In the Gang Green Rose Bowl season in '94 Nick Aliotti's defense won games 22-7, 23-7, 10-9, and 17-13.
In the 2002 Fiesta Bowl Colorado came in with a vaunted rushing game that was supposed to crush the Ducks, but Aliotti devised a plan that held them to 49 yards on the ground in a 38-16 victory.
His guys, his way: one of Nick Aliotti's great strengths as a defensive coordinator is his devotion to his players. Exchanging a pre-game handshake with Terrance Mitchell before the spring game last season, the warmth and affection is genuine and deep. That's the way he leads and teaches.
When the Ducks went to 2011 National Championship Game, Oregon held Cam Newton and the pride of the SEC to 22 points.
Last season the Men of Oregon won their second straight BCS bowl as the defense shut down Heisman Trophy finalist Collin Klein and Kansas State, 35-17. An offensive machine in the Big-12 that year, the Wildcats managed 283 yards, 4.04 per play, and turned the ball over twice.
Yet this year the Ducks have faltered, and defensive struggles were a big part of it. In two losses the front seven was gashed by Tyler Gaffney and Ka'Deem Carey, giving up 42 points to Arizona as a 22-point favorite. Falling out of the national championship race and then coughing up an opportunity to play for the conference championship and the Rose Bowl, Aliotti's crew allowed 859 yards of offense and 69% conversions on third and fourth downs. The loss of confidence and the apparent absence of a will to compete was a misery to watch, and the Ducks didn't look much better defensively in wins over Utah and Oregon State. The Beavers hadn't had a 100-yard rusher all year, but Terron Ward torched the UO D for 145 yards and 8.3 a carry as the visitors rolled up 545 yards in a game Oregon was losing until the last 29 seconds.
The 21-year veteran of the UO staff probably went through two water bottles in the fourth quarter as his group made two key stops, altogether coming up with three turnovers and three turnovers on downs in the 36-35 Civil War victory.
Passionate and committed, Nick Aliotti knows how to coach. He's still the same coach whose defense held UCLA to 14 and Washington to 24 when the Ducks were 8-0, and he hasn't forgotten how to use greaseboard in the space of five weeks.
The fiery ex-running back from Northern California is a magnet for message board dissections. Sports fans always want to somebody to blame, and from the safety of their computer keyboards, Aliotti becomes an easy target. Fire Allow-alotti, the screed goes. It's the presumption of a quick fix. Get Ed Orgeron or Will Muschamp. Bring in Tosh Lupoi. Find out if Clancy Pendergast wants to hop on a plane.
People forget what's been accomplished. They forget the 46 wins in the decade, the four BCS bowls, and the six ten-win seasons. They forget the big stops, the key turnovers, and the three BCS trophies in the Hatfield-Dowlin Center. For Phil Knight's $68 million, they want something more.
Any discussion of what's wrong with Oregon football and the Oregon staff has to begun with a careful acknowledgement of what's right with it. Whatever shortcomings the Ducks have had in falling to 10-2, fans have to respect the man, the program and the commitment that has brought 21 years of steady improvement to Autzen Stadium. The offense got the headlines, but none of those wonderful moments, beating Michigan in the Big House, trumping Pete Carroll on Fright Night, sending the Beavers home empty six straight times and the Huskies ten, happen without some great coaching and leadership from Nick Aliotti.
Which doesn't mean he gets a pass. A stand-up guy with big principles, he's never asked for one. After the Stanford game he said:
“Good football team. Well-coached football team. I hate to say that they dominated the line of scrimmage because I don’t want to sell my guys short. That’s the only reason I hate saying that. They dominated me because my guys are awesome and warriors and they fought to the end, We almost had a chance there had we had a little bit more time; time just ran out.But they didn’t dominate my guys.They won the game, they won the line of scrimmage, don’t write anything negative about those kids. Write about me."
Aliotti's never ducked responsibility. He's expressed frustration over officiating and notably had an embarrassing profanity-laced tirade about Mike Leach running roughshod over his third team in the fourth quarter of a 62-38 Oregon win, one that cost him $5,000, but he's never ran away from a microphone or evaded a question. He's owned the losses as well as the wins, and his commitment to teaching and improving has never wavered.
