Mon Nov 15 02:27pm EST
The bloom came off the celebrated Oregon offense Saturday night for the first time this season, and the handcuffs went on. The Ducks' only points of the first half at Cal came on a punt return, and they only found the end zone in the second half on a short field following a Golden Bear fumble on the kickoff to open the third quarter. The 15-point total was almost six touchdowns below their best-in-the-nation average for the season, and almost four touchdowns beneath their previous low of 42 points. It took the Ducks three-and-a-half quarters just to get halfway to their season average in total yards, by which point the warp-speed attack was content to grind out the final nine minutes on its methodical drive of the year and limp away (literally) with the ugly 'W' heading into the bye week.
Instead, it was the defense's turn in the spotlight. Cal only scored one offensive touchdown itself, and was forced to punt on eight of its 11 possessions. The Bears' turned in anemic 193 yards for the night, the fifth time this year the Ducks have held an opposing offense below 300, and the sixth time they've limited the opposition to 16 points or less. So is it time to start thinking of Oregon as championship material on defense, too?
Increasingly, it seems the answer is yes. The clampdown in Berkeley left coordinator Nick Alliotti's charges atop the Pac-10 and among the top 10 nationally in scoring and pass efficiency defense, and second in the conference in total D. It's also No. 1 in the Pac-10 and among the top 10 nationally in yards per play and third down percentage. It's among the top 20 nationally in sacks and tackles for loss. Statistically, the worst you can say about the Duck D is that the offense leaves it on the field too long.
Well, that, and the gap between those big-picture numbers and the numbers against the kind of offense it will eventually see in the BCS Championship Game. Competent attacks from Arizona State and Stanford both ripped the Ducks for 500-plus yards – well over 300 through the air in both cases – and 31 points on at least six yards per play in back-to-back weeks to open the conference schedule. The only other top-50 offense Oregon has seen, USC, put up 32 on the Ducks last month. Number of teams that have made the BCS title game after allowing 30 points in three different regular season games: Two. Number of teams that have won the BCS title after allowing 30 in three different regular season games: One, and that's only if you count the 2007 LSU Tigers' triple-overtime losses to Kentucky and Arkansas, neither of which made it to 30 in regulation.
But even in those games, Oregon has shown a killer instinct, shutting out both Stanford and Arizona State in lopsided second half routs that turned back-and-forth shootouts into lopsided routs after the break, and holding USC without a point while the offense exploded for a 24-0 run over the last 26 minutes in L.A. The longer the game goes on, the better this group seems to get.
If there's anywhere it looks like a legitimate championship D, though, it's the turnovers. Five of the six teams that have played in the BCS title game since 2007 finished in the top 10 nationally in takeaways, including all three winners, and the golden-era USC teams that topped the polls from 2003-05 finished in the top three all three years with less-than-spectacular finishes in total defense. Oregon is currently tied for the national lead in takeaways this year at 29, and has been at its greediest against the best offenses: The Ducks forced three turnovers apiece against Stanford and USC and a staggering seven at Arizona State, six of them in the second half alone.
Arizona comes to Autzen Stadium in two weeks averaging 30 points on almost 450 yards per game, most of it from the arm of Nick Foles, who had 353 yards and three touchdowns in Saturday's loss against USC. The Ducks' wins over Arizona the last two years have both been outrageous shootouts, 55-45 in 2008 and 44-41 last year in an overtime thriller in Tucson. Odds are that they'll be able to score their way into position to lock up a championship bid against suddenly hapless Oregon State on Dec. 4. But we knew that already. If you're sizing them up for a potential showdown with another top-10 offense from Auburn, Boise State or TCU in Glendale, watch instead for how well the Ducks keep the ball rolling on defense.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.