Defense wilts in second half as Ducks fall

EUGENE — After weeks of questioning about how effective they could be throughout the 2014 season, the Oregon defense showed that there were enough cracks physically and mentally to validate the skepticism on Thursday night against Arizona.

A stingy first half gave way to open floodgates in the final thirty minutes, and the unranked Wildcats left Autzen Stadium and Rich Brooks Field with its second consecutive victory over the Ducks, 31-24.

Sure, the Oregon offense struggled with Arizona’s 3-3-5 defensive scheme, but following a three-point first half effort, there was a feeling that as long as the defense held firm, the offense would find a rhythm and put away the Wildcats.

Instead, after allowing only 172 first half yards, the defense wilted in the third quarter and shot itself in the foot with costly mistakes and penalties down the stretch.

“We could’ve played so much better and we were off to a really good start,” defensive coordinator Don Pellum said. “Then we lost some momentum along the way.”

The most egregious mistake came from linebacker Tony Washington, whose unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after a third down sack late in the fourth quarter gave Arizona the opening it needed for the game-winning touchdown.

Teris Jones-Grigsby, who led the Wildcats with 115 yards rushing and 95 yards receiving, punched in the touchdown at the goal line with 2:54 left, moments before Marcus Mariota had the ball, and game, ripped from his hands by Scooby Wright on the Ducks final possession.

Arizona freshman running back Nick Wilson (13 carries, 92 yards) was a main catalyst along with backfield mate Jones-Grigsby and quarterback Anu Soloman, who finished 20-of-31 for 287 yards passing, 217 of which came in the final two quarters.

In the third quarter, the Wildcats racked up 221 yards of total offense, subsequently stunning the Ducks and showing why they came into the game as the conference leader in total offense.

“I think somewhere in the third quarter, we lost our intensity,” defensive coordinator Don Pellum said. “That’s what I saw.”

Wilson tacked on three scores in the third quarter alone, two from short distance near the goal line and another on a 38-yard catch and run from Soloman that put the Wildcats up by 10 points near the end of the third quarter.

But, while Arizona scored on four of their five second half drives (excluding the drive to run out the clock), Oregon did its share to help. A pass interference call on Reggie Daniels, who had a first half interception, set up Wilson’s first touchdown from three yards out and another one on Ifo Ekpre-Olomu set up his second one.

There was the defensive lapse that led to a 24-yard run by Jones-Grigsby on 3rd and 20 from the 33 yard line on Arizona’s final scoring drive and then there was Washington’s penalty moments later and a subsequent pass interference call on Troy Hill that sealed their fate.

“There was nothing in the first half/second half that was any different,” secondary coach John Neal said. “There was just a couple of series where they got the best of us and we didn’t stop them and that cost us the game.”

Losing defensive end Arik Armstead to injury certainly didn’t help. Pellum was unsure of how much his loss affected the defense, but it might not have mattered the way Arizona and head coach Rich Rodriguez took advantage of a lost looking defense in the final frames.

With a trip to Pasadena and a meeting with UCLA on the horizon, the defense will face the same questions once again. The battle for the Pac-12 title will be hotly contested and if the Ducks want to be a part of it they’ll need to avoid falling into a funk, something the some of the staff has a history of combating.

“I’m thinking Boise a few years ago,” Neal said. “We didn’t blink an eye after that loss and that was one of the worst losses I’ve ever been around in my life, just the whole game. And we went on to do some good things.”

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