Fans ask, "what's wrong with the Oregon defense?" and the first answer is that Kiko Alonso, Michael Clay and Dion Jordan graduated. The Ducks replaced three defensive stars with juniors and sophomores, and it shows. Linebackers aren't getting to the holes and fail to finish plays. Bishop Sankey, Gaffney, Carey and Ward all ran downhill with impunity.
The Oregon 3-4/4-3 hybrid defense is predicated on defensive linemen tying up blockers and plugging gaps, with linebackers flowing to the football. The key component of a 3-4 is the nose tackle. Lined up over center, he has to command double teams on every play, and if he is to be a credible force in the defense, he has to defeat them a good percentage of the time.
Haloti Ngata isn't walking through the locker room door with four fresh years of eligibility. Last time, he left after three, and ten years later, he's still one of the highest-paid defensive tackles in pro football.
Stop right now and read this very carefully: the issue with Oregon's defense is not size. It never was. Former Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award Winner Nick Fairley, who single-handedly dominated Oregon on the line of scrimmage in the 2011 championship game, measured 6-4, 291 at the NFL Combine four months later. Will Sutton is the 2013 PAC-12 Player of the Year. The Arizona State defensive tackle comes in at 6-1, 305. He played at 275 last year and was actually dramatically more effective, with 63 tackles,13 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss as a junior (42/3.0/10.5 in 2013). The current Oregon d-line two-deep features:
Ricky Havili-Heimuli 6-4, 314
Wade Keliikipi, 6-3, 306
Alex Balducci, 6-4 297
Taylor Hart, 6-6 287
DeForest Buckner 6-7, 286
Arik Armstead 6-8, 280
They're big enough to be effective. They're in the wrong defense.
Against Stanford and their jumbo packages, Oregon should have been ready with a five or six-man line. Aliotti said they practiced some adjustments but said they weren't sure they could recognize the Stanford personnel groups and get extra big bodies on the field in time. He's paid to be sure about things like that.
True 3-4 nose tackles are rare in college football. To play this defense and execute it, you need a fierce, mean, unblockable monster over the ball, and four linebackers who can stick and move. The Ducks linebackers didn't develop this year as quickly as Oregon fans would have hoped, and there wasn't a true Mike linebacker on the roster. Derrick Malone was a warrior trying to be one at 6-2, 212. Rodney Hardrick has the right physical profile at 6-1, 243, but he's a year away in terms of experience and recognition in real football time.
Malone led the team with 102 tackles, and beat his body to a pulp getting them. After twelve games he looks like Rocky in the scene where he says "Cut me, Mick." Hardrick has had some great moments, including a blocked field goal for a touchdown and a 66-yard run with a fake punt. Defensively, he's turned in 60 tackles and 3 fumble recoveries.
As a group, the Oregon linebackers have 6 sacks all season, 14 tackles for loss. That's Malone, Hardrick, Rahim Cassell, Tyson Coleman. Boseko Lokombo and Joe Walker combined, for 12 games. Last year Jordan, Clay and Alonso combined for 225 stops, 14.5 sacks, 34.5 TFLs. Replacing three seniors of that caliber was a monumental task. Results suffered.
It should be noted that Jordan's replacements at the hybrid DE/OLB position, Tony Washington and Torrodney Prevot, actually out-performed him statistically. Washington has been stellar this year, the Ducks most productive pass rusher with 56 tackles, 7.5 sacks, 12 TFLs. Opponents contained him too well in the second half of the year, however. In his freshman season Prevot showed tremendous promise in spot play, 14 tackles, 2.5 sacks, including one in the Civil War, a forced fumble, a recovery, even a pair of pass breakups on freakishly athletic plays.
There are two main problems with the Oregon defense. One, it's too complicated. The Ducks run one-gap, two-gap, 3-4, 4-3 and a myriad of slant, stunt, blitz and coverage packages. Young players get overloaded and out of position. Players are thinking too much.
After the Arizona game, Aliotti told the media, "When it gets to be a game like that, when A tries to do B's job, and B tries to do C's job...who's doing A's job? That's the best way that I can explain it to you."
"When a team can run the ball as efficiently as they did, and boy did they, a lot of things open up."
