Anybody who watched the Oregon Ducks play the Arizona Wildcats Saturday night at Autzen Stadium knew that the Ducks were very mediocre. Uninspiring, languishing on offense, and giving an all-around feeling the octane tank that was overflowing in Chip Kelly's first three years in Eugene was running on empty. For all of Marcus Mariota's poise and calm, he wasn’t making the right reads and threw often enough, and with the offensive line playing below par as well, the famous blur offense was looking, well, ordinary. Oregon was, without a doubt, below par Saturday. The Ducks have been below par since they jaunted into the locker room at halftime of the Arkansas State game. Oregon is the number two team in the country. They beat the #22 Wildcats 49-0 Saturday. And they're not playing well.
On one hand, it's very possible that we've become so spoiled as Oregon fans that we've lost touch with reality. Oregon has always struggled with Arizona, and the nightmare injuries to Kellen Clemens and Dennis Dixon have glued themselves to the back of Ducks minds every time the two teams take the field. The thriller in Tucson 2009, when Jeremiah Masoli led the Ducks’ Rose Bowl hopes back from the dead in an impossible 44-41 overtime win stands out as one of the best games in Oregon history, and people forget that Arizona led the Ducks at halftime at Autzen in the 2010 national championship year.
If we go back to 2008, we find a crazy game at Autzen in which the Ducks went up 45-17, only to have their lead cut to 48-45, before Oregon sealed the game with a long touchdown pass from Masoli to LaGarrette Blount. By comparison, last year's breezy 56-31 win in the desert was a vanilla affair. This year, with Arizona coming in undefeated, nationally ranked, Oregon won 49-0. To say the game was anything but an unparalleled success seems foolish.
On the other hand, it seems foolish to say Oregon's win over Arizona was anything successful at all. The final score was misleading. The Wildcats found themselves in the red zone time after time, and they should have been up double-digits by the start of the second quarter. It was 13-0 at halftime, and that was only because Rob Beard had fairy dust sprinkled on his right leg before the game, somehow making two field goals. By the time the Ducks broke away in the third quarter, everyone left feeling thoroughly unimpressed.
To those who didn't watch the game, the final score was impressive indeed, and magnifying how messed up the polling system is. The voters who didn't watch Oregon struggle and win 49-0, but did watch LSU struggle and beat Auburn 12-10 catapulted the Ducks over the Tigers in this week's AP Poll. But did Oregon really have that hard a time? Was there ever any doubt about who would win the game? Never. The Ducks defense was on fire, stopping Arizona in the red zone six times, most of those Wildcats opportunities set up by the Oregon offense, not conceded by the defense. The underrated Ducks D was great, and that should be the number one thing we take from this game: This is a young Ducks defense that was already set up for a down year before they lost John Boyett. But they turned in the first shutout over a ranked team in Oregon history. That's incredibly heartening for Oregon, and a sign that this could be another historic year in Eugene.
Under Chip Kelly, when Oregon has lost in the Pac-12, they've lost because the defense has let them down. In 2009, Oregon's only conference loss was when they gave up 51 to Stanford, and the loss to USC last year came because the defense gave up 38. Only once in 28 conference games has Oregon's offense gotten them in trouble (2010 at Cal). Other than that, any tense conference moments have come because the defense has been poor. Negate that problem, and Oregon should fly. All the Ducks have to do is win out in conference and they're back in the national championship. If the other team doesn't score, like the #22 Wildcats didn't Saturday, the Ducks can book their tickets to Miami.
Yes, of course, to make a national championship appearance, Oregon's offense has to pick it up. But here's the thing to remember: Marcus Mariota just completed his fourth college game. Fourth. With the amount of reads and options to deal with in Kelly's offense, it takes time to master the blur in game situations. It's going to take some time. Mariota's performance against Arkansas State was anomalous, and it raised expectations that shouldn't have been raised. It takes time to figure it all out. Luckily, the Ducks have time. Oregon goes to Pullman next week to play the woeful Washington State Cougars, who last week did the impossible and lost to Colorado, the team Oregon has the week before USC. In between those two, Oregon plays a poor Washington team at home and on the road at Arizona State. Mariota should have four weeks to improve under relatively light pressure, figure out the reads, and better grasp how to flow with the blur in a way Oregon's offense requires the quarterback to play.
Oregon's 49-0 victory over Arizona didn't pass the eye test, but it certainly passed the reality test. As a sportswriter, I always try to find reality. Sometimes, reality is stunning and bold, sometimes it's receding and boring, but often reality is just what it seems. We mix things up when we try to over-think. Oregon beat the #22 team in the country, a team that has had their number, 49-0. The defense was awesome, the offense is coming along, and the Ducks have time tweak the machine before three biggest games of the season - SC, Stanford, and Oregon State. Oregon is #2 in the country, and in the driver’s seat for a spot in the national championship game. They shouldn't lose the rest of the season. And if the team plays as they did against Arizona, they won't.