Oregon’s defense has a reputation of being an aggressive unit, but that is not necessarily the case, as it is more of a unit that takes advantage of its opportunities.
This season, the Ducks have struggled to do just that and if you tend to look at strictly the numbers, you will see some surprising results.
The Ducks are allowing opponents to pass for an average of 315 yards per game with an average of 11.6 yards per catch. The rushing numbers have been pretty good, but the passing numbers mean that Oregon is giving up 443 yards per game while playing opponents such as South Dakota, Wyoming, and Washington State.
The passing numbers are especially curious because the Ducks have one of the best corners in the nation in 5-foot-10, 195-pound senior Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. In the first four games, Ekpre-Olomu has 20 tackles, an interception that came against Michigan State, and two pass break ups.
He actually only has eight interceptions in his career, but that number is somewhat irrelevant because of how good he is in coverage. You can likely expect Ekpre-Olomu to be matched up with Arizona’s best receiver, who in this case is Cayleb Jones.
Across from Ekpre-Olomu is 5-foot-11, 175-pound senior Troy Hill. He has not been completely healthy this season, but should be fine on Thursday. In three games, Hill has 12 tackles, including two for loss. He also leads the Ducks with three pass break ups and while Ekpre-Olomu gets all the attention, Hill is a solid corner in his own right.
Sophomore Reggie Daniels gets the start at one of the safety spots and currently leads the team with 28 tackles. Daniels tends to struggle a bit on the deep balls, but still has the ability to make plays when necessary.
The Ducks are more experienced at the other safety position with 5-foot-11, 210-pound senior Erick Dargan getting the start. He has three interceptions in four games with two of them coming against Wyoming. Like Daniels, Dargan’s numbers can be a bit misleading because he has struggled in pass coverage in the first few games, but again, has plenty of ability.
Oregon will go with four linebackers and they make up what has probably been the Ducks’ best defensive unit.
The leader of the bunch is 6-foot-3, 250-pound senior Tony Washington. He already has a sack on the season and leads current players with 15.5 career tackles for loss in addition to 9.5 sacks. Figuring he is able to stay consistent, Washington is going to challenge for all-conference honors.
The other outside backer is 6-foot-1, 235-pound junior Tyson Coleman, who leads Oregon with two sacks. Coleman can be dangerous in coverage with his ability to knock down passes, but is probably most lethal when rushing the quarterback. Look for Oregon to use him to pressure Solomon out of the pocket.
Inside linebacker Rodney Hardrick has started 17 straight games and will get his 18th on Thursday. He has three tackles for loss and two quarterback hurries, which are indications of his abilities to make the necessary plays.
The other inside backer 6-foot-2, 220-pound senior Derrick Malone Jr. He may not be as much of a playmaker as his counterparts, but Malone Jr. is a solid linebacker that tends to do a good job of playing his gaps and is just as important as the others.
Oregon will rush three more often than it has in the past and that is likely because of a change in defensive coordinator. For instance, Oregon consistently rushed three against Washington State and the results were generally much worse than when the Ducks decided to rush more.
In fact, Oregon will actually go to something that resembles Arizona’s third down defense in the sense that it will bring a linebacker to the defensive line to rush the outside while the other two positions on the line are your typical defensive linemen.
Junior Arik Armstead might pose the biggest problem for Arizona’s offensive line. The 6-foot-8, 290-pound junior has four quarterback hurries, one forced fumble, and four tackles for loss. He’s been one of the most consistent members of Oregon’s defense and one of the most dangerous as well.
The second defensive end is 6-foot-7, 290-pound junior DeForest Buckner, who is also dangerous off the edge. He is fifth on the team with 20 tackles, has 2.5 tackles for loss, and is tied for second on Oregon with two quarterback hurries.
Alex Balducci is the nose guard and while he only has eight tackles, he has to be credited for the amount of push he has been able to generate. It’s not often you see a player with only eight tackles also have a sack and 2.5 tackles for loss, but that is the case here.
Players to Watch
#35, LB Joe Walker: The junior has actually started a game this season and has 22 tackles, two of which are for loss. He may not get the start, but Walker is going to have plenty of opportunities to make an impact.
#2, S Tyree Robinson: Robinson should be a familiar name to many Arizona fans and he has seen considerable time this season as Reggie Daniels battles inconsistency. Robinson is a great athlete and a player that is starting to get better with each game, thus he is a guy to keep an eye on.
#46, LB Danny Mattingly: You’re probably wondering why we have a guy on here that has yet to record a statistic, but it is warranted. He has battled some injury this season and is expected to be full go against Arizona. At 6-5, 235, the freshman linebacker has great size and the coaching staff believes he can make an impact right away.
Keys to the Game
Establish the pass: You usually hear about establishing the run, but Oregon has struggled with its pass defense. If the Ducks have to respect what Solomon can do, it will open up the running game.
Get first downs: Rich Rodriguez credits much of last year’s success to Arizona’s ability to get first downs and keep Oregon’s offense off the field. Nothing changes this week, as the longer Oregon’s defense is on the field, the better.
Take advantage of numbers: Arizona’s offense revolves around what the defense’s numbers call for it to do. Solomon has to make the right decision as to when the numbers call for a pass or a run.