Senior College Football Columnist

The Big Picture: Ducks have defense to balance explosive offense


The Ducks held Arizona scoreless even after the Wildcats reached the red zone six times. (Getty Images)  
The Ducks held Arizona scoreless even after the Wildcats reached the red zone six times. (Getty Images)  

EUGENE, Ore. -- New Arizona defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel couldn't have hoped for a better start than the 'Cats had Saturday night at Autzen Stadium against the explosive Oregon offense. In its first two series, the Cats made a fourth-down stop and then forced an Oregon fumble to get the ball deep inside Ducks territory. Problem was, Rich Rodriguez's offense, which came into the game No. 4 in the nation in total yards, was short-circuited all night.

Arizona made it into the red zone six times Saturday night, yet somehow managed zero points in what turned into a 49-0 rout.

"It's hard to get a shutout in modern football," Duck DC Nick Aliotti said. "You can play unbelievable defense and all kinds of silly things can happen."

Better still, Aliotti's D gave Oregon two defensive touchdowns courtesy of a pair of pick-sixes. Chip Kelly talked about how his is "a total team" after the game, praising a defense that often gets underrated, at least by folks away from the West Coast. It certainly didn't help that the Ducks came into this game with unspectacular defensive stats, ranking No. 66 in scoring defense and No. 51 in total defense -- although in fairness, much of those numbers comes in blowouts after the Ducks starters were pulled off the field.

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"Here, it is hard to have great defensive statistics," Aliotti said, referring to being on the flip side of his team's own frenetic offensive system. "But most of the time [people] look at those numbers because you're losing."

While there isn't much debate on whether Kelly's team has the offensive firepower to be a BCS title contender, even while breaking in a new QB, there is plenty of skepticism about whether the defense can be good enough, especially after the Ducks lost standout safety John Boyett for the season due to a knee injury.

Blanking Arizona probably won't win over doubters in SEC country, but it was nonetheless an impressive statement. The Ducks hadn't shut out a conference opponent in almost a decade, going back to a 35-0 romp over Stanford in 2003.

Elite defenses aren't only measured by consistency, but maybe even more so by their ability to make big plays. This Oregon group showed Saturday night it has that, and it also has the kind of grit and resolve that could make it the Ducks' best-ever D. They held Arizona to 6 of 17 on third downs (2 of 11 after the opening quarter) and 0 of 4 on fourth downs while forcing five turnovers.

Kelly isn't a big stat guy, but he talks a lot -- both publicly and even more privately with his team, I'm told -- about what he calls Response After Turnover. That momentum swing is often where a team's knees buckle, he has reasoned, but not for his bunch, certainly not Saturday night. It explains why no one on the Ducks' sideline was surprised when they went for it on a fourth-and-2 at their own 35 on the game's first series.

"I'm not averse to putting our defense out on a short field," Kelly explained. That belief is big not only for his defensive guys to feel, but also for the coach when it comes to his style of always attacking his opponent, a mindset that almost always leads to the dam breaking on the opponent's side.

"That's the great thing about this team," Kelly said. "We don't have a lot 'finger' guys. We have a lot of 'thumb' guys," he says, pointing his thumb at his chest. " 'We'll take care of it.' We have a lot of competitors that want to go on the field in those situations."

It is that kind of mentality that could springboard this team to some very big things this season.

Another big (literally) reason for optimism that emerged for the Ducks: Kelly unveiling his latest weapon/toy, a 6-foot-5, 255-pound bruising tight end-turned-running back with breakaway speed named Colt Lyerla.

In a program littered with guys with blazing speed, Lyerla, a sophomore, is their Freakiest athlete. A guy with NFL tight end size and also the explosiveness to have broad-jumped almost 11 feet and a vertical of 40 inches. "We call him 'Bane,' " says Carson York, Oregon's injured star offensive lineman, with more than a hint of awe as he made his way off the field Saturday night. "I've never seen anything like him as an athlete."

Lyerla, who had never had a carry till Saturday night, finished with 63 rushing yards on only seven carries. He had been a 1,500-yard rusher in high school, but most colleges had recruited him to play linebacker. Not the Ducks.

