It happened exactly the way Oregon wanted it to.
When Arizona beat Arizona State last weekend in the Territorial Cup and Oregon smashed Oregon State in the Civil War, a handful of Ducks talked openly about wanting another shot at the Wildcats. Cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu said it was “only right” that Oregon and Arizona matched up against each other in the Pac-12 Championship. And this meeting went very differently than the first two, with Oregon dominating start to finish in a 51-13 win. Here are three quick thoughts after the Ducks locked up a spot in the College Football Playoff final four:
1. Damn, that defense looked good
Ironic, isn’t it, that the unit with the most questions marks at the beginning of the season is the unit that wound up carrying Oregon to its first Pac-12 championship since 2011. With a first-year coordinator and an offense that grabs all the attention, many were worried about the state of Oregon’s defense in 2014. The Ducks silenced those worries for Friday, at least, when they held Arizona to 199 total yards, well below their season average of 481. At halftime, Arizona had a pathetic 25 yards of total offense, and just two first downs. The last two meetings, Arizona notched 29 first downs each game. Friday, they got nine.
Oregon bottled up Arizona superstar running back Nick Wilson, didn’t let any Wildcat receivers catch a pass longer than 10 yards and sacked quarterback Anu Solomon four times. It’s easy to say Arizona had a rough night. But that was due mostly to a defense that sent a message Friday night: This team is more than a snazzy offense.
2. Mariota’s gonna Mariota
So it got to the end of the first quarter, the Ducks were only up 6-0 and Mariota had missed a few throws. Would this be like the last time Mariota met Arizona, when his late fumble helped the Wildcats pull off the upset of the season? Would this be the night the Heisman slipped from his grasp again?
Nope. Midway through the second quarter, Mariota did what he’s done most his career: He got in the end zone. His seven-yard and four-yard touchdown runs, less than six minutes apart, gave the Ducks a 20-0 advantage toward the end of the first half, deflating Arizona. He got Oregon into the red zone not with his legs, but with his (very under appreciated) arm, and impressive accomplishment against Arizona. Remember, this is a team that had mostly figured out how to defend the Ducks. That didn’t happen Friday night, as Mariota went into the locker room 14-of-27 for 190 yards. Then, he was perfect.
No, really: The junior went 10-for-10 in the third quarter, passing for 121 yards and two touchdowns. By the time he left early in the fourth, he had totaled 303 yards, two touchdowns and the Pac-12 title game MVP. He’s thrown a touchdown in each of the 39 games he’s played in, and all but wrapped up the Heisman. Feel free to pity any defense that plays him.
3. Is Oregon finally ready to win a title?
It’s crazy to think that over the last decade, as the Ducks have risen to the upper echelon of major college football, they’ve only played for the title once, in 2011 against Auburn. By most accounts, they’ve dominated the last few seasons. They’ve been on the brink of a championship since the 2010 season, but each year lost a game mid-season that messed up their plans.
That looked to be the case earlier this season, too after their 31-24 loss to Arizona on Oct. 2. But the Ducks avenged that loss Friday night with a dominating performance, and, depending on how Alabama plays Saturday in the SEC Championship, could even move up to the No. 1 seed in the College Football Playoff rankings. In the span of five weeks, Oregon has solved both its Stanford and Arizona problems, and is playing with a mature confidence. The Ducks are peaking -- and getting healthy -- at the right time. It’s no secret that Oregon’s window for a national title closes after this year, when the best player in school history leaves for the NFL. But with Mariota, the Ducks might finally be in position to bring a trophy back to Eugene. The Heisman is already on its way. And it would be a nice accent piece next to some national championship hardware.