The mere fact the coach answered in this way reveals something critical about the Oregon defensive scheme: it's getting in the way of players being physical and flying to the football. They're not cohesive. They're tentative. The scheme overwhelms them when things aren't working.
The best defenses in football history were relentless and attacking. The dominated opponents and destroyed what they wanted to do. A big part of that is outstanding personnel, but another is want-to, and a scheme that frees athletes up to play with passion and aggressiveness.
A second part of the problem for the Oregon defense is that the current scheme doesn't fit the personnel. With young linebackers and a deep, experienced defensive line, the Ducks should have been in a 4-3 this year, unleashed that athletic front four to attack the backfield. Forget about soaking up blocks and funneling running backs to the linebackers, who were having trouble getting there. Knock them on their can. Beat the man in front of you. Don't plug gaps. Destroy them.
During the year Taylor Hart, Wade K and DeForest Buckner, (all of them, really) had moments when they used their athleticism to destroy a play. Even a series of plays. But the heavily grease-boarded complex x's and o's of the Oregon system hamstrung this group. It needed to be simplified, and it needed to be reworked to take advantage of their exceptional athleticism and motors. Let them get after people. Keep it simple. Attack.
Football is ultimately more about matchups than scheme. "It's not the x's and the o's..." But scheme can enhance or inhibit a group of athletes. This group was handicapped by what they were asked to do, and the linebackers were asked to do too much. Prevot, Tyrell Robinson and Danny Mattingly are tremendous talents. To get them in the lineup and playing earlier with abandon and purpose, the Ducks have to make what they're doing more understandable and less confounding. The Ducks lost a promising four-star linebacker in Anthony Wallace of Skyline High School in Dallas, Texas, a true middle linebacker at 6-0, 235, partly because he couldn't grasp the system, and his father was an ex-NFL player who'd tutored him since he was six.
People often say, why can't the Ducks get the big SEC hog-mollies? They need to get bigger in the defensive front. Yes and no. That forgets that half of the PAC-12 is now running up-tempo spread offenses. The Ducks not only have to compete with Stanford, they have to prepare for spread attacks that run a play every 15 seconds. That takes versatility, mobility and agility. Big, fat guys, just for the sake of beefing up the roster card, aren't the answer. It takes guys who can play in space and run in a conference full of speed. Not every successful defense is beefy. The dominating Miami Hurricanes of the '90s and early 2000s are a notable example. Dennis Erickson built some incredibly physical defenses at Oregon State turning linebackers into defensive ends and strong safeties into linebackers, emphasizing quickness and aggression over size.
But most great defenses are physical, attacking and relentless. The '83 Chicago Bears. Lawrence Taylor and the New York Giants. The Ray Lewis Baltimore Ravens. They get after people. They knock people down. They have players who are perfect components in a cohesive system that understand their roles and have a clear purpose. They disrupt and destroy. There's not a lot of pointing and confusion before the snap, except on the other side of the ball.
Oregon is recruiting plenty of athletes defensively now. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is one of the best in the country. Arrion Springs, who's coming next summer, is in the same category, potentially. Don Pellum had a home visit this week with Jimmie Swain from Houston, Texas, one of the best young linebackers in the nation, 6-3, 229, with the frame to play at 235 as he matures.
People say, we need stud defenders like they have at Alabama, but those guys are rare, 20-30 of them available in the entire country in a given year. True 3-4 nose tackles are the scarcest of all. Oh, you can find a guy with the right dimensions, but finding one with the strength, quickness, intelligence, desire and intensity is another thing altogether.
Tonight Rika Levi, a 6-2, 350-lb. DT from College of San Mateo, announced he wouldn't be taking a scheduled official visit to Washington this week in the wake of the coaching upheaval there. He's a juco teammate of Hanitei Lousi, a 6-5, 295-lb. offensive linemen who visited Oregon last weekend. He's big enough, but can he get off the ball at the PAC-12 level?
In highlights he looks strong and nasty, moves around very well for his prodigious size. Ron Aiken will give him a look. With JC guys, the trick is getting them graduated and into school, then getting them acclimated to a higher level of competition. It doesn't always pan out, but the Ducks got tremendous results from Zac Clark, a stalwart on the 2010 PAC-12 Championship team and a contributor on the 2009 Rose Bowl squad. Clark, by the way, played at 6-2, 270, 42 tackles, 4 sacks and 9.5 TFLs as a senior, quick and disruptive.
