Ryan Kang
November 03, 2014

EUGENE, Ore. (AP) The way Oregon's offensive line was playing a few weeks ago, it looked as if Marcus Mariota might not make it through the season.

In a too-close-for-comfort victory against Washington State and a loss to Arizona, the Ducks allowed 12 sacks. That's no way to treat the Heisman Trophy front-runner.

The return of tackle Jake Fisher from injury the week after the Arizona loss marked a turning point. Since then, the fifth-ranked Ducks (8-1, 5-1 Pac-12) have allowed four sacks total while winning four straight games - all by at least 12 points.

The Ducks head into their game at No. 20 Utah, which leads the nation in sacks, dealing with another offensive line injury, but thinking they are better prepared to deal with it.

''We got our mojo back because we got the whole group together playing again,'' center Hroniss Grasu said Monday. ''It just brings a certain type of confidence as a unit that we needed to have.''

Fisher's been good, but it's not quite so simple. Offensive line coach Steve Greatwood said he went back to stressing fundamentals and technique with his linemen in practice. The result was renewed trust in each other and less of the tentative play that had them thinking rather than attacking.

''We weren't very happy with the way we played in the Washington State and Arizona games so we took it as a challenge as a unit and everyone has been answering that challenge,'' Grasu said.

The Ducks passed a major test against Stanford. The Cardinal were averaging more than three sacks per game coming into Saturday and their aggressive and quick front had given the Ducks all kinds of issues the past two seasons, leading to two straight Stanford wins in the series.

But the Cardinal had just one sack of Mariota during Oregon's 45-16 victory, and tailbacks Royce Freeman and Thomas Tyner averaged 5.9 yards per carry.

The next test could be even more difficult. The Utes lead the nation in sacks at 4.88 per game, led by wide receiver-turned-speed rusher Nate Orchard (12 sacks) and fellow defensive end Hunter Dimick (nine).

The Ducks again could be short-handed up front.

Right tackle Matt Pierson went down with a left knee injury late in the Stanford game. Oregon doesn't comment publicly about injuries, but it didn't look good for Pierson, the former walk-on tight end.

''When I saw him go down and grab his knee ... I felt so bad for him,'' Grasu said.

Pierson would be the fourth tackle to miss time for the Ducks if he can't go against Utah. Tyler Johnstone was penciled in to start at left tackle before he blew out his knee in the preseason. Fisher moved over from right tackle to take Johnstone's spot and junior Andre Yruretagoyena took over at right tackle. That is until Yruretagoyena injured his foot against Michigan State in Week 2.

Then Fisher hurt his knee against Wyoming the next week, leaving Pierson and freshman Tyrell Crosby as the tackles for Washington State and Arizona.

Yruretagoyena is expected back soon, though probably not in time for Utah.

Crosby would go to right tackle if Pierson can't play.

At this point, Oregon might be better prepared to deal with the adversity.

''Early when we had Jake out, there was just a lack of trust and guys were trying to do more than they should instead of just trying to do their job,'' Greatwood said.

Coach Mark Helfrich said the problems went beyond the inexperienced tackles.

''A ton of the issues we had in the Arizona game and against Washington State were with the veterans,'' he said. ''We made some very uncharacteristic errors that cost us.''

Getting back to basics in practice helped eliminate those errors, and Fisher's return has stabilized the unit.

''The two games he was out, we were as an O-line thinking too much of what the defense was going to do as far as movement, blitzes and stuff like that,'' Grasu said. ''It's a mindset of just coming off the ball and being physical. And not being afraid to make a mistake''

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Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP

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