What happens when one of the nation’s top quarterbacks faces one of the Pac-12’s worst defenses?
Not what you’d think.
The Arizona Wildcats stymied the 19th-ranked Oregon Ducks and prized quarterback Justin Herbert on Saturday night, routing them 44-15 and making for a joyous Homecoming at Arizona Stadium.
Herbert, a projected first-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, completed just 24 of 47 passes for 186 yards, two touchdowns and an interception against an Arizona defense that was ranked 93rd in FBS in pass defense and 115th in opponent completion percentage entering the night.
Oregon was out-gained 465-270 and did not record its first first down until its fifth drive and its first points until its eighth drive. The Ducks lost a fumble, got intercepted and even had a punt blocked during that stretch.
Arizona only turned those errors into three short Josh Pollack field goals, despite twice being set up deep in Oregon territory. But it was more than enough for UA’s swarming defense, which pressured Herbert and blanketed his receivers. The Ducks only averaged 3.7 yards per carry, too.
“I thought obviously we tackled well. We didn’t really let the ball get over our heads for big plays with the exception of busted coverage in the first half. We kept the ball in front of us and rushed the passer pretty well,” said UA coach Kevin Sumlin.
“We moved (Herbert) off the spot and made him a little bit uncomfortable. When he sits in there and has time he is something else, but move him around off the spot is what we wanted to do — force him to not be comfortable and I thought our defense did that. The tackling was probably as good as we’ve been all year and the coverage was, too.”
Khalil Tate, whose left ankle was in boot before the game, returned from a one-game absence and battled some accuracy issues — particularly deep downfield — but managed to throw for 189 yards and three TDs. The junior completed 19 of 33 passes.
“We haven’t been playing well all year but it was the first time we actually played four quarters and it showed offensively and defensively,” Tate said.
Tate did not record his first carry until Arizona’s 37th play, so it was J.J. Taylor who led the running game by logging 212 yards and two touchdowns on 30 carries. He became UA’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Nick Wilson in 2014.
“I don’t really have a thought for it,” Taylor said of his performance. “Gary (Brightwell got injured) early and I told him I was going to finish off the game for him. I wasn’t thinking about anything else but my teammate.”
After Arizona grabbed an early 16-0 lead, Herbert finally got Oregon’s offense moving by leading a seven-play, 75-yard drive to make it an eight-point game with 9:17 left in the second quarter. (He rushed for the two-point conversion.)
The tide seemed to be turning in the Ducks’ favor, but Arizona answered by grinding out a 18-play, 88-yard touchdown drive to extend its lead to 23-8 at the half. The drive burned seven and a half minutes off the clock. Taylor capped it with a one-yard plunge.
Tate’s first pass of the second half was intercepted, giving Oregon some more life, but Arizona’s defense promptly forced another three-and-out.
Taylor then scampered for 64 yards after Arizona was pinned at its own 4-yard line and Tate tossed an eight-yard TD to Shawn Poindexter to push the lead to 30-8. Poindexter also hauled in a 22-yard TD on UA’s opening drive when Oregon left him wide open on a cornerback blitz.
Shun Brown scored on a 27-yard catch-and-run to make it 37-8 and Taylor later bolted, and flipped, for a 19-yard TD to add insult to injury. Brown had 10 catches for 96 yards.
“I think they don’t get enough credit,” Sumlin said of Arizona’s receivers. “This game was built around the perimeter game of screens. To get four or five yards and sometimes more says a lot about them blocking for each other. We were able to spread them out a little bit more because of the perimeter blocking and what the receivers did outside.
”Khalil pulled it a couple times, which puts some pressure on the perimeter, but I think in the first half the screen game really created some space out there and some one-on-ones outside with blocks and I thought they did a nice job with that.”
Colin Schooler led Arizona’s defensive effort with 11 tackles. Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles shined in coverage with a career-high three pass breakups. Scottie Young Jr. picked off Herbert in the first half, two drives after PJ Johnson forced a fumble that was recovered by Christian Young.
The Wildcats held the Ducks to 3 of 16 on third down and 1 of 3 on fourth down.
“I feel like we played really down on third down,” Schooler said. “They were 3-for-16 … and that’s huge. That’s a lot of momentum we get and we’re not on the field for that long. Getting the offense back on the field is the main goal.”
Arizona’s 1998 team, which was honored at halftime and known for its stingy defense, probably nodded in approval.
“Coming into this season, I had really high expectations for our defense and I still do,” Schooler said. “That’s not going to change. You’re only as good as your last game, so we can’t let this performance affect our future for the bad.”
Arizona (4-5, 3-3 Pac-12) has to win two of its last three games to gain bowl eligibility. It has home contests against Colorado and ASU left, which bookend a road game at Washington State.
The WSU matchup will be a challenge, but Colorado lost to lowly Oregon State on Saturday, and the Territorial Cup is always a toss-up, so those are certainly winnable.
Even wackier: the Wildcats are still alive in the Pac-12 South title race — and even in decent shape to win it. They are tied with USC for the second-best conference record in the division and are only a game behind first-place Utah.
Both those teams own the tiebreaker over Arizona, but the fact the Wildcats are in the mix speaks to the weakness of the division.
But somebody has to win it and we can’t rule Arizona out just yet.