"Oregon was one of the few schools that wanted to give me a shot on offense," Lyerla told me after the game. "They just said come play in our offense and we'll see how you fit in."

Kelly isn't one to get giddy or gush over things, but I heard he'd privately told a few people close to him to watch Lyerla on Saturday.

Between Oregon's dynamic young QB Marcus Mariota, the versatility of super-fast superstar De'Anthony Thomas and a cutting-edge, warp-speed scheme, Kelly is a whiz at keeping opponents on their heels. Adding to an imposing, yet breakaway option to an already loaded system has to have other Pac-12 defensive coordinators wincing -- or at least they will when they get a load of the film from Saturday's game.

Lyerla is only the latest from what has proven to be an amazing 2011 signing class that in a little over a year has already delivered in a big way. On Saturday night, the Ducks had five offensive starters from that class: Lyerla, Mariota, Thomas and offensive tackles Tyler Johnston and Jake Fisher. Cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, the star of the D on Saturday night with two INTs and three passes broken up, also came from the 2011 class.

"The thing is," said Thomas, "we're so young. We're just getting started here."


Random stuff

 Well, so much for all of the Hot Seat chatter about Oregon State's Mike Riley. Arguably the nicest head coach in major college football is off to a fantastic start to 2012 after going 3-9 last fall. The Beavers dropped their second ranked opponent in as many games after going to No. 19 UCLA to knock the Bruins from the unbeaten ranks. It was a complete team effort by OSU. QB Sean Mannion, who is blossoming into one of the best young quarterbacks on the West Coast, if not the country, carved up the Bruins, while the Beavers' defense held UCLA to almost 200 yards under their average.

Hats off to DC Mark Banker, who last year had to deal with a lot of injuries. In the opener, his defense knocked Wisconsin star Montee Ball out of the Heisman race and it did much the same to the nation's leading rusher, Johnathan Franklin, who was limited to only 15 yards on eight carries in the first half and finished the game over 130 rushing yards below his average.

For his team's efforts, Riley even treated his guys to In-N-Out Burger, tweeting that he ordered 200 double doubles with fries because his guys deserved it.

No doubt. And beyond that, the state of Oregon has two teams that deserve to be in the top 20. Heck, they have two teams that merit being in the top 10, as impressive as they've been this month.

 Florida State hung 49 points on No. 10 Clemson on Saturday night and it looks like the 'Noles won over a bunch of skeptics, who had seen too much fizzling amid early season hype in recent years from this program.

I get that things are different now with this team: It's Jimbo Fisher's team. He's had time to put his stamp on the program after it went south toward the end of the Bobby Bowden era, rife with shaky staff chemistry and locker-room leadership issues. They've also got a gifted, bright leader in QB EJ Manuel, a lethal crew of skill talent and a ferocious defense.

Still, I'm cautioning my brethren in the media: Ease back with all the "FSU is back!" talk. I know it's tempting. We all get caught up in the moment. (Look back a few paragraphs up: I was just on the brink of calling Colt Lyerla a cross between Calvin Johnson and Adrian Peterson.) And, in fairness, this FSU team looks like more than only a one-game wonder. The 'Noles are really talented, no question. They might be poised to make a national title run. But before you say they're back, remember just how great they used to be. In those days, that bunch soared at a ridiculously high level. These guys may get there, but what made FSU such an elite program in that era was consistent greatness. Not just some dominant performances.

You know when it will be time to say FSU is officially back? After Fisher hoists the crystal trophy. And if I'm him or the guys on that coaching staff, I'm making sure those players don't get inundated with all the 'Noles-are-back talk. That stuff can be toxic.

Speaking of FSU, my colleague Chris Huston made an interesting point on Florida State's BCS prospects on Twitter: "I've heard complaints that if FSU goes undefeated, it will only have played 3 ranked teams. But same can be said for UGA if it wins em all."

 After defeating Michigan on Saturday night, Notre Dame is 4-0. A big reason: N.D. is No. 5 in the nation in turnover margin with a plus-9. What's even more impressive is the Irish are doing that with a redshirt freshman starting at QB. Last year at this time, they were No. 118 in turnover margin and were 2-2.

