USC Trojans: Mike Bellotti

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Mailbag: Helfrich crashing the Ferrari?

November, 29, 2013
11/29/13
5:00
PM PT
Welcome to the mailbag.

Yoda says to Twitter-follow Pac-12 blog here, yes.

To the notes!

Marcus from Canaan, Conn., writes: It's been said many times that Mark Helfrich was given the keys to a Ferrari. Well, he took that Ferrari and smashed it into a telephone pole. That said, shouldn't the Ducks brass find someone else to drive said Ferrari?

Ted Miller: The problem is we can't judge whether or not the wreck was driver error. Maybe the brakes failed. Or perhaps the Ferrari sprained its knee. It's possible Oregon would be 9-2 at present even if Chip Kelly were still the coach. Or 9-2 under a resurrected Vince Lombardi.

Recall that Kelly's first year was hardly perfect after he took over a 10-3 team from Mike Bellotti that welcomed back a lot of good players, including QB Jeremiah Masoli. Folks, in fact, immediately questioned Kelly's leadership during the disaster at Boise State to open the season.

Then, after winning seven in a row and rising to No. 8, the Ducks got bombed at unranked Stanford. Finally, Kelly's first team lost the Rose Bowl 26-17 to an Ohio State team it should have beaten by two touchdowns, making mercurial Terrelle Pryor look like an All-American.

The point is a single season is too small a sample size to pass judgment on a head coach -- good or bad.

Coaching a college team is not easy, and folks trying to completely write off the transition between Kelly and Helfrich were being short-sighted. It certainly was a major reason your Pac-12 bloggers picked Stanford to win the Pac-12 in the preseason.

Helfrich might be a great coach. He might even end up better than Kelly. But there is a transition there, as well as a learning curve for a guy who's never sat in the corner office.

I'm sure some folks questioned Bellotti in 1995, his first season, when the Ducks lost to middling Stanford and Arizona State teams and then got stomped by Colorado in the Cotton Bowl.

While it's completely understandable to be frustrated with where things stand at this moment -- that's how it is, being a fan -- let the more reasonable part of your brain prevail. Have patience and allow a bigger and more nuanced picture to develop before passing judgment on Helfrich.


Jason from St. Louis writes: My Stanford friends and I are split about this week's ASU-Arizona game. Do you think it is better that ASU lose so we get home-field advantage in the Pac-12 championship game, or for ASU to win so ASU is a potential top-10 team rather than top-20 team? I know this only affects postseason rankings and offseason bragging rights (assuming we win), but those are both big. Also, in his chat this week, Kevin thought ASU has a 50 percent chance of winning the championship at home, but only a 35 percent chance of winning if the game is on the Farm. Do you agree with those numbers?

Ted Miller: You 100 percent want Arizona State to lose so you get home-field advantage. There is no percentage of your thinking that should want to go on the road to Tempe, where the Sun Devils are dominant. To quote myself:
The Sun Devils are 6-0 at home this year with an average margin of victory of 26.8 points per game, including wins over two ranked teams, Wisconsin and USC, as well as a blowout victory over Washington. They are 3-2 on the road, with a 42-28 loss at Stanford, a game that was 39-7 entering the fourth quarter.

While it would be more impressive for Stanford to beat a highly ranked Arizona State team playing at home, the victory prize would still be the same: the Rose Bowl. Further, I don't think the Cardinal would get as much of a jump in the national rankings for winning in Tempe simply because they've already beaten ASU this season.

And I think Kevin is absolutely correct. Both of Stanford's losses came on the road this year, and the Cardinal have won 15 consecutive home games, tied for the second-longest active streak in the nation with Ohio State.


Papa John from Santa Barbara, Calif., writes: A few years back, the Pac-12 blog awarded Stanford's FB/LB Owen Marecic the title of STUD in its all-conference team selections. I was wondering if you could take that title out of retirement and award it to Trent Murphy this year, especially given his snubbing by the Butkus, Bednarik, etc. committees?

Ted Miller: That actually was the then-Pac-12 blog, not the official Pac-12 team, which can't afford to be as colorful as us.

First, Murphy is an iron-clad lock to be first-team All-Pac-12, and I'd add that he is the favorite to win conference Defensive Player of the Year honors.