Elite defenders don't want to play in a system that will limit their pro potential or rein in what they can do. They want to be unleashed. They want to get after the quarterback and make plays, not merely tie up the guard and center and serve as a butler for a linebacker.
After an incredible run at Oregon, Nick Aliotti has earned the right to call his shot on when to call it a career. Aliotti enjoys an occasional night of karaoke with family and friends, and the next time he goes, he should fire up "My Way." He deserves to go out on his own terms, and the purpose of this website isn't to scapegoat anyone or propose drastic and oversimplified solutions. The landscape of college football is littered with schools overrun by overzealous fans and boosters who demanded rash, quick-trigger decisions that destroyed continuity: Michigan, Nebraska, Washington, Colorado and California have each made a series of fire-the-old-guy/hire-the-hot-commodity decisions that sealed the doom of their once-fabled programs.
Success takes stability and a sound plan. There's no place for scapegoating and unrealistic expectations, fly-blown, half-baked speculation. Neither Ed Orgeron and Tosh Lupoi have the track record or the credentials or the integrity to replace Nick Aliotti. When Coach Nick decides to leave, the logical and rational choice is John Neal. He's a tremendous recruiter, a great teacher and motivator, a coach who teaches a philosophy of aggressiveness and always competing. He was the defensive coordinator for a Top Ten defense at Alabama-Birmingham before coming to Oregon. He's a keen student of the game who understands the Oregon culture, tireless and intense.
Neal will put a defense on the field that is prepared, physical, and relentless. When the time comes, he's the perfect man for the job.
Excellent article and I think the Ducks need to be able to move to a 4-3 D when teams like Stanford keep running it down our throats. When our 3-4 D didn't work it kept our O on the sideline and also control clock which is how to beat the Ducks. Stack the line, stop the run and get our D off the field at all costs. It's simple stuff with proper preparation. Chip and Azzarino knew this but when they left for Philly they took the Defensive grit with them.
One of your very best articles. If we had the big three that graduated still on the roster, would people be calling for NA's head? I think Allioti's admissions after the Stanford game shows that he is still willing to learn. This team is still getting better.
YES... Great article Dale. The Ducks are NOT undersized. Aliotti and the defensive crew has an AWESOME track record. I noted in the Stanford game that there was NO penetration on the line, that the linemen were content to lock up with the Stanford O-line and NOT shoot the gaps. Which also meant that when Stanford passed, there was a meager pass rush. The Ducks may well have fallen victim to their own 8-0 success, thinking that they could play vanilla and still keep Stanford in check. I am hopeful that these bitter defeats serve as good fertilizer for growing a better team in the next few years.
Very valid points. The DC should adopt a sliding DEFCON scale that adjusts to personnel and vice versa.
Some further thoughts/numbers that add to Dale's point.: DBs making a lot more tackles, similar to the 2009 season.
Great article, Dale. Thanks for the well-thought perspective on the defense. And I do mean, perspective. Like you probably took a deep breath, did some research, did some serious thinking, outlined your thesis, put your thoughts down, re-read the thing a few times, did some more research, re-wrote it a few times, and then hit "post" or whatever it is you hit on your side of the curtain. But unlike many of our fellow fans, you offered constructive criticism and viable solutions. Thanks.
I hope Nick reads this. And please grab Hampton and maybe this DT behemoth Levi along with teammate Lousi. It's almost mid-December fellas, let's get it done!
Reading this article is like taking a class for credit in understanding the Oregon defense. I will read it again this evening. I am not a student of X's and O's but I do understand leadership. This year, and really this year is what counts, the past is the past, Nick Aliotti was way out of line IMHO. Mouthing off about Mike Leach should never happen and Mark Helfrich should have leveled him. Mouthing off about the Pac 12 referees should have never happened. If someone is going to mouth off, it had better be the head coach and he had better be right.
As I said in another thread, I think this defense was dependent on an offense that can run up the score and get the opponent our of their set offense. Unfortunately that did not happen for us near the end of this year.
Will Muschamp might be available.
Strong, articulate article.
