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Herbert and Ducks cruise past Arizona 34-6

Herbert was very effective through the air and the ground game came alive in the second half
Herbert was very effective through the air and the ground game came alive in the second half (Tom Corno)

Oregon entered the evening with opportunity firmly in front of them. In many circles, the Ducks were considered to have control of their own destiny. Win out and the Ducks were likely to make the College football playoff for the first time since the inaugural 2014 championship. But a funny thing happened on the way to the expected – the unexpected occurred. But this time the unexpected was a furious comeback win by Oklahoma over Baylor and a devastating injury to Alabama quarterback Tua Tagavailoa which made Oregon’s contest against Arizona a strange mish-mash of importance and irrelevance all wrapped into the enigma of a ‘Pac 12 After Dark’ tilt from Autzen Stadium.

The Ducks have been everything that they were not in 2018; good on the road; consistent and dominant in Pac-12 play. But the Arizona nightmare of a season ago haunted Duck fans.

After a frustrating day of futility last season in Tucson, Oregon got the ball rolling early with a 73-yard stroke from Justin Herbert to an uncovered Johnny Johnson on the second play of the game for an early 7-0 lead for the Ducks.

Arizona senior Khalil Tate had given Oregon fits over the previous three seasons, but his struggles through the first nine games of this season led Wildcat head coach Kevin Sumlin to the wise decision to start freshman Grant Gunnell. Gunnell had been Arizona’s most effect quarterback in 2019 and had been especially sharp in the passing game for the Wildcats.

Gunnell was poised early completing 4 of his 6 first half passes, but he was constantly under pressure and completed those for just 28 yards while suffering 2 early sacks. Khalil Tate led the Wildcats to a couple of late field goals in the first half, but the Ducks controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and took a strong 21-6 lead into the half.

Justin Herbert led the Ducks completing 20 of 28 passes for 333 yards and 4 touchdowns on the night. After a perfect back shoulder throw from Herbert to freshman tight end Spencer Webb extended the lead to 28-6 midway through the third quarter, the Ducks were in complete control of this game and on their way to ensuring a trip to Santa Clara to compete for a right to participate in the Rose Bowl; but the Ducks have higher aspirations this season with the tantalizing fruit of a playoff appearance within their grasp.

After a season opening loss to Auburn left the Ducks looking a little lost and confused, nine consecutive wins seemed somewhat implausible to the fans – but not the staff who always felt that this team had a strong bond and the opportunity for a special season.

The Ducks were inconsistent at times in the game, but their defense was solid if not spectacular. Through the first three quarters, Arizona had just 89 yards on the ground (at 3.1 yards per carry) and 78 passing yards.

The Ducks would put the game on ice with a 33-yard screen pass to Travis Dye to extend their lead to 34-6 with just over 10 minutes left in the game. The Ducks missed some opportunities, though, to make this game considerably more lopsided.

Defensively, the Ducks held Arizona to just 108 yards on 39 carries while limiting the passing attack to 132 yards on 17 of 30 passing attempts on the night. The Ducks – who led the nation in interceptions coming into the game – did not add to that stat, but did get constant pressure on Tate and Gunnell sacking the duo 6 times on the night.

Freshman wide receiver Mycah Pittman went down early in the game with an arm injury that will likely cause him to miss the rest of the Pac-12 season, though he might be available for a bowl game or playoff game. CJ Verdell missed the second half still nursing a soft tissue strain that has plagued him for the better part of the second half of the season.

Oregon was led by Troy Dye with 8 tackles and Kayvon Thibodeaux with 3 tackles for loss including 2 sacks.

Now the Ducks head to the road to face an Arizona State team which had been considered an early season favorite to win the South division of the conference. Since their 5-1 start, the Sun Devils have lost four straight and will need to win one of their final two games to become bowl eligible and will be looking for the extra motivation of taking Oregon out of playoff contention.

But it was a night like this – where the Ducks clinched their spot in the conference title game which brought Herbert and Dye back for their senior season. With just two games remaining in the regular season, Oregon still has a lot of football in front of them, but will need some help down the stretch if they are to continue in that playoff consideration.