While Murphy has a right to be smarting after getting snubbed for those awards, he also is almost certain to be named a first-team All-American. That's a pretty good consolation prize.


74Coug from Virginia Beach writes: As we approach another Apple Cup, why is it that nobody gives Washington State more credit for last year's victory? All writing is of an epic Washington collapse, when a reasonable perspective is that the Cougars led at halftime, and the record comeback was really necessitated only by giving Washington three short-field TDs off of turnovers.

Ted Miller: That's a fair point. Three turnovers from Washington State led to two Washington touchdowns in the third quarter, and that was the primary reason the Huskies led 28-10 entering the fourth quarter. So the Cougars' collapse in the third after leading at halftime was balanced by the Huskies' collapse in the fourth.

But, really, come on. You couldn't take this position with the game video running.

Start with this: It was the biggest lost fourth-quarter lead in the history of the Apple Cup.

Further, Washington was a two-touchdown favorite. It had won four in a row and was 7-4 overall and 5-3 in conference play, while the 2-9 Cougars had lost eight in a row and were winless in Pac-12 play. The week before, the Cougs had lost 46-7 at Arizona State. Washington was the better team.

That makes the main storyline the Huskies collapse, no matter what.

But then you toss exactly how things went down in the fourth quarter and overtime, which Bud Withers does a good job of recounting here, and you see the Huskies make like Dumb and Dumber.

In the fourth quarter, the Huskies had a fumble, five penalties -- two pass interferences and a roughing-the-passer -- and a missed 35-yard field goal for the victory in regulation. On Washington's first possession of overtime, Huskies QB Keith Price had perhaps his biggest career brain, er, hiccup, on his interception to Toni Pole, who rumbled all the way to the Huskies' 5-yard line to set up the winning field goal.

The Cougars, without question, deserve credit for showing mental toughness and resolve for taking advantage of the Huskies going rear-end-over-tea-kettle. And that was the Washington State storyline this week when chatting with coach Mike Leach, "What did that Apple Cup win mean for you guys heading into the offseason and 2013 season?"

But yielding an 18-point fourth-quarter lead, as Washington did, was nothing less than a collapse, and it was the biggest reason why folks were putting Steve Sarkisian on the hot seat last summer.


Elk from Los Angeles writes: You can't overstate the importance of winning the line of scrimmage this year. Who do you think wins the Morris trophies this year? Interesting that last year's winners will be lining up against each other in the Pac-12 championship game.

Ted Miller: USC defensive lineman Leonard Williams and Stanford offensive guard David Yankey will win the Morris Trophies.

I'd also, on the offensive line, throw in UCLA's Xavier Su'a-Filo, but I think Yankey will repeat.


Steve from Union City, Calif., writes: Re: Your and Kevin's Picks this week -- Lame. You guys should have some rule that you can't make all the same picks in any given week. Especially the last week of the regular season, when you are already TIED. And so it will end in a tie. Lame, lame.

Ted Miller: I agree. I felt lame while I was picking all the same teams as Kevin. And that's my fault, as Kevin sends me his picks and I post them on the blog.

The problem with this week was I had already thought about the picks before Kevin sent me his. What he sent me was pretty much what I had worked out in my head. While nearly all the games gave me pause, I just couldn't pull the trigger on a road underdog.

There have been times this year when I just said, "Oh, what the heck!" and picked against my inclination so we'd be different. That pick has tended to be pretty weak.

But don't despair! We have the bowl games ahead, so the tie could be broken.

As it was -- cough, cough -- last year.
Nick Aliotti, a native of Walnut Creek, Calif., a graduate of Pittsburg High School, a former freshman MVP at running back for UC Davis, arrived at Oregon as a graduate assistant in 1978 under Rich Brooks. The Ducks celebrated his arrival by going 1-10.

After a 4-7 season the next year, Oregon State coach Joe Avezzano hired him to coach running backs. In 1984, he was the offensive coordinator at Chico State. The Ducks went 6-5 that year.

Funny how things turn out. Back then, there was little to suggest Aliotti would become a defensive coach, or that he would circle back to Oregon, or that there would be any reason to go back to Eugene. After all, if Aliotti wanted to climb the coaching ladder, didn't he want to go to a place where you had a chance to win?

