (108.4) over five games while catching 54 passes for 543 yards and three touchdowns. 

Final pick: UCLA 44, Oregon 30.  Burmeister will improve enough to help the offense break 20 for the first time in three weeks but it won't be nearly enough.