EUGENE - Oregon finally did something on the football field worth talking about this season by defeating Arizona 48-28 Saturday night at Autzen Stadium.
The Ducks needed a big win in the worst way. They needed the type of victory that would truly signal the program's turnaround under new coach Willie Taggart in a season filled with disappointing performances and yawn-inspiring wins. They needed a win like Saturday's to validate the existing belief by many that the Ducks' future is bright under Taggart.
For that victory to occur, the Ducks needed sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert to return to action for the first time since breaking his left collarbone seven weeks again against California. But while he certainly did his thing, by far the most important entity on the field Saturday was the Ducks' defense, which devoured Arizona's emerging superstar quarterback, Khalil Tate.
The win, something Oregon was favored by odds makers to pull of, wasn't supposed to go down like it did. Tate, who in just seven starts had amassed more than 1,252 yards rushing, more resembled a kitten trapped in a box against Oregon than the dynamic Wildcat quarterback that saved Arizona's season, and maybe coach Rich Rodriguez's job, with one show-stopping performance after another.
When Saturday's game ended, Tate sat at 32 yards rushing, Taggart flashed his victory smile and Oregon had by far its best win of the season.
The Ducks (6-5, 3-5 Pac-12) are now bowl eligible with feeble Oregon State (1-10, 0-8) up next in the Civil War. Oregon has a great chance to finish the season 8-5 with what should be an easy win over the Beavers followed by likely victory in a bowl game against what likely will be an inferior opponent. But when this season is in the history books, the victory that should be remembered most will be the night the Ducks denied a superstar in the making to make fools out of them and defeated a team that had a real shot at winning 10 games before the Ducks got done with them.
"It means a lot," Taggart said of the victory that came after five games of mostly turmoil. "It shows the progress in our football team and that we're headed in the direction that we want to go."
With Herbert out, the Ducks lost four out of five games and scored just 34 combined points in those four losses with freshman Braxton Burmeister starting at quarterback. But Oregon team righted itself by realizing that it couldn't lay blame at the feet of the freshman when the entire team had contributed to the team's follies.
A renewed attention to detail led to a better team on the field when Herbert returned. Especially on defense. That proved true on Saturday.
Taggart said the plan for Tate was simple: Force him to hand the ball off on zone read and contain him in the pocket.
Tate looked unstoppable on Arizona's first drive in which the Wildcats never faced a third down and scored after 11 plays covering 83 yards. After that, the Ducks made life miserable for Tate. A defender ran at him every time he showed an inside hand off in order to force him to give the ball to the running back. On passing plays, outside edge rushers committed more to containing him the pocket then going all out for sacks.
"We tried to keep him in a box," dye said. "We tried to keep him from getting out in space."
That strategy only worked because the Ducks did a great job of stopping the inside and outside zone plays. Many a defense has focused on eliminating running quarterback only to get gashed by inside runs. See virtually every team that ever faced former Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota while he operated Oregon's zone read run game from 2012 through 2014.
Arizona finished with just 171 yards rushing after entering the game averaging 347.7 and even more than that since Tate took over as the starting quarterback.
"It was just a collective team effort," Dye said.
The combination of bottling up the inside run game and keeping Tate from finding any creases doomed Arizona's running game, which in turn did a number on the Wildcats' passing game. Tate has a strong arm and throws a good ball but he has yet to prove to be skilled enough to carry a team with his arm. Arizona's previous passing success with him had come about through forcing opposing defenses to focus heavily on the run and thus become susceptible to big plays over the top. Tate entered the game averaging just over 10 yards per pass attempt. Oregon held him to 4.5 on Saturday.
“We didn’t block them well, we didn’t read them well, and they did a good job," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. "The frustrating part is we’ll probably watch the film, and they were playing the exact way we thought they’d play, but they were better than us.”
Truth be told, Taggart said he was nervous about how his defense would perform early on in the preparation process because scout team quarterback Demetri Burch, a three-star wide receiver recruit who played quarterback in high school, had been routinely destroying the Ducks' defense in practice.
"They were so frustrated at times they tackled Demetrius when they could," Taggart said. "Sometimes they couldn't."
Having an off week, Taggart said, proved vital in preparing the defense for Tate. By the end of game week, UO's defense had demonstrated greater success against Burch in practice.
"Without Demetri Burch I don't think we would have played the way we played tonight," Dye said. "He gave us a tremendous look these past 10 days."
Oregon cornerback Ugochukwu Amadi said Burch proved to be tougher to defend against than Tate.
The victory made the Ducks bowl eligible a year after going 4-8. Taggart said that he had one question for Nike founder and Oregon mega-booster Phil Knight: "Does Nike make bowling shoes?"
Corny, to be sure.
But what's not corny is that the Ducks have clearly made great strides this season, something Taggart traces back to team camaraderie.
"We've got a group of young men that believe in each other and that care about each other," he said. "I think we saw that throughout the season when we could have easily folded."