Finally, a game in which the Ducks could actually prove that they are worthy of their lofty ranking.
Wins over Arkansas State, Fresno State and Tennessee Tech had done little to show that No. 3 Oregon belongs in the upper echelon of college football this season.
The buzz for the Ducks’ Pac-12 opener against No. 22 Arizona here Saturday night could be felt hours before kickoff, when thousands of black-clad students roamed the University of Oregon campus, then later helped provide a deafening roar in Autzen Stadium with a ferocity the season’s first three games did not come close to matching.
Fall term starts on Monday, so the students turned out en masse.
They got their money’s worth — and so did the rest of the 58,334 fans who packed Autzen on a warm evening that marked the first night of autumn.
Perhaps it was not the offensive explosion that many were predicting. At least not by Arizona, as Oregon cruised to a 49-0 shutout to begin its quest for a fourth straight Pac-12 title.
This first meaningful win of the season for Oregon was all about the dominant Duck defense.
Oregon looked more like Alabama than Oregon, perfectly willing to let the defense score some points, including two interception returns for touchdowns in the fourth quarter that broke the game wide open.
And Arizona reached the red zone SIX times — and still never scored against an Oregon defense that flat refused to break.
“Our defense really set the tone for us," said Oregon head coach Chip Kelly. “We scored twice on defense and that’s pretty special. Usually we don’t score on defense. Those guys were awesome today."
In the Ducks’ recent rise to the top of college football as a spread-offense scoring machine, the field goal has become an almost forgotten option for the Ducks. They had not made one all season until Saturday night, when Rob Beard made two — from 27 and 41 yards.
With all the hype surrounding Oregon and Arizona and their explosive no-huddle, shotgun spread offenses, who would have thought it would come down to a stifling defense and long, sustained drives for three points on offense for the Ducks? In the second quarter, Oregon put together drives of 17 plays for 62 yards, and 16 plays for 50 yards, both resulting in those field goals and a 13-0 halftime lead.
Sounds like a Southeastern Conference team.
The Autzen scoreboard malfunctioned for a few moments in the third quarter, almost as if it could not compute such a score as low as 13-0.
But it was not exactly “three yards and a cloud of dust" — though Colt Lyerla might say otherwise. The Oregon tight end from Hillsboro had seven carries for 63 yards and a touchdown, averaging nine yards per carry.
But, if that is the way the Ducks have to win, then they will do so — with tight ends carrying the ball and defensive backs scoring touchdowns.
Oregon held Arizona to just 332 yards of offense. The Wildcats’ offense, ranked fourth nationally coming into Eugene, had been averaging nearly 605 yards. Arizona was also 12th in scoring coming into the contest, averaging 46.3 points per game.
The Duck defense was no doubt well prepared, having faced similar spread offenses in each of the previous three games — not to mention in every practice against its own offense.
Arizona quarterback Matt Scott, who led the Pac-12 in total offense coming into the game, was intercepted three times and completed just 22 of 44 passes for 210 yards.
The Ducks overcame a first quarter in which quarterback Marcus Mariota and all-purpose back (and recent Sports Illustrated cover boy) De’Anthony Thomas actually appeared fallible. Both fumbled away the ball deep in Oregon territory, but the Duck defense responded with stops both times.
“We always talk about response after turnovers," Kelly said of his defense.
As a steady drizzle began to fall, the Ducks appeared to ice it with a 1-yard carry by Bryan Bennett, er, Lyerla ... as Bennett did not seem to want to let go of the ball as he handed it off to Lyerla on the zone-read play.
Then, even when the Oregon defense again found itself with its back against the wall after Mariota threw an interception late in the third quarter, the Ducks responded with an interception of their own, by linebacker Kiko Alonso.
On the next possession, Mariota found wide receiver Bralon Addison for a 55-yard touchdown strike and a 28-0 lead, and the Ducks started to look like the Ducks again.
But for most of Saturday night, Oregon appeared like an SEC team, relying on an impenetrable defense.
Against Arizona, the Ducks proved they belong at the top this season — and they proved it in an extremely un-Duck-like way.