Ducks struggle early on defense but say stats there don't matter
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Oregon star LaMichael James takes a punt return to the end zone against Nevada.

It's pretty apparent that the Oregon Ducks have improved on offense since week one, having put 69, 56 and 56 points on the board in the past three games.

In fact, scoring 27 points against current No. 1 LSU looks pretty good now, given the Tigers have given up 30 combined in the past three games after manhandling the Ducks with their bigger and faster players on defense.

The Ducks have healthy players back in Kenjon Barner and Josh Huff, and have done well in developing playmakers such as De'Anthony Thomas and Rahsaan Vaughn to go with the stardom of QB Darron Thomas and running back LaMichael James. And, the ever-important blocking on the line and perimeter has improved.

It's also pretty apparent that the UO offense will have to proverbially outscore opponents all season. The Ducks lack a formidable defensive line, and the defense has struggled against the run, allowing 643 total yards rushing to the first three opponents. Also, Arizona's Nick Foles threw for 398 yards - and, it could have been about 500, if he didn't overthrow some open receivers and if the Wildcats had held on to the ball in the Ducks' 56-31 win last week.

'Realistically, stats don't matter,' Oregon free safety John Boyett said, after the win at Tucson. 'The only stat that matters is we won.

'We can improve on everything, run and pass defense. I would expect some changes, and we'll become a better defense until the very end. You build your foundation, and keep building and see how good you can get.'

In their, er, defense, the Ducks have been a work in progress, with linebacker Kiko Alonso back in the fold after his suspension, cornerback Cliff Harris not being a factor after returning from his suspension, linebacker Michael Clay injured and out, and young defensive linemen Ricky Heimuli and Wade Keliikipi trying to assert themselves after training camp injuries.

Coach Chip Kelly dismisses any talk that the Ducks' ability to score fast hurts the defense by putting the unit back on the field too quickly. The Ducks had more plays but less possession time than LSU, but way fewer plays and way less possession time in the past three games. Then again, UO routed Nevada and Missouri State, which allowed reserves to play. Rotation players went the distance against the Wildcats.

'It's their job to stop them,' Kelly says, of the Nick Aliotti-coached defense.

• Thomas and James are starting to carry the Ducks. Thomas threw for six TDs against Missouri State, and followed that up with four total TDs against Arizona. James has set the UO single-game rushing mark (288 yards versus Arizona) and school career TD records (42 rushing, 47 overall), and has gained 492 yards rushing in the past games.

'Whenever your best players are your hardest workers, you have an opportunity to be successful,' Kelly says. 'Those are two guys who have bought into everything we preach as a coaching staff.'

• The way the Pac-12 is stacking up, the Ducks, if they get their act together on defense, should feast on the rest of the schedule outside of the big matchup at Stanford and QB Andrew Luck on Nov. 12. Going by rankings, the Pac-12 hasn't received much respect nationally. Arizona State, at No. 25 in the Associated Press poll, stands as the only other ranked team besides Stanford and Oregon. The USA Today coaches' poll doesn't have ASU in the top 25.

The Arizona State game could be interesting Oct. 15, but it'll be at Autzen Stadium. Washington might be a tough road game, Nov. 5. USC and QB Matt Barkley could give the Ducks some trouble, but, again, it's a home game Nov. 19.

Then again, given UO's struggles on defense, none of them would be surprise losses.

It'd be a long shot for the Ducks to return to the BCS title game, however. Oregon did play Missouri State, a Division I-AA school, in non-league action. The Ducks lost convincingly to LSU. There are still several unbeaten teams. And, again, the Pac-12 doesn't look very good.

• Coaching while Oregon was establishing its program, both regionally and nationally, Mike Bellotti understood the importance of marketing and public relations. He talked about injuries and kept practices open for media and fans, and rarely stood in the way of the media trying to thoroughly cover his team - by not leveling interview restrictions, for example.

Kelly has a different philosophy. He requires advance notice on interviews. He does not talk about injuries, and now doesn't issue injury reports, saying it's 'a huge competitive advantage' and it emboldens UO players. He closes all practices to fans and media in the Moshofsky Center and Autzen Stadium - really, the only places the Ducks practice from training camp on. There is even a new employee basically working as security detail, even in post-game media sessions.

In general, it's become quite a controlled, top-secret atmosphere, likely in part because of the NCAA's recruiting investigation. Kudos to Kelly for winning 25 of his first 30 games, but such a philosophy wouldn't work with a mediocre team and fan apathy.

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