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Tipping the Cap to Third-Down Defense, And Other Notes

Sep 7, 2014

By Rob Moseley

The concept sounds so simple – get off the field. But for the Oregon defense in the Ducks’ two defeats of 2013, it was easier said than done.

In losses to Stanford and Arizona last fall, those two foes combined to go 25-of-37 on third down. The Ducks simply couldn’t get off the field, a death by a thousand cuts.

For a time in this past Saturday’s 46-27 victory over No. 7 Michigan State, history seemed to be repeating itself. After failing on their first four attempts, the Spartans converted 6-of-8 third downs. Michigan State converted a third-and-17 on its way to the field goal just after halftime that made it 27-18 -- capping a run of 20 unanswered points for the Spartans – and then another of third-and-15 on their next possession.

For UO fans, a sense of inevitability was setting in, as they flashed back to last November. But then, everything changed. The UO defense got itself off the field over and over again, allowing only one more third-down conversion the rest of the way. And the Ducks did so in spectacular fashion.

With 3:24 left in the third quarter, and Oregon within 27-25, outside linebacker Tyson Coleman leaped near the line of scrimmage to break up a well-designed screen pass that might otherwise have gone for big third-down yardage. A few minutes later, after the Ducks scored to go up 32-27, Arik Armstead sacked MSU quarterback Connor Cook on third down.

Another Oregon touchdown made it 39-27, and the Spartans knew they needed points. With 11:03 left in the game, they went for it on fourth-and-two. The Big Ten team with a reputation for one of the most powerful rushing attacks in the country was stuffed by the UO tandem of Armstead and DeForest Buckner. And finally, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu came up with a spectacular interception of a tipped pass with 7:56 left, setting up Oregon’s game-clinching touchdown drive that took 6:31 off the clock.

The Oregon defense got itself off the field every time it mattered, and with plays worthy of the highlight reel.

“Part of that was, schematically (defensive coordinator Don Pellum) did a great job changing it up, and part of it was guys just doing their job,” UO coach Mark Helfrich said Sunday in a press conference with local media.

A turning point, he thought, came during Michigan State’s second possession after halftime. After the field goal that made it 27-18, the Ducks quickly punted. The third-and-15 conversion allowed MSU to sustain its next drive.

But rather than hang their heads, the Ducks rallied. Buckner and Rodney Hardrick stuffed a run for no gain. Armstead made a tackle for loss. And on third down, Oregon’s coverage forced Cook to hesitate, giving time for Coleman to flush him from the pocket and induce an off-target throw to a running back.

The UO defense had held, and suddenly had new life. “For a team to be coming out of halftime, to have that gut-punch (from the third-and-15 conversion) … to rebound from that, that’s a big deal,” Helfrich said. “That will pay off down the road.”

It already paid huge dividends, in the form of Saturday’s victory over the Spartans.

Oregon’s players of the week for the Michigan State game were Keanon Lowe and Hamani Stevens on offense, Joe Walker on defense and Charles Nelson on special teams.

Walker started at inside linebacker and tied for the team lead with nine tackles. “Joe’s been a bit of an overanalyzer, in a good way; I mean that as a compliment,” Helfrich said. “But he really limited his footwork and triggered on things in a good way.”

The Ducks’ scout-team players of the week were receiver B.J. Kelley, defensive end Jalen Jelks and, on special teams, Tony James. Kelley “has done a great job this fall,” Helfrich said. “He’s a guy who’s been battling for playing time and not having a bunch of run for the ones and twos, but a guy who has given a great look for our scout team.”

Those selections meant that quarterback Marcus Mariota was not honored by the staff, after throwing for 318 yards and three touchdowns in the game, and running for 46 yards in the second half. Helfrich indicated that the staff wanted to avoid repeat selections if possible, and Mariota was a player of the game against South Dakota.

His improvised shovel pass to Royce Freeman in the third quarter, converting a third-and-10 on Oregon’s drive to its first points after halftime, continued to receive rave reviews. “He probably could have run it, and had Royce become a lead blocker,” Helfrich said. “But he started to stumble I think, and got it out to him. That was a huge conversion.”

Nelson stood out on special teams for his work covering kicks, finishing with two tackles for the second straight game. He drew a penalty in the fourth quarter that negated another potential tackle, when Nelson leveled a punt returner just after the ball arrived.

Nelson and Freeman are two of the nine true freshmen to have played in both games so far. “We thought we had a pretty mature group of young players,” Helfrich said when asked what he learned about his team Saturday. “I think that was very evident in the second half, and particularly at halftime, in terms of their approach. There was no panic. There was no element of fear. Nothing, other than, here’s what we need to improve upon.”

Helfrich noted that nearly 1,000 tickets remain available for Oregon’s next game, Saturday against Wyoming in Autzen Stadium (11 a.m. PT, Pac-12 Networks).

Against Michigan State, the crowd numbered 59,456, the 98th straight sellout at Autzen. “We need every single seat filled and everybody going crazy, whoever the opponent is,” Helfrich said. “We’d like to keep our sellout streak going.”