Saturday Nick Aliotti met the media after practice, and a reporter asked him a hard question.
Oregon State had struggled to run the ball all year, but they had a lot of success against the Ducks. Why?
The coach took a long swallow from his ever-present water bottle and answered him (Jonathan Hawthorne/Oregon Daily Emerald Photo).
“We didn’t prepare for Oregon State to run the ball. So you can put that on me,” Aliotti said, “I didn’t think Oregon State was going to run the ball to beat us.”
The video came from goducks.com, Oregon’s own website, so it wasn’t a chop job or hit-and-run journalism. This was Aliotti being Aliotti: frank, direct, always a stand-up guy.
If the Beavers surprised him in the Civil War as he says, it nearly proved costly. Mike Riley’s 6-6 squad controlled the line of scrimmage the entire game, and took a 35-30 lead into the last minute and a half. OSU’s Terron Ward (former Duck and current Cleveland Brown standout T.J. Ward’s little brother) ran wild, with 17 carries for 145 yards, 8.5 a carry. He hadn’t had more than 55 in any game all year. Sophomore Storm Woods added 73, 4.9 a crack, also his season high. Victor Bolden added 3 carries for 39 yards on the fly sweep, a play the Beavers have been running for ten years.
In all the Beavers ran for 231 yards and a nifty 5.9 a carry. They not only ran the the ball they nearly ran away with an upset, and it wasn’t the first time Oregon’s defense had shown an alarming vulnerability to the run this season. Both Stanford and Arizona ran it down their throats. Bishop Sankey of Washington gashed the Ducks swiss cheesy run defense for 167 yards and two touchdowns, including a 60-yard burst on 4th and 1 that made it 21-14 at the start of the third quarter, and later, a 25-yard td run near the end of the period to keep the Dawgs in reach at 31-24. Marcus Mariota got the Oregon offense going with a pair of touchdowns in the fourth quarter, one running and one passing, and Sankey wasn’t much of a factor at the end of the game. The Ducks got a big lead, and Washington had to pass.
Yet Aliotti said the OSU game plan surprised him, and took the blame for how easily and consistently it worked.
Part of that is the coach protecting his players. They aren’t winning matchups in the running game this season. Their big tackles, Wade Keliikipi and Ricky Havili-Heimuli, have been playing banged up, and the Ducks inside linebacker play has suffered all season after graduating Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso. They younger players in the middle haven’t progressed adequately. Holes aren’t getting filled. Tackles are missed. The big plays and big stops Clay and Alonso could be counted on to make haven’t happened. That part isn’t surprising: Alonso is tearing it up in the NFL now, with a whopping 137 tackles in his rookie season with the Bills.
While it’s frustrating, it’s only natural a unit would suffer after losing two senior leaders of that caliber. Add in Dion Jordan, an outside linebacker/defensive end who was picked in the first round by the Miami Dolphins, and that’s a serious brawn drain on a defense that has always struggled to match up physically defending 85 plays a game. Oregon’s blistering offensive pace puts them in a lot of jeopardy, especially when the offense falters. The Ducks are built to defend a lead, prevent big plays, and give the high-powered offense a chance to win the game. At Oregon, the most talented two-way players wind up on offense. It’s always been that way. In the SEC, it’s the opposite, part of the reason LSU and Alabama played a pair of snoozefests for the national title in 2011, 9-6 and 21-0.
Aliotti went on to say he’s still committed to the 3-4 because he likes the flexibility and the opportunities it provides to attack the offense in a variety of ways. But without the players and experience, Oregon’s defense hasn’t done much attacking in 2013. Thank goodness UCLA waited until after the Duck game to discover Miles Jack.
Vulnerable to the run
Opponent’s rushing offense versus the Ducks, in four key games:
- Huskies 194 yards lllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll
- Stanford 274 yards lllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll
- Arizona 304 yards lllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll
- Beavers 231 yards llllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll
The tally is especially alarming because Texas has a couple of big backs and a stout offensive line. Jason Quick of the Oregonian pointed out that the Longhorns are 81-2 under Mack Brown when rushing for more than 200 yards. Tailback Malcolm Brown is 6-0, 225, and backup Joe Bergeron is 6-1, 230, Quick reports, and the offensive line averages 6-5, 305 across the front.
Bergeron carried the ball 17 times for 102 yards against Texas Tech on November 28th, the biggest game of his UT career. Brown emerged in the second half of the season, putting together 100-yard games against Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas Tech and Baylor, totalling 774 yards after having just 63 in the first five games. He took over in a big way after Johnathan Gray tore his achilles in a 47-40 overtime win over West Virginia.
There shouldn’t be any surprise about what Texas wants to do in the Alamo Bowl, especially since quarterback Case McCoy was just 12-34 passing against Baylor, for 54 yards.
Whether 3-4, 4-3 or 5-2, Aliotti and the Oregon staff have to come up with a plan to stop the Texas running game. Nothing they do should be a surprise, particularly after four weeks. Those young and inexperienced backers have had all season to get better.
For next season, the Oregon coaches have been busy on the recruiting trail trying to get them some help. The Ducks are especially pursuing two top defensive players, a physical linebacker in Jimmie Swain from Kansas, and a pulverizing nose tackle from Warren High in San Antonio, 6-1, 290-lb. Trey Lealaimatafao.
This isn’t a fire-Nick-Aliotti post. Football is a game of matchups, and this year the Ducks don’t have the personnel to stuff the running game the way they have in some other seasons. A 21-year veteran at Oregon, the coach has put together some masterful game plans in big games and particularly bowls, shutting down feared offensive machines in big Oregon wins, notably a pair of Fiesta Bowls.
This year he can’t solve what’s proved to be a knotty problem; instead he has to mask it. Safeties and corners are making a lot of tackles. Taylor Hart is running clean-up all over the field, making 9, 10 tackles a game from defensive end. The Ducks will continue to struggle against the run until the linebackers mature and youngsters like Alex Balducci and DeForest Buckner put it together on the defensive line.
Against Texas, they’ll have to be resilient and resourceful against what promises to be an emotional, fired-up opponent, playing for Mack Brown in his last game as Longhorn coach. The stadium will be a sea of burnt orange. Oregon’s defense has to get some stops, and the offense has to find its rhythm early and get their hosts behind, force them out of four-yards-and-a-cloud-of-field-turf-granules. Otherwise, it could be an agonizing night, ending in another round of tough questions.