No. 5 Oregon picked a bad time to stray from what made it a national championship contender, as the team that flourished on guiding opponents into critical mistakes fell out of the Pac-12 title race in two losses punctuated with miscues.
The Ducks' 42-16 loss Saturday at Arizona wasn't the result of bad breaks, peculiar plays or any other fluky turn of events. They were beaten badly in the trenches and missed opportunities due to uncharacteristic mental errors.
Such is the case in each of Oregon's losses. Stanford dominated up front in its Nov. 7 defeat of the Ducks. Arizona learned from the Cardinal's game plan; Oregon didn't. The Wildcats dared the Ducks to stop the rush, giving junior running back Ka'Deem Carey 48 carries—three more than Stanford back Tyler Gaffney had two weeks ago.
Carey also did more with the heightened workload at 206 yards and four touchdowns. In the process, he set the program's career rushing yardage and touchdown records. The All-American was particularly unstoppable when it counted the most, leading the Wildcats in conversion of 11 of their 16 third-down attempts.
Oregon's inability to stop Carey—or teammate and quarterback B.J. Denker, who was 19-of-22 passing and rushed for 102 yards—confirmed Ducks senior wide receiver Josh Huff's statement to reporters earlier in the week that playing in the Rose Bowl was passe.
Of course, losing at Stanford meant the conference's automatic bid to the Rose Bowl was no longer a consolation prize, but the BCS brass ring for which Oregon had to strive.
Fate dealt Oregon a favorable hand last week when Stanford lost at USC. The Ducks were back in control of the Pac-12 North, and at No. 5 in the BCS standings, they're not completely eliminated from the championship race.
Fate in football is fickle, though. It's also self-determined. There's inherent irony in Oregon being denied the Rose Bowl against the one pre-expansion Pac-12 member to never reach the Granddaddy of 'Em All.
The Ducks weren't entirely listless. Running back De'Anthony Thomas had an impressive individual performance, including one of the most spectacular receptions made in the Pac-12 this season.
Thomas' grab is particularly noteworthy because dropped passes were a recurring issue, including on sophomore quarterback Marcus Mariota's first interception of the entire season.
Arizona cornerback Shaquille Richardson had to make a spectacular play more likely to be seen at McKale Center than Arizona Stadium when he tipped the ball to linebacker Scooby Wright while falling out of bounds. But the carom off wide receiver Bralon Addison's hands made Richardson's highlight-reel effort possible.
Addison's was one of several drops that kept the Ducks' hurry-up offense from ever establishing its rhythm.
Despite this, Mariota battled. He played through the left knee injury that has slowed him down this month to throw for 308 yards and two touchdowns. Mariota would have had his first rushing touchdown since being injured too, but a holding penalty negated his end-zone scamper.
The flag was indicative of Oregon's costly, self-inflicted mistakes that cost the Ducks both the conference championship and a shot at the Rose Bowl.