The shadows of 2014 were everywhere on Saturday night at Autzen Stadium.
For the first time since that season, the Ducks ran out of the tunnel ranked in the top 10 of the College Football Playoff rankings. They did so hosting Arizona, who, on Oct. 2, 2014, gave No. 2 Oregon its first loss in one of the most stunning upsets of that college football season. The guy who won the Heisman Trophy that year was the quarterback of that Ducks team, and he was in the building on Saturday night.
Oh, and the Ducks clinched a spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game for the first time since 2014 when they beat...Arizona.
“It’s something that we recognize,” head coach Mario Cristobal said of the Pac-12 North title. “You have to. We know where we were three years ago upon arrival, this great opportunity and privilege we’ve had.”
In the 2014 loss, the Ducks didn’t score a single point in the first quarter. On Saturday night, Justin Herbert found Johnny Johnson III for a 73-yard touchdown before many fans had even found their seats.
From there, No. 6 Oregon (9-1, 7-0 Pac-12) was off to the races in a 34-6 rout of Arizona (4-6, 2-5 Pac-12).
“It got us started,” Herbert said. “Johnny’s done such a great job these past couple weeks. I was really happy for him to have the day that he did.”
After that play, the Ducks extended their lead to 14 with a 13-play, 76-yard drive that was capped by Cyrus Habibi-Likio’s seventh touchdown of the season.
Then came the second big aerial strike of the night.
Herbert handed the ball off the CJ Verdell. Verdell then tossed it to Jaylon Redd on what appeared to be a reverse. Redd then tossed it back to Herbert, who proceeded to unload a 53-yard touchdown pass to Juwan Johnson streaking down the left sideline.
“That was the first one,” Juwan said when asked how many flea-flickers he’d been a part of in his football career. “But it was fun. When the play was called, I was like, ‘you sure this is what it is?’ But I’m just doing what I’m doing...Herbie put it out there and I just made the catch.”
Cristobal appreciated it, too.
“I’m glad the old-school in here could appreciate the old-school flea flicker,” he said. “It doesn’t show up that much anymore in football. But it looked good. It looked good when we practiced it...we thought we could capture the eyes of the secondary.”
That touchdown put the Ducks up by three scores, and the defense took the reins the rest of the way.
It wasn’t the trick play that drew the loudest applause of the night, however, It wasn’t the 73-yard touchdown on the game’s second play, either. It was when Mariota was announced, who was back in Autzen Stadium to watch his alma mater.
“I can always tell when he’s in town because it’s the loudest the crowd ever gets,” Cristobal said. “By far. More than any touchdown, any sack. When the crowd goes nuts, I know he’s there.”
But having the greatest player in Ducks history back on the sidelines was worth more than just a loud applause. It’s a signal of the ascension of the program since the pinnacle that was the 2014 Playoff season.
“I think that’s the best thing that we can have happen for the program,” Cristobal said of having Oregon alumni back at Autzen Stadium. “There is nothing — I mean nothing — like being a player and seeing not only all the greats, but seeing just family members. Former Oregon Ducks coming back and being around the program.”
And Mariota witnessed the Ducks clinch the Pac-12 North for the first time since he was running the show.
His Ducks blew out No. 7 Arizona 51-13 in the 2014 Pac-12 title game to secure a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff. The 2019 Ducks now have a chance to do so for the first time since then.
“It’s an amazing accomplishment,” Herbert said. “It’s a sign of how far we’ve come.”