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Marcus Mariota, stout defense lead Oregon to Pac-12 title

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Despite all of Oregon's success the past decade, the team has always been derailed by a road block on its way to greatness.

There was the oft-documented Stanford problem, in which the Cardinal ended any national or Pac-12 title hopes the Ducks had before Thanksgiving. The past two seasons, Arizona has managed to walk away with a pair of surprising wins as another thorn in the side of the Pacific Northwest powerhouse.

But this is a season of exorcising demons for Oregon and star quarterback Marcus Mariota.

The Ducks slayed the Stanford dragon by scoring 45 on a defense that had not allowed 30 to be put up in nearly three years. On Friday night in the Pac-12 Championship Game, the Ducks avenged their only loss of the season in dominating fashion, using suffocating defense and several big plays to put the No. 7 Wildcats out to pasture by the end of the first quarter in a 51-13 rout that was barely competitive.

In doing so, Oregon locked up their spot in the first-ever College Football Playoff and a date at the Rose Bowl on January 1. With yet another effortless performance, Mariota all but assuredly sealed up the Heisman Trophy, as well.

"We had a lot of motivation going into this game. Our goal was to be able to win the conference," Mariota said afterward. "We just wanted to go out there and play the best we could. The last couple years we haven't been able to put that out there against them, and tonight was just a great example of us playing a complete game as a team."

As much press as the quarterback and his offense get, though, Friday's statement was sent on the defensive side of the ball. Behind defensive ends Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner, Arizona was limited to just 25 yards in the first half. The final tally was only slightly better after backups were rotated in after halftime, but it was nevertheless the best performance in years by an oft-criticized unit.

Now Oregon awaits its next opponent, which will be determined by the College Football Playoff selection committee on Sunday. The team is all but a lock to play in the hallowed grounds of the Rose Bowl with the only question left being who their opponent is and if they did enough at Levi's Stadium to earn the No. 1 seed.

If the committee was watching closely, it might be hard to deny it.

Mariota shaky to start before settling in

When asked after the game how it feels to win the Heisman Trophy, Marcus Mariota deflected the question just like every other that focused on himself: in the most humble way possible."

"I haven't won the Heisman," he said. "I haven't even been invited."

Both those statements should change in the next week.

Mariota's "Heisman Moment" on Friday came in the third quarter and was a perfect example of why his potential at the next level is so appealing to scouts in a world where Russell Wilson has shown how good quarterbacks can use their legs to extend pass plays more than ever before. The signal-caller was nearly dropped for his first sack of the night when the pocket collapsed around him and at least three Wildcats had a chance to take him down. Instead, Mariota evaded the defenders, rolled to his right and fired a pass nearly 50 yards downfield off one leg.

The play was jaw-dropping and yet one of several on Friday night in which he was able to throw downfield after facing pressure to connect for a big gain. Scouts have questioned his ability to move within the pocket, but he showed some of that as well against Arizona, subtly stepping up when needed to throw.

It wasn't a perfect night for him despite the eye-popping numbers (25-of-38, 313 yards, five total touchdowns), though. He nearly threw an interception on a bad misfire into the end zone during the first half and had a number of throws sail on him early in the game. The wet conditions -- it rained off and on for most of the night -- might have played a part, but it took several series before Mariota was able to get into a rhythm.

Still, in what was subjectively his shakiest outing of the season, he managed to be named Championship Game MVP and outgained Arizona all by himself in a little over three quarters worth of work. He has drawn plenty of comparisons to 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick over time and on the latter's home turf, Mariota showed he's at a more advanced stage in college than the San Francisco star and is only scratching the surface of his potential.

Armstead, Buckner lead dominant defense

There were a number of standouts on the defensive side of the ball for the Ducks on Friday night, but few came close to having as good a performance as defensive ends Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner.

