By Rob Moseley
It’s a simple point, but it’s not to be taken for granted: Winning football games is tough. Doing so week in and week out is exceedingly so.
Yes, there were issues to take from Saturday’s 62-38 win for No. 2 Oregon over Washington State in Autzen Stadium. Three fumbles by the Ducks in the second quarter led to 17 points for the Cougars. WSU quarterback Connor Halliday had a record-setting night.
But ultimately, the Ducks prevailed. Other than a few minutes in the wake of those fumbles, the game never seemed in doubt. Oregon improved to 7-0 overall, and 4-0 in the Pac-12, figuring to be No. 2 when the initial Bowl Championship Series rankings of the season are compiled Sunday.
“You guys answered that bell in the second half,” UO coach Mark Helfrich told his team in the locker room afterward.
In doing so, Oregon avoided the sorts of pitfalls that have befallen other Pac-12 contenders in recent weeks. Stanford went to Utah a week earlier, and suffered its first loss. UCLA fell from the ranks of the unbeaten Saturday, at the Cardinal. Across the nation, five of Oregon’s fellow top-10 teams lost this week.
The Ducks were at home Saturday, rather than on the road. But they survived the weekend as the last remaining undefeated team in the Pac-12, and one of two still unbeaten in conference play, along with Oregon State.
“It’s definitely hard to win in this league,” UO quarterback Marcus Mariota said. “It’s hard to win games. But the way we prepare and the way we handle everything, it’s a credit to the coaches. They make sure we take things one week at a time, one day at a time.”
Mariota’s evening Saturday was a microcosm of Oregon’s night collectively. A week earlier, the Ducks were being feted as a national title contender, and Mariota as a Heisman favorite, based on a big win at Washington. On Saturday, two of those second-quarter fumbles were Mariota’s, his first turnovers in seven games this season.
If it was beginning to seem the UO quarterback was flawless, here was evidence to the contrary.
“I’m too nonchalant with the ball,” Mariota lamented. “I learned quickly I’ve got to take care of it. It didn’t really hurt us now, but later on in the season it could. I’ve got to make that a focal point.”
As Mariota said, those mistakes didn’t hurt the Ducks in the big picture Saturday. Unlike Oregon’s fellow Pac-12 contenders in recent weeks, the Ducks were able to experience some adversity and still come out victorious.
As such, Oregon is 7-0 for just the fifth time in school history, and the third in the last four years.
“To struggle in the second quarter a little bit, that was some adversity, and I’m glad we were able to push through it,” said Mariota, who finished 23-of-32 passing for 327 yards and touchdowns, and ran eight times for 67 yards and a score.
“The guys really rallied after halftime, and were able to come out and get things rolling again.”
Until a couple of garbage time touchdowns by Washington State, the Ducks outscored their visitors 28-0 coming out of halftime. Of Oregon’s nine touchdown drives, none was longer than 2:13.
In the end, then, it was a typical Oregon performance. The Ducks were lightning fast on offense. They avoided allowing big plays defensively.
And they won. As hard as that is to do week after week, they won.
Big tests await, of course, against the Bruins next week, and Stanford after that. But through seven games, Oregon has demonstrated the focus and resiliency of which champions are made.
“It’s all in front of us,” Helfrich said in the locker room, “and the beautiful part is who’s in charge.”
His team responded in unison: “We are!”