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How Utah embarrassed Oregon, and how the Ducks can keep it from happening again

It'll take a while to rebuild Autzen Stadium's aura after what the Utes accomplished on Saturday. But Oregon's defense can fix some things immediately.

Former Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti had some amazing achievements with the Duck defense, basically anticipating the evolution towards 8-3 flex defenses and using 46 fronts to stop the spread. His defense started to slip in 2013 after star linebackers Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso departed, though.

Aliotti's replacement and protege, Don Pellum, got the Ducks back on track in 2014, playing similar schemes and relying on a disruptive DL and a fantastic secondary that featured corners Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Tony Hill and safety Erick Dargan.

Now Oregon is experiencing an outright crises on defense. The Ducks are ranked 89th nationally in S&P+ after getting whipped by Utah to the tune of 530 yards at 7.2 yards per play in a 62-20 humiliation in Eugene.

The Oregon defensive plan

In 2014, the Ducks seemed cognizant of the fact that they weren't good enough on defense to stop opponents from moving. However, they were very good at forcing turnovers that disabled their opponents' capacity to keep pace with Marcus Mariota.

In 2015, they've followed a similar regimen. Oregon is dropping both OLBs into pass coverage and squeezing the passing game by flooding zones with pattern-match principles.

With their base 3-4 personnel on the field, the Ducks have outside linebackers who can drop or rush the edge on either side of the formation. This theoretically lends them the ability to bring a lot of disguise and pressure while only sending three to five pass-rushers after the QB.

There's nothing fundamentally wrong with that plan. But it has to be noted that playing a disguise-heavy 3-4 (or 8-3, really) requires versatility at safety and outside linebacker and a mastery of the coverage system.


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The collapse against the Utes

You saw the explosive Utah trick plays like the sneaky punt return touchdown, but there were fundamental issues for Oregon well before those.

Many of Oregon's attempts to disguise its coverages and blitzes only seemed to confuse its own defenders, who repeatedly gave up free grass to the Utes with errors like this:

In order to give their defense a spark, the Ducks moved young safety Juwaan Williams (No. 17) into the lineup, and in this instance, were just looking to play a really safe max-quarters coverage (eight defenders dropping back). Unfortunately, the sophomore seemed to miss the call while the Utes were already running everyone's favorite quarters-beater, the wheel route.

Wheel vs Oregon

Williams, represented here as the R safety, needed to be playing in a deep alignment over the top but instead dropped down into the box, apparently believing Oregon was in a cover 3 call. The weak outside linebacker (W) only carried the wheel route to the flat before passing it off to ... no one. The corner (C) was matching up with the outside receiver (X) on a hitch route.

This version of quarters should mean a four-deep zone. But the Ducks had no one in position to pick up the wheel.

Coverage problems weren't the only issue: 6'7 quarterback Travis Wilson managed to amble for 100 yards, his highest total in more than two years. And he did it on only six carries, maybe the most damning statistic of the whole affair. Wilson seemed almost surprised during his runs, no doubt pondering, "Where are all the Duck defenders? Surely I should have been caught by now."

Errors up front negated the Ducks' speed on defense and allowed him to run wild.

Most of their mistakes can be attributed to undisciplined play by the inside linebackers, such as on this power-read keeper by Wilson:

There's quite a bit that went wrong. This time the Ducks are in cover 3, with the free safety (F, below) rotated down to the three-receiver side of the formation. Things began to unravel as soon as the slot receiver (H) comes into motion.

Utah PR vs Oregon

Williams (R again) is out of alignment, as he should have come running to the boundary flat when he saw the WR in motion. Instead, his response is delayed, and he's not in position to make the tackle when Wilson breaks through.

Wilson broke through because the outside linebacker went wide to play contain and the inside linebacker did the same. With the cover 3 rotation, it should have been the safety playing contain, or simply the outside linebacker. Instead, both linebackers got too wide.

QB option runs gave the Ducks fits all night. They regularly missed assignments and even had two guys in the same gap while the ball went elsewhere for easy gains. The inside linebackers frequently committed the sin of over-pursuit, the safeties failed to get aligned to clean up errors and everything came apart time and time again.

While Oregon's offense and special teams were dysfunctional on Saturday, the defense was the worst offender despite having a fast and talented roster.

Solutions for Oregon?

With two losses on the resume, there's very little chance of Oregon reaching the Playoff. However, Oregon can play considerably better on defense in its remaining eight conference games.

"DP is not putting that on the players," head coach Mark Helfrich said in his Sunday presser. "He's putting that on us as coaches to get figured out. The double pass, the toss pass, we had two guys in great position to do their job. And on the double-move long ball, they were 20 yards out of position. Those are very frustrating things. [It] is very hard for a young person to focus on, 'I have one thing and I should do one thing, period.' With all of the moving parts of a football game, the memory of the previous play, whatever it is, that comes with experience and to trust what they've been trained to do."

If Pellum is going to maintain the youth movement and try to get the most out of versatile athletes at outside linebacker, the Ducks are going to need to focus on hammering down their base coverages and using fewer calls until all of the assignments are down pat. It's clear this team doesn't have a mastery of the playbook, and execution errors of the sort that we saw against Utah will negate any schematic plan.

Given the youth at safety, the Ducks would probably be well-served by mixing max-quarters calls with some disguised blitzing, in the hopes of matching last year's bend-don't-break-but-do-force-turnovers results.

The Oregon offense will have more good days ahead, and the defense will only need to hold up its end of the equation for the Ducks to find victories.