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Defense up to the task?

With big games ahead, 'We're getting better,' Aliotti says
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT University of Oregon linebacker Michael Clay makes a tackle behind the line of scrimmage against Nevada. The Ducks’ defense has been good most of the season, but a stretch of tough tests are still ahead.

EUGENE - Age-old wisdom is that defense wins championships. But, with their high-powered offense, the Oregon Ducks have been able to win the past two Pac-10 championships using a 'bend-but-don't-break' defensive philosophy.

Coming into this season, defense was the biggest question mark for the Ducks. And, after losing talented seniors across the board, the Ducks' 2011 stats are slightly behind in almost every way from last season.

In 2010, the Ducks gave up 346 yards and 18.7 points per game. This season, they have allowed 387.7 yards and 20.3 points.

'There's a lot of new guys in there,' coach Chip Kelly says. '(Linebacker) Casey (Matthews) isn't here, (linebacker) Spencer (Paysinger) isn't here, (defensive tackle) Brandon Bair isn't here, (corner) Talmadge (Jackson) isn't here.

'But the young guys who have gotten an opportunity to play have really stepped up, and I'm really happy with how they're playing right now.'

Defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti admits that the unit is still a work in progress, but he says it is getting better.

'We've played OK,' Aliotti says, going into Saturday's noon home game with Washington State. 'At times, we've played really well. At times, we haven't played so well. We're right in about the middle. We're coming along. We're getting better, which is what you want to do as the season goes on. I don't think we're lights out right now, but we're getting better.'

The defense took another hit this week when star cornerback Cliff Harris, of 'we smoked it all' fame, was suspended indefinitely after a traffic citation.

Linebacker Michael Clay says that losing Harris won't dramatically impact the defense, though.

'One player really doesn't define our whole defense,' Clay says. 'It's a team effort. We all have assignments that we have to execute to be good.'

Clay returned an interception for a touchdown last week against Colorado. But Oregon's interception numbers are way down from last season. In 2010, the Ducks picked off 21 passes. This season, they have only six interceptions -as many as Harris had last year.

'We've got to come up with the ball a little better,' says safety John Boyett, who has no interceptions but leads the team with 44 tackles. 'But we've been getting a lot of hands on balls, and we've been doing well.'

The fumble recoveries are down this year, as well. After picking up 16 fumbles in 2010, the 6-1 Ducks have just one turnover by fumble.

'Balls are hitting our hands, we're just not getting them,' Aliotti says. 'There was a fumble that was out in the open the other day, and we didn't get it.'

What Kelly says he likes most about the secondary is its ability to swarm around receivers and eliminate yards after the catch.

'When you see a thrown ball there's always two or three guys around (the receiver),' Kelly says. 'Now, sometimes (the receiver) makes the catch, but our guys are limiting the runs after catch.'

The secondary has looked soft at times this season, and it probably will be challenged a lot more in the next month -as the Ducks will face two accomplished quarterbacks in USC's Matt Barkley and Stanford's Andrew Luck.

'Our secondary has got to continue to develop and get better,' Boyett says, 'and if we do that we'll play well against these good quarterbacks.'

Oregon has never had a big defense, size-wise, with the rare individual exception such as lineman Haloti Ngata. While teams such as USC and Stanford could expose that, Aliotti says he does not feel that size is an issue, even against an opponent like LSU, which beat Oregon in the season opener.

'LSU had 273 yards,' Aliotti says. 'That was one of our best games. That thing got out of hand a little bit because of some of the turnovers that happened. (Being small on defense) is like David and Goliath. We just want to out-quick them, beat them to the punch. We're not the biggest defense, but I don't think that's been a factor.

Although Oregon's defensive line is undersized, Aliotti says he has been thrilled with how it has played through seven games.

'Our defensive line is playing outstanding,' Aliotti says. 'Absolutely outstanding. Probably the most consistent group on our team without a doubt.'

After a slow start in the tackles-for-loss department, with 51 TFLs the Ducks are closing in on the number they had last season (97).

'We've played pretty well,' defensive end Terrell Turner says, of the line. 'But all we're going to do is try to grow and get better and better every week.'

With the Ducks often using a gap-control system, the linebackers become even more important. And, because of injuries, the Ducks have had to plug in players at those positions this season. Dewitt Stuckey leads the group with 43 tackles, Clay and Josh Kaddu each have 30, Kiko Alonso has 26 and Boseko Lokombo has 19.

'We've been playing really well, running around trying to make some plays,' Clay says, of the linebacker corps.

The Oregon offense may get all the glory, but in assessing his team's success during the past two seasons, Kelly points to the defense.

'Defense wins championships, and we've won the last two championships in this league because of our defense,' he says. 'They've really continued the same thing.'