You should always put your best 11 players out there, and if that means a 4-3, you do it, and if it means simplifying your X and O's, you do it.
I remember Utah basketball coach Rick Majerus after his team upset Arizona in the NCAA playoffs some years ago told the interviewer that the defense wasn't working so he put in a "junk" defense of a 1-3-1 that his team had NEVER practiced.
The 1-3-1 worked, and Utah won the game.
Nice write up. I think you pointed out the two factors that won't change soon. Aliotti won't get fired and Oregon won't get the big fast D guys they need. So we're stuck in the same rut till Nick leaves. And who's to say it will change that much when Nick leaves. Will Neal change things up enough? I totally agree with you on the personal issue. It takes stellar athletes to make Nicks D work. That's evident from last year to this year. And that's where I think Nick fails. It seems that he won't change his game plan to benefit his players. It's been that way for years.
I wonder if they try for those big fast SEC type guys or think it's a waste of time.
I also found it puzzling when he said they were thinking about changing up the D in the Stanford game but weren't sure if it would work. I would think that at the 1/2 when you're down 17-0 you would make that change. Stubborn I guess. Obviously what they were doing wasn't working. Maybe he was hoping the offense to bail him out again.
IMO the only way to really rationalize it is that it's the same for any team in terms of having the sum of all parts equal a winning combination. AL and this year FSU have that sum of parts. AL is able to get just about any layer they want. So implementing their schemes is a lot easier. For teams like Oregon that rely on both parts being complete, it makes it harder to be a #1-2 team year in and year out when one of the parts to the plan isn't complete.
Does Levi have an offer from Oregon? Has Allowalotti ever discussed why he uses the 3-4 instead of the 4-3? When I say we need bigger players, I don't mean just pants size, I mean bigger hearts, bigger attitudes, bigger confidence, bigger desire and bigger expectations. I want players who have a bigger fire in their belly to get a sack or get a pancake block, which doesn't necessarily mean they have to have more XXXXXXX's on their pant size. Alonzo was a perfect example. He wasn't huge but he had a huge fire in his belly and still does. That's the kind of player we need. I don't know if you have to be born with that or if it can be taught but that's what we need.
@JonSousa Thanks Jon. He'll look smarter as Prevot, Mattingly and Robinson mature, although I am worried about that bubble on the defensive line.
@Denverduck07 DD, you make a crucial point. The coaching staff has to learn from the losses and do some critical reevaluation this winter.
@zduckfan On the anniversary of the appeal of Prohibition, lets all drink to that. Nice homage to the Gettysburg Address, one of my favorite pieces at the intersection of history and literature.
@sozeduck I wrote a snarky reply to your post that I decided to delete. Thanks for your opinion and observations. You tend to challenge me on almost daily basis, but you do so with a fully-developed point of view and a solid knowledge of the game. I'll have to learn to accept that not everybody is going to agree with me or like my work, and I have a much better chance of improving if I listen to the critical voices as well as the positive ones.
@DrakeMallard The entire staff and football administration needs to address the issues of the 2013 season with a cold-eyed urgency after the recruiting season is done. Due to the nature of college football, they don't have the option of focusing on anything but the bowl game and recruiting for the next 6 weeks, but after that, it should be DEFCON ONE on line play, defensive scheme, inconsistency, focus, practice, preparation and message. This team lost its way.
@FALizardHips2 I like Matt Daddy's article a lot. He quantified the issues in an understandable, objective way, and his analysis was really strong. Great use of statistics, using numbers that got directly to the point. Thanks for linking it.
@FALizardHips2 Appreciate it, FLH. That was my intention, anyway.
@rgyle I don't think any of the coaches read fan websites, but I appreciate that you did. The Duck coaches have proven themselves to be great talent evaluators and dogged recruiters. I believe they will get it done, but they do need to achieve some major booms in the stretch drive.
@SonomaDuck Interesting conjecture about Muschamp, a great defensive mind. Not sure he'd come to the Northwest. Thanks for your continued support SD and it will be interesting to see how the relationship between Helfrich and Aliotti changes going forward.
