COLUMBUS, Ohio — Mario Cristobal cleared out his players.
Out of the way! Out of the way!
He parted the seas. His security detail hung back.
And there he was, alone, no one within five feet of him, facing thousands of green-clad Oregon fans.
Then he did it. He let it out.
He dropped into a squatting position, slung back his right arm and swung it through the air in a celebratory uppercut that would topple any human in its path.
There was no planting of a flag this time around. The last time an opponent did this—waltzed into Ohio Stadium and beat the Buckeyes—Baker Mayfield thrust an Oklahoma banner into the centerfield logo here in 2017.
On Saturday afternoon, the flag plant was replaced by the upper cut.
Oregon knocked out Ohio State, maybe from the College Football Playoff, maybe from the top 10, too. The Ducks (2–0) controlled the entire game. They dominated both lines of scrimmage. They out-schemed, they out-played and they out-muscled Ryan Day’s group in a seven-point win.
This seemed impossible. The deck seemed stacked. The odds too great.
Take, for instance, the pre-game evidence. For one, red-clad fans rocked Ohio Stadium for the first time in two years as more than 100,000 packed into this place. No. 2, Day had never lost a regular season game since becoming coach. No. 3, Ohio State, in nine previous matchups, had beaten Oregon each time, and in this game, it was a two-touchdown favorite.
Don’t forget too that the Pac-12 rarely ever wins a big, early-season game against one of the other Power 5 leagues. And the Ducks were without two of their best defenders. And how about this: Oregon even had a tight end play defensive end because of low bodies. And it kicked off three time zones over—at 9 a.m. their time.
“Big game for Oregon,” Cristobal said afterward, “and big game for the Pac-12.”
Everyone knows about the woes from that conference out west. The league hasn’t qualified a team for the Playoff since 2016. In marquee games, its teams usually flop, especially on the road early in the season. It is the runt of the Power 5. Beleaguered, beaten and bruised.
And yet here it is, having posted two of the most impressive victories so far this year: UCLA 37, LSU 28; Oregon 35, Ohio State 28. Oregon’s win over the Buckeyes (1–1) was the Pac-12’s first nonconference road victory over a top-five team since 1990. And it was the conference’s most significant such win since 2009, when USC won on this very field, beating then-No. 8 Ohio State.
Their commissioner was there for both. George Kliavkoff, the league’s new leader, was at the Rose Bowl last week and at Ohio Stadium on Saturday. He personally witnessed his conference finally flex its muscle in a game that offered a glimpse of what the new so-called Alliance—a pact among the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences—could produce in future years in a nonconference scheduling arrangement between the three.
“Enjoying the Alliance, guys?” Kliavkoff quipped to reporters on his way down to the field.
UCLA and Oregon didn’t just win. The two program controlled the line of scrimmage. They combined for 479 yards rushing against LSU and Ohio State, averaging 5.6 yards a carry in the kind of dominance not often seen from the Pac-12 against powerhouses of the SEC and Big Ten.
On Saturday, CJ Verdell went for 161 yards, including a 77-yard touchdown jaunt, and quarterback Anthony Brown sliced through the OSU secondary for 236 yards in the air. In a statistic that speaks to Oregon’s diverse game plan, he completed 17 passes to a whopping 11 different players.
Joe Moorhead, the Ducks’ offensive coordinator, called a masterful game against Ohio State’s Cover 3 defense, discombobulating the front seven with RPOs. The group even set a record never to be broken during the second quarter: It amassed a 99-yard touchdown drive.
“This is an unbelievable venue, a historic place,” Cristobal said. “To go out there and to play the way we did, to find ways to make plays, to scrap and get out of tough situations … 99 yards against a good defense.”
The Oregon defense shined too, getting three fourth-down stops and bottling up the Buckeyes late in a one-score game. The unit did it without two of its stars. Edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux and linebacker Justin Flowe missed the game with injury.
The Ducks were down enough that DJ Johnson played both defensive end and tight end (he even secured the game late with a first-down catch).
It made the win so much sweeter, triggering a wild on-field celebration. As Ohio State fans flooded out of the Shoe, Oregon players rushed to greet the jubilant thousands in the visiting section.
The Buckeyes slinked to the locker room with serious issues to solve. Minnesota last week and Oregon this week exposed cracks, maybe even chasms in a defensive unit full of four- and five-star talent. New starting quarterback C.J. Stroud made a costly interception late in the game, and Day’s group didn’t run the ball all that effectively either.
But the most troubling issue was a defensive unit that never could seem to adjust to what Moorhead and Co. threw at it. It left receivers wide open and running lanes completely clear.
“We have to get things fixed,” Day said.
And so, among early-season victories, among big road wins, among nonconference affairs, it is an unlikely league and team with the best of them all so far.
The Pac-12 and the Oregon Ducks, upper-cutting their way to the top of college football.