TEMPE, Ariz. — Let’s begin by turning back the clock. For just a few paragraphs. Back four years, almost to the day.
On Nov. 23, 2019, Oregon entered Sun Devil Stadium to face an Arizona State team that had lost four in a row. The No. 6 Ducks were in the College Football Playoff hunt, winners of nine straight, unbeaten in the Pac-12.
Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit were in the broadcast booth. They focused on Oregon’s Justin Herbert, one of the best quarterbacks in the country. But a freshman stole the spotlight. On third-and-long late in the fourth quarter, Jayden Daniels threw a perfect pass to Brandon Aiyuk, streaking down the sideline, the key play in a 31-28 upset win.
Oregon’s CFP hopes were dashed.
Four years later, the Ducks returned to Tempe for the first time since that deflating loss. And the circumstances were remarkably similar. Just like in 2019, Oregon was ranked No. 6. Just like in 2019, the Ducks faced a struggling Arizona State team. And just like in 2019, they had a top quarterback in Bo Nix.
This time, however, Oregon showed no doubt. Nix boosted his Heisman Trophy candidacy and the Ducks cruised to a 49-13 win that never was competitive. Dan Lanning’s team improved to 10-1 and 7-1 in the Pac-12, and with a week to go in the regular season, it’s appropriate to ask two questions:
- Is anybody playing better than Oregon?
- Is anybody playing better than Nix?
“That’s a team that can win a national championship,” said Arizona State coach Kenny Dillingham, who compared the Ducks to 2022 national champion Georgia, which he faced last season as offensive coordinator at Oregon. “If that team runs the table, they deserve that opportunity because that’s one of the best football teams I’ve played in my entire career.”
Even Lanning was impressed.
“We talk about playing to our standard, I think the first half is the definition of standard play for our team,” said the second-year Oregon coach, whose team scored on its first six possessions and jumped to a 42-0 lead.
Bo Nix just continues to put on a show 🤩
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) November 19, 2023
Beating Arizona State, which dropped to 3-8, won’t register much nationally. Dillingham is in the first year of a massive rebuild. The Sun Devils are closer to the team that lost 55-3 at Utah than the one that recently upset UCLA in the Rose Bowl.
But since losing to Washington 36-33 on Oct. 14, the Ducks have won five in a row, beating Washington State, Utah, California, and USC before heading to the desert. Over that stretch, they are averaging 536.6 yards and outscoring opponents by an average of 26.4 points.
“We’re playing at a very high level,” said Nix, who noted the team’s solid play on defense and special teams. “And when you look at our entire offense, there’s not a weakness.”
This isn’t meant to suggest that Oregon is the country’s best team. But as the regular season winds down, the Ducks belong in the conversation. Entering Saturday, the top five teams in the CFP rankings (Georgia, Ohio State, Michigan, Florida State and Washington) had earned their spots. Oregon has work to do. But if the Ducks continue at this pace, they will not have to worry.
Nor will Nix. The Oregon quarterback has been great all season, but he’s getting better. In The Athletic’s Heisman straw poll last week, Nix ranked fourth behind Washington’s Michael Penix, Jr., LSU’s Daniels and Ohio State receiver Marvin Harrison, Jr. After Saturday’s performance, he’s deserving of a bump.
Nix didn’t make spectacular plays Saturday, he just made everything look easy. The only time Oregon was challenged came during its opening series. After two plays, the Ducks faced 3rd-and-11. This was a big moment for Arizona State, a chance to get the Ducks off the field on their first drive.
Nix, however, calmly completed an 18-yard pass to Tez Johnson. Six plays later, Nix completed a 23-yard touchdown pass to tight end Patrick Herbert. He added scoring passes of 49, 16, 45, 71 and 16 yards – all in the first half. Nix finished 24 of 29 for 404 yards, the most efficient day of his career. He left the contest midway through the third quarter.
“He came out hitting all his reads, and it kind of felt like he was just making calls on his own,” Arizona State defensive lineman Dashaun Mallory said. “He’s a field general out there. I have nothing but respect for the guy. He obviously was controlling the entire game.”
Lanning said Nix played exactly how he was supposed to play. He protected the football. He got it to the right playmakers at the right time and he buried an inferior opponent. Every team wants to play its best football at this time of year. Nix is making it possible for the Ducks.
“It’s pretty hard to say that he’s not the best quarterback in the nation,” said Lanning, listing Nix’s stats, noting that the quarterback played only one series in the second half. “We all know what it could have looked like. ”
The rest of the season won’t be as easy. Oregon hosts rival Oregon State on Friday. The Beavers beat the Ducks last season, keeping them out of the Pac-12 championship game. Don’t think Oregon has forgotten. If the Ducks win — which will not be easy — a difficult matchup in the Pac-12 title game may await.
As well as they’re playing, they cannot afford a misstep.
“We’re going to be on a short week here this next week with Oregon State, but I have no doubt what Monday’s going to look like when we hit the practice field because of what these guys embrace,” Lanning said. “They embrace hard. Because with hard, comes results. That’s probably what separates this team.”
(Top photo of Bo Nix: Mark J. Rebilas / USA Today)