CORVALLIS, Ore. -- This time, it went exactly as predicted.
The 118th edition of the Civil War -- one of the oldest rivalries in college football -- was expected to be a blowout, but who ever knows what will happen in rivalry games? It was supposed to be that way last year, too, but that game took a very late Oregon touchdown (the first come-from-behind drive of Marcus Mariota’s collegiate career) for the Ducks to escape with a 36-35 win.
This time, the No. 2 Ducks led start to finish, racking up 565 yards of total offense along the way. Oregon already had the Pac-12 North title locked up and will roll into Levi’s Stadium next week on a seven-game winning streak.
Here are three quick thoughts after the Ducks’ 47-19 win.
1. Marcus Mariota is going to win the Heisman
Early in the second quarter, Mariota hit Byron Marshall perfectly in stride for a 77-yard touchdown play. Marshall shook off an Oregon State defender on his way to the end zone, but credit goes to Mariota for a flawless throw. That’s the best way to describe his play for most of the night, and most of the season: flawless. He finished 19-of-25 passing for 367 yards and added 39 yards rushing with six total touchdowns. As the best player in college football, Mariota has all but wrapped up the Heisman, almost regardless of what happens next week in the Pac-12 title game. Oregon’s rematch with Arizona in the Pac-12 title game -- more on that in a second -- is about style points for the junior, who has 9,445 passing yards, 2,064 rushing yards, 120 total touchdowns and just 12 interceptions in his collegiate career. He’s the best quarterback to ever come through Eugene and arguably the best player in program history.
There’s one scenario in which Mariota doesn’t take home college football’s most coveted individual trophy: If the Ducks lose to Arizona and are effectively knocked out of the College Football Playoff race, and Mariota plays poorly while Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon goes crazy in the Big Ten championship, Gordon could sneak in front of Mariota. But think of Mariota’s numbers this year (remember he was the front runner last season until he got hurt) and keep in mind that he’s been dominant for all of 2014 (3,103 passing yards, 597 rushing yards, 41 total touchdowns and two interceptions). Count on him giving the thank you speech in New York.
2. Royce Freeman is the best running back in the country that no one is talking about
One local reporter likes to say the true freshman “was a mythical creature in fan lore before the season.” Then the Ducks got going, and that myth became a reality. Coaches believed 6-foot, 229-pound Royce Freeman, a big, bruising back who rushed for 41 touchdowns as a senior at Imperial (Calif.) High, would contribute. Surely, no one saw this coming though: 1,050 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns on 187 carries. And counting.
While Thomas Tyner has dealt with a host of injuries this season -- he’s currently nursing a sprained ankle and has a lingering shoulder injury -- Freeman has become a stable force in the Ducks’ backfield. He’s such an integral part of Oregon’s running game that Marshall, who led Oregon with 1,038 rushing yards in 2013, has been used almost exclusively as a slot receiver.
Oregon’s football history is littered with stellar running backs, particularly within the last decade: LaMichael James (5,082 career rushing yards), Kenjon Barner (3,623), Jonathan Stewart (2,891), Jeremiah Johnson (2,336), etc. Freeman looks like the next one. In a season when running backs have dominated the college football conversation (Wisconsin’s Gordon, Indiana’s Tevin Coleman, Georgia’s Todd Gurley), it’s time people start talking about Freeman.
3. Ducks get a chance to get another monkey off their backs with Arizona rematch
As Oregon prepared to play Stanford earlier this season, Ducks coach Mark Helfrich addressed up front the criticism that Oregon has been too soft: “We lose to Stanford and we have to blow up our program,” he told reporters. “They lose to somebody else, and it’s just an anomaly.” On Nov. 1, Oregon shook off that label with a dominant 45-16 win over the Cardinal in Eugene. Helfrich joked afterward about the monkey finally being off Oregon’s back.
So what to make of Oregon’s “Arizona problem?" The Wildcats have won two in a row over the Ducks, including a 31-24 shocker this year that seemed to knock the Ducks out of playoff contention at the time. Arizona wins with Oregon’s formula -- run your opponents to death -- and clearly doesn’t fear the Ducks’ talent or tempo. Oregon has the pieces to compete for a national championship, but if it falls short because of another loss to Arizona, Helfrich will have some explaining to do about how another unexpected loss kept the Ducks from playing for a national title.