Oregon's defense had better get its act together in a hurry or the Ducks could be in a world of hurt and will not contend for a Pac-12 championship.
So far, the defense grades out at a D-minus. At best.
Oregon through three games has not demonstrated marked improvement on defense over last year's dismal showing that led to the demotion of former defensive coordinator Don Pellum and to the hiring of Brady Hoke, who has installed the 4-3 defense after jettisoning the 3-4.
The Ducks, after blowing a fourth-quarter lead to lose 35-32 at No. 20 Nebraska on Saturday, rank 84th in the nation in scoring defense (29.7 points per game) and 82nd in total defense (402.7 yards per game), and that's after playing arguably the weakest three-game stretch on their schedule.
Hoke said Thursday that his unit is still working on mastering fundamental elements of playing defense such as being more aggressive against the run.
"We get guys off blocks," he said. "We've got to be more impactful at the point of impact."
Oregon didn't do that all too well against Nebraska on the Cornhuskers' final drive. The Ducks' offense marched 97 yards to give Oregon a 32-28 lead only to then watch Oregon's defense surrender an 80-yard scoring drive on 11 plays to lose the game.
No offense to Nebraska, but its offense has nothing on Oregon's next five opponents. The Ducks' next face five of the top 26 scoring offenses in the country starting with Colorado (3-0) at home Saturday afternoon. Here is a look at what lay ahead on Oregon's schedule.
- Colorado: 26th in total offense (500 yards per game), 20th in scoring (42.7).
- At Washington State: 20th in total offense (514.7), 26th in scoring (42.0).
- Washington: 61st in total offense (423), eighth in scoring (49.3).
- At California: No. 3 in total offense (580.3), 10th in scoring (47.0).
- Arizona State: 17th in total offense (525.7), ninth in scoring (48.0).
Oregon's offense is on point, even with a young offensive line and new quarterback. The Ducks rank 19th in scoring (43.0) and 10th in total offense (545.3). The Ducks might need every bit of their offensive prowess in order to win against their next five opponents.
There have been signs of some improvement on defense over last season. Then again, how could the Ducks not have improved over last year when the defense ranked 115th in scoring defense and 116th in total defense. However, UO played stronger offenses to begin last season starting with Eastern Washington, a far tougher FCS opponent than UC Davis.
To get a further idea of where Oregon's defense sits, consider that No. 8 Washington has allowed 10 points per game, No. 7 Stanford has allowed 11.5, Utah has given up 12, Oregon State is allowing just18.5 and Colorado had given up 19.7. Of course, strength of opponents vary by team, but Oregon has played just one strong team, Nebraska.
Virginia, Oregon's second opponent this season, ranks 118th in scoring offense (18.7), 97th in total offense (357) and 109th in rushing offense (123.7). Yet the Cavaliers put up 26 points, 388 total yards and 193 rushing yards during a 44-26 loss at Oregon.
To be fair, Oregon is very much a defense in transition with six new front-seven starters. Plus, the injury bug has hit. Starting linebackers Troy Dye and A.J. Hotchkins have missed time. Plus, there's already been juggling going on in the secondary, which battled injuries and inconsistency last season.
Hoke deserves time to rebuild the defense and next year's unit should be stronger with the expected return of as many as 10 starters.
However, linebackers coach and former defensive coordinator Don Pellum wasn't given the benefit of the doubt when last year's defensive secondary had three new starters who clearly weren't ready for the responsibility and routinely got lit up by opposing quarterbacks. Pellum's demotion came despite his defense performing well in 2014 when the Ducks allowed 23.5 points per game while working their way to the national championship game.
Pellum took the fall for 2015, but as we're seeing, even an experienced former head coach with a defensive background like Hoke is struggling with having many inexperienced players and dealing with the pressure placed on the defense by Oregon's fast-paced offense.
All of those issues, and an improved but still developing secondary with as many as eight players in rotation, will be further exposed by Pac-12 opponents.
Colorado is up first. Its star quarterback, Sefo Liufau is a game-time decision with an ankle injury suffered at Michigan, according to coach Mike MacIntyre. If he plays, the Ducks could be in serious jeopardy of losing. Liufau threw for 246 yards and three touchdowns at Michigan before going down.
"The've played real well," Hoke said of Colorado. "They've hit a lot of big plays. That's what they do."
So far, what Oregon doesn't do is stop opposing offenses. That had better change or the Ducks' bid for a Pac-12 title could end within the next five weeks.