EUGENE — Avery Patterson's last "homecoming" football game didn't go well.
Oregon's fierce free safety suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the second quarter of the Ducks' 59-17 domination of California on Nov. 10, 2012, at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley.
Patterson, who grew up nearby in the East Bay city of Pittsburg, Calif., watched in agony a week later as Stanford put Oregon's national championship blueprint through the shredder at Autzen Stadium.
"It was one of the hardest things I've been through," Patterson said. "But last year is behind us. Hopefully, we can get the win this year."
Naturally, Patterson wondered throughout a winter of discontent if he would have made the difference in the Ducks' 17-14 overtime loss to the Cardinal. But having to recover from a serious injury forced him to move forward one monotonous workout at a time.
"I just wanted to attack my rehab and the situation as a whole. I couldn't sit back and wait for it to heal," Patterson said, who will get another shot at the Cardinal when the No. 2 Ducks visit No. 6 Stanford Thursday. "I felt like I had to do the work, and it paid off. I went to practices and helped teach. It gave me a different viewpoint. I'm glad I went through it."
Patterson's hard work certainly paid off for the Ducks in the last game, a 42-14 victory over UCLA. The senior jumped off the television screen and the stat sheet, finishing with seven tackles, three for losses, and returning an interception 34 yards to set up an Oregon touchdown for a 28-14 lead in the fourth quarter.
"It was a game where he had opportunities and capitalized. He's a really good football player, and everyone knows that," Oregon secondary coach John Neal said. "I've got some really good friends in the league that talk about him all the time. He's been such a productive player."
Through eight games, Patterson is third on the team with 42 tackles behind linebacker Derrick Malone (69) and cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu (44).
The 5-foot-10, 189-pound ball of aggression is also second on the team with two interceptions and six passes defensed behind cornerback Terrance Mitchell (four interceptions, seven passes defensed).
"Pound for pound, I think he's the toughest guy on the team," Ekpre-Olomu said. "I feel like playing with Avery, I know I'm playing with someone who's going to have my back in a game and protect me."
Patterson redshirted in 2009 and intercepted a pass against New Mexico during his first collegiate snap in 2010.
Coaches and teammates have had a hard time matching No. 21's intensity behind the scenes over the years.
"My favorite thing about Avery? That he's from Pittsburg and he's a short little tough guy," said defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, who is also from Pittsburg. "He's a competitive kid and he's a fighter, and I love that about him. The guy does not want to lose. He doesn't want to lose in a drill, he doesn't want to lose in a team situation, he gets upset if you correct him because he doesn't want to be wrong. Some of that is good, some of that, at times, is not as good. But I love that fight in him and that competitive nature."
Most of the Ducks are competitive and work hard. That's why the "win-the-day" approach has led to four consecutive BCS bowls and has the program in position for another title shot this year.
What also helps Patterson stand out on a talented roster is a rooted knowledge of the game and having the instincts to see plays developing a split-second ahead of time.
"That's the one magical part of recruiting and evaluation I wish I could figure out, but you can't. There's intelligence in the X's and O's, the books and all that, and then there is intelligence in how people see and react to things," Neal said. "I'm sure there is a higher IQ for a guy like Avery because he can see things quicker than most players. "¦ He has just been very special."
Neal said Patterson was so eager to return from his injury that he was ready to play before the incision healed.
"I'm very proud of Avery. He worked so hard to come back," Aliotti said. "You knew he would, or die trying."
Patterson said classmates like Michael Clay, who did not take a redshirt year, are constantly texting him to say they would give anything to be on the field alongside him this season. He will do his best to represent them and Pittsburg on Thursday at Stanford.
"One last homecoming for me. Going back to the Bay Area, I'll be playing in front of a lot of family and friends," Patterson said. "There's so many people who wish they could have been apart of this now. "¦ It's just a blessing to be a part of a team like this."