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Oregon needs a half to unleash on Arizona

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The box score Saturday morning will show that No. 2 Oregon won the Pacific-12 Conference championship game by embarrassing No. 7 Arizona 51-13. It will tell the early-to-bed reader that Oregon gained 627 yards of total offense and that quarterback Marcus Mariota threw for two touchdowns and ran for three. If he had an ounce of showdog in him, Mariota would have struck a Heisman pose before he left the wet Levi's Stadium grass.

If you didn't see the game, you would surmise the Ducks dominated a top-10 team on their way to coach Mark Helfrich's first conference championship, a 12-1 record and an all-but-official invitation to the Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual semifinal of the first College Football Playoff.

All of that is true, as far as it goes. But the truth is, Oregon needed nearly the entire first half to figure out how to get out of its own way. The statistics won't show how the Ducks overcame their early offensive mistakes (10 first-half penalties!) and the rain-slick conditions.

"Offensively, we were a little bit tight," said Helfrich, the second-year coach. "A bunch of guys that were trying to make it 42-0 on two plays, and that's very difficult."

Oregon might have wanted to play well because of the stakes, or to avenge Arizona's 31-24 victory on Oct. 2.

"We had a lot of motivation going into this game," Mariota said. He added later, "I think, overall, the feelings and emotions of the game kind of got to us a little bit."

Pacific-12 Conference commissioner Larry Scott on Friday hailed the College Football Playoff as a vast improvement over the old poll-and-computer-driven system. Speaking before the conference championship game, Scott pointed out that the selection committee, unlike the voting coaches and media members, actually watches the games.

For a while there, the entire Pac-12 had to hope the selection committee switched over to the MAC championship, or "Shark Tank" or "A Very Grammy Christmas" -- anything but the exhibition staged before 45,618 on a drizzling, misting night.

"I was pounding the table up in the box," Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost said. "Honestly, we should have had a bigger lead earlier. I give a ton of credit to them. If you watch tape of them in the red zone, their defense is really good."

But once the Ducks settled down, they made quick work of the Wildcats. The Mariota who came out of the locker room at halftime, the one who completed all 10 of his third-quarter passes for 121 yards and two touchdowns, is the Heisman guy.

The Wildcats' defense hung in there for some time, but in the end, there's no sugarcoating the its performance. That's the worst any team has played in a meaningful postseason game since Nebraska trailed Miami 34-0 at halftime of the 2001 BCS championship game. Though they trailed only 23-0 at the half, the Wildcats might have outdone the Huskers.

The Arizona that gained at least 450 yards in nine of its 12 games didn't board the flight from Tucson, Arizona. These Wildcats produced 25 yards and two first downs in the first half.

"Well, they played well. We didn't," coach Rich Rodriguez said. Terse may be an understatement. "Outcoached us, outplayed us, did a nice job. We didn't execute well."

The fifth of six consecutive three-and-outs in the first half captured the ineptitude. It began when DaVonte' Neal ran forward to catch a short punt near midfield, smacked into a teammate and went down like he had been decleated. The offense followed with a sack and another sack. On third down, freshman quarterback Anu Solomon avoided a sack by being called for intentional grounding.

By halftime, the Wildcats had lost the game. By the second half, center Steven Gurrola had lost his cool, getting ejected for fighting. His backup, Carter Wood, appeared to lose his lunch at one point just as he snapped the ball, which pretty much summed up the Wildcats' performance.

Solomon, who has battled injuries over the past few weeks, didn't play well in the first half and didn't play at all in the second. His backup, Jesse Scroggins, threw a 69-yard touchdown in the third quarter when the Ducks secondary blew a coverage. Scroggins' backup, Jerrard Randall, ran for a 25-yard touchdown on the game's final play.

Arizona played so poorly that it may have jeopardized what appeared to be a shoo-in bid to the VIZIO Fiesta Bowl. That would have reverberations all the way down the Pac-12's bowl lineup. The long view will say Arizona still won 10 games for only the third time in its history. And maybe the long view will diminish focus on what was an awful night for the Wildcats.

After a slow start, it turned out to be a championship night for the Ducks.