Oregon secured the Pac-12 North title last week. Now the real work begins.
The No. 6 Ducks’ mission over the final three weeks of the regular season: to play well enough to convince the 13-member College Football Playoff selection committee that a last-second loss to the fifth-best team in the Southeastern Conference on opening day is not a deal-breaker.
Oregon (9-1, 7-0 Pac-12) is nine seconds away from an unbeaten season to this point. The Ducks’ next challenge comes as a two-touchdown favorite against Arizona State at Tempe, Ariz., on Saturday. The Sun Devils (5-5, 2-5) have lost their past four and are hoping to become bowl-eligible.
“The best part about it is our guys feel like we still haven’t played our best football,” Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said after the Ducks held Arizona without a touchdown in a 34-6 victory last week.
“Looking forward to getting better.”
The Ducks have managed well so far. They have won nine straight since a 27-21 loss to Auburn in a neutral site game in Arlington, Texas, and they are one of five teams ranked in the top 14 in the FBS in both scoring offense and scoring defense. No. 2 Ohio State, No. 3 Clemson and No. 5 Alabama — also top contenders for a berth in the four-team playoff — along with Louisiana are the others.
Oregon has done it with strong quarterback play from accurate senior Justin Herbert, a veteran offensive line led by left tackle Penei Sewell that has made an FBS-high 203 combined starts, and a defense that has held five opponents without a touchdown and six under 10 points, also tops in the FBS.
Oregon leads the nation with 17 interceptions and is tied for second with a plus-13 turnover margin.
Herbert has passed for 2,662 yards with 28 touchdowns and three interceptions, one of three FBS quarterbacks with at least 25 scores and three or fewer picks, joining Ohio State’s Justin Fields and Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa.
“He has a tremendous amount of pride in his craft and how he approaches it,” Cristobal said of Herbert. “Student of the game, another year in the system. I think Coach (Marcus) Arroyo, (the offensive coordinator), has done a great job of finding answers, particularly to some of the different challenges that we face coverage-wise in conference.”
Halfback CJ Verdell leads the Ducks with 814 yards rushing, and wide receivers Johnny Johnson III and Jaylen Redd have combined for 77 catches and 10 touchdowns for a spread-the-wealth offense on a team in which 19 players have a touchdown.
Arizona State freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels has thrown for 2,236 yards and 14 touchdowns against only two interceptions. Wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk has become a principal weapon with 53 receptions for 964 yards and seven touchdowns.
Daniels threw for 334 yards an Aiyuk had 173 yards receiving with a score while also returning a punt for a touchdown in a 35-34 loss at Oregon State last week. The Sun Devils moved within a point of the Beavers with 1:40 remaining but failed on a two-point conversion run.
“I’m not playing to tie,” Arizona State coach Herm Edwards said afterward. “We’re trying to develop a program where we win games. We can’t make 2 yards? I would do it again.”
Arizona State has given up 108 points in its last three games, including 28 apiece in the first half of losses to UCLA, Southern California and the Beavers.
“We have to stop playing from deficits,” Edwards said. “You don’t want to get in deficits against (the Ducks) because they are very good on defense.”
–Field Level Media