Snaps O'Plenty for Ducks defense
LOS ANGELES -- In his fantasy life, Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti runs the defense for Paul Johnson at Georgia Tech or Bret Bielema at Wisconsin, coaches who refuse to surrender the football without an injunction.
In reality, Aliotti is working with head coach Chip Kelly, who believes that offense, like fine cheese, shouldn't be exposed for very long. The Ducks get on the field, get their points, and get off the field.
They score 37.7 points per game, which is seventh in the nation. Yet Oregon held the ball for only 26:58 per game. That ranks 115th in the nation, just behind Akron (3-9) and just ahead of FIU (3-9).
By comparison, Johnson's Yellow Jackets lead the nation with an average of 34:18 per game. Bielema's Badgers are fourth at 33:28.
"It's the stupidest stat," Kelly said. "Time spent on the field has nothing to do with production. ... The game has changed. Three yards and a cloud of dust -- that stuff has been out of the game for a long time."
Aliotti understands how Kelly thinks. And yet.
"As a defensive coordinator," Aliotti said, "you would like a team at times that can grind it out, keep the ball for eight minutes. I guarantee you this: We play our best defense when our offense is on the field. I can tell you that right now. We don't give up any yards. They don't throw any touchdown passes. When our offense is on the field, we play darn good defense."
Oregon linebacker Spencer Paysinger, asked to consider what it would feel like to play for a team whose offense held the ball 35 minutes a game, stared as if he had been asked a question in Russian.
"I can't even comprehend that," he said.
Some defensive players dream of the NFL; others, the chance to return a fumble or an interception for a touchdown. Oregon defenders dream of being on the sideline long enough to sit down.
We come off the field, and 30 seconds later you hear, 'Punt team!' I'm thinking, 'Wait, we haven't caught our breath yet.'” -- Oregon linebacker Spencer Paysinger
"We come off the field," Paysinger said, "and 30 seconds later you hear, 'Punt team!' I'm thinking, 'Wait, we haven't caught our breath yet.'"
"You always have to be ready," linebacker Casey Matthews said. "Our offense can score at any time. That's how our offense works. You'll be on the sideline talking to a coach, and all of a sudden you hear, 'PAT' or 'Punt.'"
When the defense hears 'Punt' after 30 seconds, that's when the offense and defense have issues.
"Sometimes I love when he's doing it, and sometimes I hate when he's doing it," Aliotti said of Kelly. "... When we take the ball at the start of the game and we run fast and we go three-and-out, I'm not very happy. Neither is Chip.".
It does go against the traditional liturgy of the coach's playbook. But Kelly believes that playing fast leads to scoring fast. The Ducks try to get 25 snaps in a 12-minute practice period. That's more than two per minute.
One of the reasons to do so is to dictate the tempo of the game to the opposing defense. One of the problems that creates is that it can put an unhealthy burden on your own defense. Seven opponents took more snaps than the Ducks. Washington had 79 plays to Oregon's 62. The Ducks won the game 43-19.
In truth, the Oregon defenders take pride in how long and how hard they play.
"That's our style," cornerback Talmadge Jackson III said. "We love it. We take it on as a challenge. That's been our style for so long that everybody gets used to it. It just gets easier over time. You get more in shape as the season goes along."
Defensive tackle Brandon Bair said that defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro sees to it that neither he nor his teammates get tired by constantly rotating eight players in and out of the four-man front.
"I almost wish I was on the field more," Bair said. "Coach Az wants us to give everything we have for three or four plays and then he will give us a rest."
There can be too much of a good thing. A year ago, according to Aliotti, the Oregon defense played 1,034 snaps, more than anyone in the nation. Going into the 2009 bowls, the Oregon defense has played 864 snaps. On a per-game basis, that's an improvement from 119th to 107th in the nation.
Strike up the band?
"When we possess the ball and don't score touchdowns, we're playing more plays on defense," Aliotti said. "The more plays you play on defense, obviously, the more chances for error, the more chances for something to go wrong. I trust Chip. What we've done has worked."
For the record, Kelly pointed to the end of the 37-33, Rose Bowl-clinching, Civil War victory over Oregon State. Oregon took over possession with more than six minutes to play. The Ducks -- Kelly's hate-to-grind-it-out Ducks -- ran out the clock.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com.
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