By Adam Hoge-
(CBS) It’s time for Oregon to prove how good it really is. Well, at least that’s what people are saying — even though the Ducks already have.
Saturday night’s clash at USC doesn’t have the hype we thought it would, but fans and voters still want to see how Oregon’s defense stacks up against Matt Barkley and Trojan offense.
There’s little doubt the Ducks will cut up USC’s defense, which allowed 588 yards and 39 points in a loss to Arizona last weekend. By comparison, the Ducks held Arizona to 332 yards earlier this season in a 49-0 shutout.
And that’s why I believe Oregon really is the second-best team in the country: the defense.
Everyone talks about how explosive the Ducks’ offense is — and it is as explosive as ever — but no one talks about the defense. In fact, the only chatter about the defense is negative. People are wrongly assuming this is a classic Oregon team: great offense, bad defense.
That’s just not true.
When you look at typical defensive statistics, the Ducks don’t look dominant. 35th in total defense (351 yards/game). 24th in scoring defense (19.38 points/game). But those numbers don’t do reality justice. Because of Oregon’s offensive style of play, the defense sees more plays per game and is on the field more than the average team. The Ducks also happen to blow everyone out, so the starters are often not even in the game in the second half, skewing how good the unit really is.
Because of Oregon’s unique situation, it is hard to find stats that accurately reflect how good the defense is, but ESPN’s Brad Edwards came up with a few. One of them is points per possession when the game score is within 28 points. The Ducks are only allowing 3.96 points per drive when the score is within 28 points. Only two teams are better: Alabama and Notre Dame.
But to me, the naked eye is the best way to judge how good the unit is. If you’ve watched Oregon football this year, you know this is a play-making, game-changing defense. The Ducks are tied with Alabama for fourth in the country with 23 takeaways. They’re 15th in tackles for loss and 16th in sacks, ahead of Alabama, Notre Dame and Kansas State in both categories. They also have four interceptions returned for touchdowns, good for second in the nation behind Fresno State (5).
Then there is the red zone. Because Oregon’s opponents have the ball a lot more than the average team, they get in the red zone more. But their opponents aren’t scoring at a higher rate. The Ducks are second in the nation in red zone defense, allowing points only 55 percent of the time. Only Alabama is better at 53 percent. That’s pretty amazing considering the Ducks have faced more than double the red zone possessions (31) than Alabama (15) has.
Still, (uninformed) critics look at the schedule and want to see Oregon’s defense shut down a good team. They want to see the Ducks stop USC. What they don’t realize is that Arizona ranks fourth in the country in total offense and 18th in scoring offense despite being shutout by Oregon. Arizona State is 18th in total offense and 22nd in scoring offense and was held to two offensive touchdowns against the Ducks.
Both Arizona and Arizona State rank higher than USC in those categories, which is 36th and 29th in total and scoring offense, respectively.
The point is, while Oregon’s final four games are tough (at USC, at Cal, vs Stanford, at Oregon State), people need to realize that this defense — the assumed weakness — has already passed its two toughest tests. And that’s why I believe this team is built to avoid an upset. Are any of those remaining opponents really going to slow down the Ducks’ offense? Oregon State probably has the best chance, but the Ducks will still find the end zone a few times and the Oregon defense will make it hard for the Beavers to keep up.
Of the top four undefeated teams, no team is better built to avoid an upset than Oregon. If the Ducks do lose a game it will be in Corvallis, but I wouldn’t count on it.
Heisman voters rank their top three candidates when they submit their ballots. Here’s how my ballot would look as of today:
1. Manti Te’o, Notre Dame- He’s been my frontrunner for a few weeks now and nothing changed down in Norman.
2. Collin Klein, Kansas State – Earlier this year I was calling this guy Eric Crouch, but Klein has proven he can throw the ball better than Crouch. And oh yeah, Crouch won the Heisman anyway.
3. A.J. McCarron, Alabama – McCarron doesn’t have the rushing numbers Klein has, but he does have more passing yards, passing touchdowns and has yet to throw an interception. He’s the most efficient quarterback in the country on the best team in the country.
NIU’s Lynch Among Nation’s Best
It would be tough for Northern Illinois QB Jordan Lynch to win the Heisman Trophy, but an invitation to New York shouldn’t be discounted. The Mount Carmel (Chicago) product has quietly been one of the best players in college football this season. In fact, his numbers are better than Collin Klein’s.
Lynch has 551 more rushing yards than Klein (1,185 to 634) with one less rushing touchdown (15 to 16). Lynch also has 1,984 passing yards to Klein’s 1,630 and has thrown for five more touchdowns (17 to 12). Now, Lynch also has seen way more plays than Klein (409 to 287) and the competition in the MAC is nowhere near what it is in the Big 12. Still, Lynch deserves credit for NIU being able to run as many offensive plays as it does and he’s No. 1 in the country in total offensive yards (3,169), No. 2 in the country in rushing yards (1,185) and No. 1 in the country in touchdowns responsible for with 32.
Amazingly, Lynch has more rushing yards than 40 FBS teams and plays behind an offensive line that had zero — repeat, zero — returning starters this season.
We’ll see how it all plays out, but there’s a decent chance Lynch ends up somewhere on my All-American ballot at season’s end.
– There’s a scary situation developing in the Big Ten Leaders Division. With Ohio State and Penn State ineligible for the postseason, Indiana has a chance to reach the Big Ten Championship Game. The Hoosiers have a winnable home game against Iowa Saturday and then host Wisconsin next weekend. A win against the Badgers would give IU the tiebreaker over UW with two games remaining. Indiana finishes with back-to-back road trips at Penn State and Purdue, but Wisconsin finishes with a home game against Ohio State and a road trip at Penn State.
Maybe Pat Fitzgerald had a point when he said a committee should choose which Big Ten team should play the Legends winner in Indianapolis.
– Forget the Big Ten Championship Game, have you thought about the Rose Bowl yet? If Oregon doesn’t make the the BCS National Championship Game, the Ducks are going to embarrass the Big Ten representative in Pasadena. Jim Delany better hope the Ducks go to Miami and a team like Oregon State ends up in Pasadena so it doesn’t turn into a blowout.
– You don’t see this on a player’s injury history report too often: Broken clavicle at birth. Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave broke his collarbone Saturday against Michigan State and later revealed it’s the third time it has happened. He also broke it in fourth grade, but the first time was when he was born. Doctors were forced to break the bone to get him out safely.
Stave is expected to miss eight weeks, meaning he’s likely out for the season.
– When Stave got hurt, he was replaced by Danny O’Brien, who transferred from Maryland in the offseason. The Terrapins are having some of the worst quarterback problems you’ll ever see. Maryland has now lost four quarterbacks to season ending injuries and will start a linebacker at QB this Saturday against Georgia Tech. Freshman Shawn Petty was a quarterback in high school, but he’s only played linebacker for the Terps this season. Until now.
– The NCAA announced a new process for policing violations this week. Among the changes was the announcement that head coaches will now be suspended for violations committed by assistants, unless the coach can prove he did not know of the wrongdoing. This is a great move by the NCAA. Head coaches know what their assistants are doing 99 percent of time and if they don’t, they should know. It’s their program and it’s up to them to hire assistants that don’t break the rules. The head coach should always be held responsible.
Adam is the Sports Editor for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.