Long and lean at 6-foot-7, 290 pounds, Buckner led the team in tackles and recorded one of the unit's four sacks in the contest. He occasionally got too high when taking on an opposing tackle but did a good job most of the night shedding blocks and chasing down the ball carrier or quarterback. He's just a junior, but the development he's shown this season has been encouraging for the team and his potential at the next level. He's not somebody who will rack up sacks coming off the edge, but his blend of being stout against the run while penetrating and stopping plays in the backfield makes him one to keep an eye on.

Armstead came to Eugene as one of the program's top recruits the past few years and has finally started to live up to that high billing. He's not the quickest off the ball, but he makes up for that with his power and Armstead was able to fight off double teams effectively most of the game. Given how big he is at a listed 6-foot-8, 290 pounds, the junior could potentially play a number of spots in both 3-4 and 4-3 schemes. His ability to slide inside on certain downs will only help him when it comes time to go through the draft process, too. Armstead still isn't a finished product and admitted afterward that he's still dealing with nagging injuries, but the show he put on against Arizona was one of the best he's had in a Ducks uniform.

Ekpre-Olomu handles big receivers

Oregon senior corner Ifo Ekpre-Olomu answered one of the questions a lot of scouts had about him coming into 2014 with his performance against Arizona. While the opposing offense's passing game was halted early on thanks to the front seven, Ekpre-Olomu made sure nothing got going downfield.

Lining up against three 6-foot-3 receivers throughout the game, Ekpre-Olomu was unaffected by their length and successfully played press and off-man against them all. The Wildcats didn't try to throw his way much, but when they did, the corner was nearby and didn't allow much of a window.

Also encouraging was his ability to come up in run support and make tackles. He's still small for a next-level prospect given the increasing trend of bigger corners in the NFL, but Ekpre-Olomu finished with five tackles and forced a fumble. His size makes him a liability to be run over, but he's not somebody who is afraid of contact.

Jake Fisher has up-and-down game

When Arizona knocked off Oregon earlier in the year, many pointed to the fact that the Ducks' offensive line was missing left tackle Jake Fisher. He was in the lineup for the rematch, however, and was part of the reason why the Wildcats recorded no sacks and just two tackles for loss.

Fisher has solid size at 6-foot-6, 330 pounds, but based on the way he played on Friday, he might be better suited to a move inside to guard in a vein similar to current Dallas Cowboys rookie Zach Martin, who transitioned from tackle to guard out of Notre Dame.

The positives? He was very strong at the point of attack on running plays and typically handled his one-on-one blocks during pass protection. However, he drew a holding call and had several uncharacteristic false starts. It wasn't his best game for the team, but it was enough to keep a good pocket for Mariota and seal off the edge for running backs to hit the corner.

Scooby Wright III, Jared Tevis get run all over for Arizona

There are few bright spots in a 38-point blowout, but the Wildcats' defensive coaches at least won't harp too much on linebacker Scooby Wright III and teammate Jared Tevis.

Wright is up for just about every major defensive award in college football after a standout campaign but was mainly caught chasing down Oregon tailbacks or dropping into coverage to stop Mariota in the passing game. Considering how much the defense was on the field, it wasn't surprising to see him rack up 14 tackles and a tackle for loss, but it was a somewhat quiet outing for the star on a big stage.

Wright is just a sophomore, so he's got time to grow and already is well-built with a stout upper body. The Ducks tried to run away from him most of the night, so it's a testament to his ability to track the ball that he hit double-digit tackles. He'll likely want to forget what happened on Friday, but it should signal another step in improving as a linebacker and will allow everybody to focus on him more next season when he's a junior.

Often lining up on the outside away from Wright, Tevis often found himself in the middle of the play when the Ducks tried to run to the outside. He led the Wildcats in tackles with 15 (10 of which were solo) and was seen flying around all game long. He's listed as a safety, but the senior plays closer to the box than many others in the team's Bandit position. Tevis is a sure tackler and has the look of a special-teams star at the next level while plugging holes in various special packages that can utilize his instincts near the line of scrimmage.

You can follow Bryan Fischer on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.

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