Yet here he is, now close enough to an Oregon lifer that we're going to call him that, a guy who has been a firsthand witness to a program rising from nothing to respectability to legitimate goodness. And then to the cusp of greatness.

[+] EnlargeNick Aliotti
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireWhile Oregon's offense gets all the hype, Nick Aliotti's defense has also shined this season.
"I'll tell you how it feels for me personally," Aliotti said. "It feels fantastic."

And anyone who knows Aliotti, 58, will guess that there was a prelude to that quote -- "It's not about me" -- and a postlude -- "It's really, really special" -- as well as some entertaining parentheticals along the way.

Yet this season includes something new: respect.

Aliotti has been a good defensive coordinator for a long time, although his defenses often were outmanned. During the Ducks' rise under Chip Kelly, Oregon has played better defense than most folks realized, but it often required observers to look behind the numbers. And who has time for that?

Yet before this season began, more than a few pundits, including folks on the benighted East Coast, took a look at the Ducks' depth chart and noted that there were some salty characters on the mean side of the ball. The Ducks had some size to go along with their speed. There were some 300-pounders inside and there was, as coaches say, "great length" across the board, with seven of the top nine defensive linemen over 6-foot-4. And four over 6-6.

They passed the sight test.

What about the football part of football? Glad you asked. ESPN's numbers guy, Brad Edwards, took a closer look at the Oregon defense this week, noting that if you go beyond some superficial numbers that don't look impressive, you can make a case that the Ducks are playing defense on par with the finest teams in the country.

He took a measure of the Oregon defense only when an opponent was within 28 points, noting, "Using only statistics from when the score is within 28 points allows us to evaluate how teams perform when the starters are on the field and playing with maximum intensity."

What did he find? First, he found the Ducks have allowed 19 touchdowns this season -- one a pick-six against the offense -- but only seven were given up when the game margin was within 28 points.

Then he entered that into his Bat Computer.

Here's what he found. The Ducks ranked third in the nation, behind only Alabama and Notre Dame, in points per drive at 0.89. The Ducks allow just 4.03 yards per play, which ranks fourth in the nation. The Oregon defense leads the nation in red zone TD percentage at 22 percent, or four TDs allowed in 18 drives. Finally, on third-down conversion defense, the Ducks rank second, trailing only Oregon State, with a 24.7 percent success rate.

Not bad, eh?

Aliotti's defense, however, will face a major test on a big stage Saturday when it visits USC. Although the Trojans' offense has been surprisingly inconsistent this season, it still has all the main players from the squad that turned in a scintillating performance a year ago while ending the Ducks' 21-game Autzen Stadium winning streak with a 38-35 victory.

"Those great receivers and the quarterback were able to have their way with us last year," Aliotti said. "They beat our defense last year with their offense."

Matt Barkley completed 26 of 34 passes for 323 yards with four touchdowns as the Trojans rolled up 462 yards. Marqise Lee, then a true freshman, caught eight passes for 187 yards and a score. Aliotti, by the way, was perhaps more upset about the Trojans' 139 rushing yards than the passing numbers.

Barkley is a four-year starter who has seen just about every defense. He's not easy to fool. But that doesn't mean Aliotti isn't going to try.

"The best I can answer is we're going to do a little bit of all of it," he said.

And Aliotti has a lot of tricks in his bag. When you talk to opposing offensive coaches, it's clear the Ducks' defense has evolved in the past few years. Calling it "multiple" doesn't do it justice. You could almost call it "nonstandard." Aliotti will give a general idea of the evolution, but he doesn't want even that to appear in print.

USC coach Lane Kiffin coached the Trojans' offense under Pete Carroll from 2001 to '06. He sees dramatic changes.

"You see no similarities," he said. "You'd think it was a different staff. Obviously it's not; they've been there forever. I don't know what changed, but they are very different. They are very multiple. They change fronts. They disguise things very well."

Aliotti has played a lot of chess games with opposing offenses since he returned to Oregon for good in 1999. Shutting down Barkley and the Trojans on Saturday would help him further secure his grandmaster bona fides this fall.

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