That said, there was a cringe-worthy aerial display in South Bend, where at one point there had been 21 passes attempted in the N.D.-Michigan game combined, but only eight were completions and six were intercepted.

 Most underrated coach in college football history? My vote goes to Bill Snyder. What he has now done at Kansas State -- twice -- is remarkable. Saturday night, his team went into Norman, where Oklahoma was 14-0 against ranked opponents under Bob Stoops and left with a 24-19 victory.

The Wildcats are almost always taken for granted. They won an insanely high percentage of close games in 2011 and this fall, they've got to be taken seriously again.

They are a very curious team led by their bona-fide Heisman candidate Collin Klein. The Cats are a pair of cowboy boots in a basketball-shoe league. K-State ranks No. 102 in the nation in passing offense. With the exception of woeful Kansas (No. 99), no other Big 12 school is below No. 47. Obviously, it doesn't matter if you have Collin Klein and Bill Snyder and a stout defense though.

 Way to rise up, Connor Shaw. Count me in as one of those who doubted whether South Carolina's passing game was going to be sharp enough to make a run at a BCS bowl. Shaw, despite being banged up, completed 20 passes in a row Saturday against Mizzou.

"Connor was 20 of 21. He got off to a slow start, he missed his first one I think, but he was sensational," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said.

Said RB Marcus Lattimore: "He was 20 of 21 -- that's unheard of in the SEC. He just does the same thing every time he goes out there. He is our leader. He is consistent. He stays in the pocket when he has to, and he runs when he has to. He is a complete quarterback."

The Gamecocks now have a 10-game winning streak against SEC Eastern Division rivals.

 Matt Barkley had another two-INT game, giving him four picks in the Trojans' past two games. Barkley had only thrown four INTs in the nine games prior to this shaky stretch.

 Give credit to a very young Miami team for rallying back from a 36-19 deficit at Georgia Tech to run off 23 consecutive points for a nice ACC road win. The 'Canes piled up 609 yards behind Stephen Morris' 436 passing yards. It was the first time Miami had eclipsed the 600-yard mark since doing it against McNeese State in 2000.

 Another week, another occasion to praise Willie Taggart and Western Kentucky. WKU thumped Southern Miss and has now won 10 of its previous 12 (losses vs. LSU and Alabama). I'd bet on this: Taggart is going to get a much bigger job very soon.

 Way to go MAC. While its big brother of the Midwest, the Big Ten, is tripping all over itself this September, the MAC took four of five games against opponents from the Big Ten, Big East and Big 12. Also, EMU and Akron gave Michigan State and Tennessee some headaches before falling in those games.

 Someone asked me on Twitter which has had the worst start, the Big Ten or the Big East. It's the Big Ten by far. Yeah, I know the Big East was 0-2 vs. the MAC on Saturday, but at least the top of the league has held up its side of things. (Well, not you, South Florida.) Even if Arkansas has proven to be the clichéd "dumpster fire," it's still a nice road win for a 4-0 Rutgers team that now has three road wins. Cincinnati and Louisville are also undefeated, while the top of the Big Ten has been a complete dud with the exception of Ohio State, which really struggled with UAB. Oh, and if you had Minnesota and Northwestern as the teams that would be the lone unbeatens in the Legends Division, pat yourself on the back. And move to Vegas.

 Stat of the Day: Bob Davie's Lobos beat rival New Mexico State 27-14. Davie has now won as many games (two) in his first month at New Mexico as Mike Locksley did in his three seasons there.

Things haven't been so good for another former Notre Dame coach. With its loss to Northern Illinois, Charlie Weis' Kansas team has now fallen to a C-USA team (Rice), a MAC team (NIU) and a Big 12 team (TCU).

 In the Remember Me? category: One-time Michigan recruiting phenom Sam McGuffie, a former Wolverines running back, had four catches for 109 yards and two touchdowns in Rice's double-OT loss to Marshall.

Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for and college football commentator for CBS Sports Network. He is a New York Times Bestselling author, who has written books including Swing Your Sword, Meat Market and Cane Mutiny. Prior to joining CBS, Feldman spent 17 years at ESPN.

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