A simple explanation for the Cougs' terrible defense

One of the reasons football coaches love the game is because it is the ultimate team sport. When all 11 guys are working together effectively, it's a sort of poetry in motion. But when one guy screws up his job, it can throw a wrench into the whole works.

We've got a wrench right now. In fact, we've got four large, massively ineffective wrenches.

Without a doubt, this team has its fair share of problems at the moment. But none is more glaring -- or more damaging to the Cougs' chances of winning -- than the horrendous play of the defensive line, which is shaping up to be one of the worst in school history.

It starts with the tackles, A'i Ahmu and Matt Eichelberger, who are proving that they don't belong anywhere near a Pac-10 football field. Not only are both fat and slow, neither is very strong. Same goes for defensive ends Kevin Kooyman, Matt Mullennix and Andy Mattingly, who I suppose at least are trim and fit while not being very strong.

The result is all four being washed out on virtually every running play, unable to ever hold a gap at the point of attack. Consider the chain reaction this causes, which is practically fatal to this team's chances of ever stopping anyone against the run:

  • Shortly after the center/quarterback exchange, Ahmu, Eichelberger, Kooyman and Mattingly get blasted 2 to 5 yards downfield.
  • Because these four guys are barely able to occupy one blocker, let alone two, a lineman or two has hit the second level and is in the process of steamrolling the linebackers by the time the runner hits the hole, thereby nullifying any chance those guys have of making a play.
  • In the unlikely event the linebackers aren't getting steamrolled, they're trying desperately to make a play by overpursuing the ball carrier, leaving themselves wide open to cutbacks that are frequently exploited by the superior athletes (such as Jahvid Best and Jeremiah Johnson) the Cougars are facing.
  • Because of the front seven's total ineffectiveness, the secondary is being counted on to make touchdown-saving tackles about every other play. Fortunately, they're pretty good at tackling most of the time.
  • Unfortunately, they now constantly have one eye in the backfield. Assuming a team decides that it actually needs to throw the ball -- and let's be honest, why would any team the rest of the year decide it needs to do this? -- the secondary is now a half-step behind in covering the receiver off the line and once again getting no help from the front four, which, in a strange coincidence, can't generate any pressure on the quarterback, either.
  • And do I need to mention how completely defenseless this leaves the team against any kind of play-action pass?

All because we have four guys on the defensive line who can't do anything resembling even an adequate job.

This isn't to make excuses for the other failings of the team. Clearly, any way you slice it, losing 63-14 is a total team failure. But things just aren't as bad as they seem. In fact, if we had any kind of run defense whatsoever, we might have been able to make it a game on Saturday.

Think about it.

Even after two awful turnovers and multiple penalties (some extremely questionable on the part of the officials) put us into a 21-0 hole, the offense pieced together a 14-play, 82-yard masterpiece of a touchdown drive that spanned 6:33, capped by one of the best throws you'll see by any quarterback on any level.

Meanwhile, Oregon had, for some inexplicable reason, been farting around with the pass on its previous two drives. Throwing the ball five times and running the ball just two, the Ducks had achieved only one first down and a pair of punts.

The momentum, if not completely swung our direction, had at the very least been taken away from Oregon as we somehow had survived long enough to crawl back within two touchdowns.

Then reality set in.

Chip Kelly woke up, called six consecutive running plays, and the Martin Stadium crowd -- finally energized for the first time since kickoff -- had the wind sucked out of it in a mere two minutes and 10 seconds as the Ducks waltzed 80 yards downfield to resume the three-touchdown cushion.

They never looked back, throwing the Cougs into full-on one-dimensional catch-up mode -- not exactly a recipe for offensive success, especially with an inexperienced quarterback facing one of the better pass-rushing defensive lines he'll see all year.

Now, believe me, I'd love to sit here and tell you there's some sort of magical scheme that could solve our defensive line problems. But there's not. The Cougs ran their base 4-3, they ran some 3-4, and they even ran some 3-3-5 -- which, in all honesty, had to be more of a desperation move than anything else since having fewer big guys near the line of scrimmage isn't likely to do anything to stop the run -- and none of them were even remotely effective.

No, the soonest this thing gets solved is 2009 -- when more talent arrives.

In the meantime, resist the temptation to get too worked up over final margins that are driven disproportionately by the failures of one part of one unit. There were positive things that happened on Saturday, and we'll get into some of those this week. Unfortunately, the extreme deficiency of the run defense is likely to prevent these positive developments from translating into many -- if any -- wins this season.

But don't lose sight of the big picture. Yes, things are bad. And yes, there are other problems. But it will get better, if not sooner, then later.

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