Wildcats learned plenty in sobering loss to Rose Bowl-caliber Ducks

Phil Knight, the long-time Nike czar and financial generator behind Oregon’s football empire, walked almost incognito through the press box suites Saturday night at Arizona Stadium.

He was dressed in black, wearing dark glasses, a contented expression on his 84-year-old face.

Knight began pouring tens of millions of dollars into the long-deficient Oregon football program in the late 1990s. About all that the Ducks have failed to accomplish over those 25 years is to win the Big One, a national championship.

Arizona athletic director Dave Heeke was working in Oregon’s athletic department at the time Knight chose to bless the Ducks with his fortune. On Saturday, he and Knight chatted amiably in Heeke’s press box suite.

What could they possibly say to each other?

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Heeke: “You guys are as dominant as always, Phil. Very impressive.

Knight: “Oh, hang in there, Dave. You’ll figure it out someday.”

Based on the Ducks dominating 49-22 victory over the Wildcats, the definition of “someday” is open to wide interpretation.

At one point the Ducks scored on seven consecutive possessions, driving 75, 90, 86, 75, 75, 39 and 47 yards for touchdowns, never requiring more than 4 minutes and 13 seconds to do so. At that point, leading 49-13, Oregon averaged exactly 10 yards per play.

It was a sobering reminder that Arizona’s reconstruction project is at its beginning stage.

“We were able to impose our will at times and play with physicality,” said Oregon coach Dan Lanning. “It’s always good to dominate your opponent rushing the ball.”

And that was the sugar coated version from the winning coach.

As much progress as Arizona has made in the 22 months since Jedd Fisch was hired — the Wildcats are five times more skilled than they were under Kevin Sumlin and 10 times more organized and purposeful — you couldn’t feel much of those gains Saturday.

The Ducks did not come to Tucson merely hoping to survive and advance. They played with the ambition and intent to bury Arizona and, if nothing else, get back into serious consideration for the college football playoffs.

Consider this: Leading 28-10 with 10 seconds remaining in the first half, Oregon’s Lanning called timeout in an attempt to ice Arizona field-goal kicker Tyler Loop. Really? It was a meaningless kick in what had turned into a lopsided game, but Lanning nevertheless wore his game face.

Maybe that’s how you become a consistent Rose Bowl contender: You never take your foot off the gas.

“You either win or you learn,” said Fisch. “In this case, we learned.”

They learned they need two or three more strong recruiting classes before they can hope to challenge a team like Oregon at the top of the Pac-12.

The disquieting night at Arizona Stadium began with a near-capacity crowd of 50,800 hopeful fans and ended with the reality that the not-ready-for-prime-time Wildcats could lose every game the rest of the season.

It was a lesson on what it takes to play with the Big Boys in college football. Midway through the third quarter, with the Ducks safely leading by 29 points, Oregon’s second-team defense swarmed UA quarterback Jayden de Laura, sacking him and forcing a fumble that the Ducks turned into a touchdown in what seemed like a Usain Bolt 100-meter run. sprint.

At that point, about 35,000 of those fans vacated the premises.

Oregon quarterback Bo Nix, a three-year starter at Auburn who transferred to Oregon a few months ago, came off as one of the greatest Bos in college football history, somewhere in the company of Bo Schembechler and Bo Jackson.

After three quarters, Nix completed 19 of 22 passes for 261 yards and rushed for another 70. He was rarely touched, rarely under duress. By comparison, de Laura was surrounded by Ducks everywhere, on almost every play. How can you produce Nix-type numbers with that type of pressure?

Yet it’s my opinion that de Laura is as good a college quarterback as Nix. He’s more mobile, a more elusive runner, throws a better deep ball and plays with more imagination. But you could have never guessed as much Saturday because Oregon’s defense was so bigger, faster and stronger — so much more talented — than Arizona’s offensive personnel. It was a mismatch, one that can be traced to the recruiting shortcomings of Rich Rodriguez and Kevin Sumlin.

It all comes down to recruiting, and Arizona hasn’t out recruited the Ducks since about 1998.

Over the last four recruiting classes, Oregon has ranked No. 3, No. 9, No. 7 and No. 13 nationally, according to Rivals.com. Arizona has never had a class ranked that high since recruiting services were created 20 years ago. Fisch’s first full recruiting class, 2022, was ranked No. 21 by Rivals.com, which was a cause for celebration in Tucson.

At Oregon, it would’ve been considered a slim harvest.

De Laura surely knew what he was getting into when he transferred to Arizona. He started against the Ducks as Washington State’s quarterback in 2020 and 2021, and although he passed for 601 yards with four touchdowns, the Cougars were overwhelmed by the Ducks, who accumulated 1,022 yards and 81 points in those games.

Saturday night was a repeat.

When Oregon’s Knight and Arizona’s Heeke went their separate ways after Saturday’s game, they had totally different itineraries.

The Ducks legitimately can win out and finish 11-1. They have home games against the most fearful teams remaining on their schedule: UCLA and Utah, and they don’t play USC. By comparison, Arizona embarks on an imposing series of games that could be painful to watch.

At the start of the fourth quarter, Knight left his press box suite and stood on the 20-yard line near the Ducks bench. He was accompanied by a security guard, some other rich guys and the anticipation of a colossal Oct. 22 showdown against the suddenly-steamrolling UCLA Bruins.

Across the field, the Arizona team, its coaches and support staff almost outnumbered those remaining in the nearly-vacated Zona Zoo. Instead of anticipation, there is now apprehension.

Contact sports columnist Greg Hansen at 520-573-4362 or ghansen@tucson.com. On Twitter: @ghansen711

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