EUGENE — The Oregon Ducks are the champions — perhaps clinching the first of three titles Saturday night, using stifling defense and QB Justin Herbert's four highlight-reel touchdown passes in easily dispatching of lowly Arizona, 34-6 before 54,219 at Autzen Stadium.
Oregon (9-1, 7-0) secured the Pac-12 North Division title with two games to play, and stays on course for its expected showdown with Utah (9-1, 6-1) in the Pac-12 title game, Dec. 6 at Santa Clara, Calif. Whereas Oregon allowed two field goals Saturday — making it five games this season without allowing a touchdown — Utah allowed only one field goal in pasting UCLA 49-3.
Then, should the Ducks win the Pac-12, could a spot in the College Football Playoff and a third title be on the horizon? It's not too early to talk about such things.
Oregon now prepares for its final road game, Saturday, Nov. 23 at Arizona State. The Sun Devils (5-5, 2-5 Pac-12), seeking bowl eligibility, lost 35-34 at Oregon State after failing at a potential go-ahead two-point conversion.
The Ducks were heavily favored against the Wildcats, and won easily, although they hardly played their best. One goal has been reached for Oregon — making the Pac-12 title game. The Ducks were happy about winning the division.
"We knew the work it would take to progess and we're progressing," UO coach Mario Cristobal said. "The best part about it is, it sounds like a broken record, our guys feel we haven't played our best football. That's awesome to hear.
"Pretty solid performance, looking forward to getting better."
The UO defense, after taking some lumps but making key plays against Washington, Washington State and USC, returned to its shutdown form, limiting the Wildcats to 240 total yards and sacking QBs six times, and not allowing QB Khalil Tate and running back J.J. Taylor any explosion plays.
The Ducks avenged a disappointing 44-15 loss last year to the Wildcats (4-6, 2-5), who clearly have fallen off in coach Kevin Sumlin's second season.
Herbert found Johnny Johnson III wide open for a 73-yard TD pass on the game's second play. Guess it wasn't such a good idea for Arizona to hand Oregon the ball after winning the coin toss, and have Herbert & Co. take their first shots at the Pac-12's worst defense, statistically.
"When you get a play like that early on, it makes that defense back up," Cristobal said. "Really got the momentum going in our direction."
And, the Ducks executed a pretty flea-flicker play for Herbert's second touchdown, a 53-yard score to Juwan Johnson in the second quarter. "We've been practicing it for awhile," Cristobal said. "We did a tremendous job executing it — the throw, the route, everything was executed at a really high level."
That made it 21-0, but Tate relieved Grant Gunnell at quarterback — the Wildcats have been playing both QBs — and led UA to consecutive field goals.
The Wildcats had the ball to start the third quarter. But, the Ducks forced a three-and-out possession and then two more punts. Herbert's 24-yard TD pass to Spencer Webb made it 28-6; it also was a pretty play, where he faked throwing to the running back in the flat, and then hit Webb with a rifle of a pass at the left pylon.
Early in the fourth quarter, Herbert and running back Travis Dye hooked up on a fine screen pass and run-after-catch TD, the running back catching the ball and bursting for a 33-yard score. (Kicker Camden Lewis, the hero of UO's dramatic 37-35 win against Washington State on Oct. 26, booting the game-winning field goal, missed the extra-point kick. Earlier, he had missed a 20-yard field goal attempt).
The Ducks had 471 yards offense, even with "inconsistencies," Cristobal said. Herbert threw an interception, his third of the year, and the 'Cats sacked him three times, but he went 20 of 28 for 333 yards and his four TDs gave him 28 this season. Dye had 71 yards rushing on 14 carries, although the Ducks managed only 3.5 yards per carry. The emerging go-to receiver Juwan Johnson had five receptions for 93 yards. The Ducks made 8 of 15 third-down conversions.
Tate and Gunnell combined to go 17 of 30 for 132 yards and suffered six sacks of their own. Taylor had 74 tough yards on 17 carries. The Ducks held Arizona to 5 of 17 on third-down conversions.
"(Defense) was really impressive. We communicated, flew around and made plays," Cristobal said.
There was some bad news, as freshman receiver Mycah Pittman joined the injured ranks, again, after missing the season's first four games. In catching a third-down pass and stretching for the goal line, Pittman suffered an arm injury when a UA defender fell on him. It was a clutch, 11-yard play, setting up Cyrus Habibi Likio's 1-yard TD run.
"He took a pretty good hit when his hand was planted in the ground," Cristobal said. "The severity of it we'll know later."
Two regular-season games remain, they could be interesting — at ASU, and then playing host to the Civil War game against Oregon State. The Beavers need one win for bowl eligibility, and they play at WSU next. What if they still need a win at Civil War time?
Will a Pac-12 title follow for the Ducks? And, what about a spot in the College Football Playoff? The country's top five teams, ahead of Oregon won Saturday — LSU, Ohio State, Clemson, Georgia, Alabama — with Georgia beating Auburn (at Auburn), the only team to beat the Ducks (on a TD pass with nine seconds left).
Meanwhile, Alabama lost starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (hip) for the season. Would the CFP playoff committee factor in his absence, should it be deciding on whether Alabama or Oregon gets a shot at the playoff?
Then again, the Ducks still have to get by No. 7 Utah — not an easy task.
ARIZONA 0 6 0 0 — 6
OREGON 14 7 7 6 — 34
OREGON — Johnny Johnson III 73 pass from Justin Herbert (Camden Lewis kick), 14:28
OREGON — Cyrus Habibi-Likio 1 run (Lewis kick), 1:57
OREGON — Juwan Johnson 53 pass from Herbert (Lewis kick), 5:09
ARIZONA — Lucas Havrisik 23 FG, 2:56
ARIZONA — Havrisik 42 FG, 0:01
OREGON — Spencer Webb 24 pass from Herbert (Lewis kick), 7:32
OREGON — Travis Dye 33 pass from Herbert (Lewis kick failed), 10:02
A — 54,219
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