When Oregon went down 14-0 in the first quarter at UCLA, it had every reason to quit. Instead, despite injuries and an offense which has looked lifeless at times, the Oregon defense buckled down and made game winning plays, something they have done all season.
On multiple occasions, Oregon’s defense has been tasked with making game-winning plays. Against Cal, it took a four-down stand on the two-yard line to close out a 24-17 win. At UCLA, a DJ James pick sealed the deal for the Ducks as they narrowly survived, 34-31.
The formula for Oregon’s defensive success is simple: improve personally and holistically during practice.
“You hope to play your best ball in November,” first-year defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter said. “Our coaches do a tremendous job of developing our players. Coach Cristobal puts together a practice schedule that continues to develop guys. When you get consistency and players playing together, you should be improving.”
Not only has the Ducks’ defense improved week-to-week as players got healthy and built chemistry in practice, but they also got better throughout the course of each game. In their last six games, which includes a loss at Stanford, the Oregon defense has allowed only three third quarter points.
“We had to get back on our focus,” defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux said about the deficit Oregon faced at UCLA. “Coach came in with the corrections at halftime… The adjustments worked really well.”
With a mix of bonafide stars like Thibodeaux, Noah Sewell, Brandon Dorlus and Verone McKinley III playing alongside inexperienced underclassmen filling in for injured starters, such as freshman safety Jeffrey Bassa, the Oregon defense was destined to have its growing pains.
“Nothing phases us,” junior safety McKinley III said. “One thing we say as a team is ‘keep going, keep going, keep going.’ That's just what we do as a defense and we're getting better.”
For head coach Mario Cristobal, all game operations begin with practice.
The old “Win The Day” motto from the Chip Kelly years has been replaced with a new “1-0 process.”
The 1-0 mentality involves treating every situation as if the score is 0-0. Top to bottom, the entire organization has bought into the idea that every repetition, whether it is on gameday, at practice or in the film room, matters.
“In the game of football it’s always next man up,” DeRuyter said before the season. “You never know when it’s gonna happen, so we gotta continue to develop guys so when we do have an injury or someone’s out for whatever reason we’ve got to be ready to play.”
With two weeks remaining in the regular season, the group ready to play defense for the Ducks is not what many people expected. Linebackers Justin Flowe and Dru Mathis are both out for the foreseeable future with leg injuries, and junior safety Bennet Williams is out for the year as well.
Still, the Ducks hold the No. 4 spot in the AP poll and control their own destiny for a playoff berth. One thing is for sure: Oregon will continue to improve with what they have and build on mutual trust between their first-year defensive coordinator, top tier talent and emerging young defensive core.