@SonomaDuck Appreciate your thoughts, SD. There is some below-the-water turbulence in the H-C right now, and rumblings with influential supporters. In year two, Coach Helfrich has the challenge to take over the program and craft the message and the mission, and part of that is taking control of the staff and being an effective CEO. He's smart enough to learn on the job and grow in it. I expect a more effective head coach in year two.
@SonomaDuck I agree that Helf needs to cut the crap, stop coaching by the book, and take the damn helm.
Offense couldn't kick it in gear for two reasons: the main one being Mariota's inability to scamper and just plain run, the other being opponents running through Nick's D. I could add a 3rd: drops and fumbles. All of these need to be fixed by the bowl game. Next season, have a back-up QB game-ready and optimize the D for the personnel at hand, and be able to adjust for Stanford's 7/8-man front.
@Dukduponquak Many people agree with you, with varying opinions about the appropriate solution. It's good to have a discussion about how to get better.
@GaryMcAuley I always liked Majerus, an out-of-the-box, single-minded thinker who reminds me of Chip Kelly in some ways.
A great leader fixes problems before they become issues, and changes what isn't working with decisive action and superior planning.
@damonmiller006 Good points, Damon. To an extent the Ducks are who they are, but becoming what they can be means continuing to recruit better athletes and finding ways to use them more effectively, maximize what they can do and shore up their limitations. Both the offense and defense could have played better in November, and to be fair to the defense, the offense put them in a lot of bad situations. In the past, scoring productivity masked some of these same concerns. Chip Kelly's 2010, 2011, 2012 offenses might have put up 35 on Stanford and 50 Arizona, and won those games.
This year's recruiting class is a key battleground which we will cover very closely.
@duckified Not sure he has the exceptional quickness and strength of Ngata, but there's definitely some size, desire and raw material. Had 23 tackles as a freshman and 3 sacks. One thing a highlight tape doesn't show is how he plays on other downs.
@duckified Levi doesn't yet have an Oregon offer but they are considering him along with Alfonso Hampton and Sam Schwab. Hampton would jump at an Oregon offer and Levi has significant interest.
@duckified They use a complex hybrid defense with concepts from 4-3/3-4, one-gap and two-gap. The weakside DE/OLB stands up or puts his hand down, blitzes or drops into coverage. In other situations they will have as few as one or two defenders in a three-point stance. Kenny Rowe, Nick Reed, Zac Clark and Brandon Bair are recent examples of defenders who weren't big but played big. Michael Clay is a great example also. Alonso is blowing up the NFL, but the Ducks miss the heady Clay even more, a superb leader and clean-up guy.
To be clear, this was much longer than the Gettysburg Address, but just as salient. Gettysburg was one battle in a war, you were addressing a multitude of battles across many wars.
The Address is my personal favorite, for one reason alone: "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here."
Nobly advanced, indeed.
I love opinions, especially strong ones, but I love credentials even more. As fans, we are entitled to our opinions and Sunday morning hindsight. I love ya Sozeduck, but other than opinion, how do you know Aliotti is inflexible?
@Dale Newton DEFCON One.
@rgyle @SonomaDuck Thanks Arg. Turnovers were huge. Over the last five games, the team went from a group that exploited turnovers to one that suffered them. Mariota's injury really hampered this offense, their confidence, timing and rhythm. And absolutely, the defense has to be better prepared, with counters for what the offense is likely to do.
@zduckfan Einstein, Hawking, Steinbeck, Yates, Shakespeare, Knute Rockne.
@zduckfan The power and deep reflection in that masterful, gracefully-cadenced speech belies the fact that Lincoln composed it on the train on the way to the event. Imagine Lincoln today, giving a eulogy to Nelson Mandela, who died today at the age of 95.
Soze, I think you have a right to your opinion and they aren't snarky at all, the just state things in an exceptionally firm manner. Nothing wrong with that. I tried Google and Bing, looking for someone in the football world who said the same thing as you, but was unable to find much to corroborate your opinion. That's all. You say what you say with the passion of a knowledgeable fan, but where's the beef? :-)
And I'm not any better than you at grandstanding or platitudes. There are just some things we "think" and therefore they must be.
If I take your stance at face value, that Aliotti is inflexible and his system is so complex it has to go, then I have to also wonder if he shouldn't be recruiting smarter kids. If it works after they've had a few years to understand it, then maybe they need to learn it quicker?