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Oregon's defense revolves around substitutions

Ducks' up-tempo offense means little rest for defense, so defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti switches up lines like a hockey team. They will face Wisconsin's tough offense in Rose Bowl game.

December 28, 2011|By Chris Dufresne
  • Oregon linebacker Michael Clay, right, speaks at a news conference as defensive end Brandon Hanna, center, and defensive tackle Taylor Hart look on during a news conference in Los Angeles on Wednesday. Keeping Wisconsin's running game in check will be one of the Ducks' top priorities.
Oregon linebacker Michael Clay, right, speaks at a news conference as defensive… (Jason Redmond / Associated…)

Nick Aliotti has done a nice job coordinating Oregon's defense if you consider he has to plot each week against two offenses — the opponent's and his.

This week, Aliotti is prepping Oregon for Monday's 98th Rose Bowl game against Wisconsin.

The Badgers average 44.6 points per game and appear to be playing downhill, against you, on a slanted field.

Wisconsin has a running back, Montee Ball, who has scored 38 touchdowns and a quarterback, Russell Wilson, who can run, pass and probably belt out the national anthem.

This is different than Oregon preparing for Cam Newton in last season's national title game.

"The offense truly ran through him," Aliotti said during a news conference Wednesday. "It was Cam left, Cam right, Cam over there and Cam over there. I think Russell Wilson is the leader of that offense, but he has a lot of supporting cast."

Aliotti also has to account for his own offense. Oregon's up-tempo style is so unconventional and explosive it has changed the way Oregon plays defense.

Oregon's offense averages 46 points per game while ranking last in the country, No. 120, in time of possession. "We go so fast we score in less than a minute or we can be out in less than a minute," Aliotti said.

Oregon's defense has logged 1,005 plays this season, 329 more than Alabama's top-ranked unit.

Aliotti keeps his defense fresh with a substitution system that makes the Oregon Ducks look more like the NHL's Anaheim Ducks. "We're a lot like a hockey team," he said. "We've got guys flying over the bench into the rink."

Aliotti rotates a largely anonymous brigade of nine defensive linemen, six linebackers and seven or eight defensive backs.

This is not the kind of operation designed to make a defensive coordinator look like Buddy Ryan.

Aliotti, in a perfect world, would recruit SEC-type talent and look to suffocate opposing offenses. He could grumble if not for the fact Oregon is playing in its third straight Bowl Championship Series bowl game.

"We do what we do so we've learned to live with it," Aliotti said. "So I don't want to stand up here and be negative. That's why we play so many players. But it's nice when the offensive team stays on the field and has a six- or seven-minute drive. It's even nice if they don't score, believe it or not, because you get a chance to rest a little bit."

In Eugene, it's Coach Chip Kelly's way or the highway. "We know going in this is Chip's philosophy," Aliotti said.

Oregon's defensive numbers are deceivingly ordinary. The Ducks rank No. 59 nationally in total defense and are No. 48 in scoring defense.

Aliotti's reputation, as a result, probably suffers. You never hear his name bandied about for head coaching positions. He's 57 now and approaching lifer status as an assistant.

Yet, for what he's asked to do, which is to surrender fewer points than Oregon's offense scores, Aliotti is vastly underappreciated.

Paul Chryst, Wisconsin's offensive coordinator, has spent a month studying Oregon's revolving-Ducks defense.

He loves the hockey analogy and joked he'd like to put a few players in the penalty box. "We need to get some power plays," Chryst said.

"Offensively what they do is impressive," Chryst added, "but defense has a lot to do with where they're at."

Aliotti's career lacks a signature moment. It would have been last season had Oregon defeated Auburn, 22-19, instead of the other way around.

Aliotti would have left University of Phoenix Stadium with the crowning achievement of curtailing Newton and the mighty Auburn offense. Lost in defeat was Oregon holding Auburn to 19 points until the winning kick on the game's final play.

Aliotti's defense limited Newton to 265 passing yards, with two touchdown passes and one interception. Newton rushed for "only" 64 yards.

"I was really proud of our effort," Aliotti said. "…If somebody would have asked me a month before we played that game they were going to score 22 points I would have signed my name and said we'll take it."

This is Aliotti's fourth shot at winning a Rose Bowl, the game he dreamed about growing up in Northern California, watching Jan.1 telecasts at his grandmother's house after big Italian meals.

Aliotti was euphoric when he got to coach Oregon's defense against Penn State in the 1995 game.

Then, Ki-Jana Carter then raced 83 yards for a touchdown on Penn State's first play from scrimmage en route to a 38-20 win.

Aliotti's one year as UCLA's coordinator in 1998 is still a painful blot. A lost month started in December with Miami torching Aliotti's defense in a game that cost the Bruins a berth in the first BCS title game.

"We had a nightmare game in Miami; I'll never forget that," he said.

UCLA's defense retreated to the Rose Bowl game and gave up 38 in a loss to Wisconsin.

"I remember Ron Dayne running all over the place," Aliotti recalled of Dayne's 246 rushing yards.

Two years ago, Aliotti's defense held Ohio State to 26 points, but Oregon's offense scored only 17. Buckeyes quarterback Terrelle Pryor had to pick that Rose Bowl game for his breakout performance.

Aliotti cherishes each trip to Pasadena and really isn't asking for much.

"It would be nice to win one," he said. "I don't say that with any extra added pressure or anything like that. It is what it is. One team is going to win and one team is going to lose, last time I checked. But it would be nice to win one."

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