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Ducks rise to the occasion

PASADENA, Calif. — In between the pokes and prods inflicted by the Oregon offense, the Ducks had their own impressive runs of artful matador defense. For much of the first three quarters, it seemed just when UCLA was building momentum, Oregon froze the Bruins in their tracks.

Probably the most eye-catching stat is the 11-for-19 mark UCLA posted on third-downs, including 8-for-11 in the first half. Yes, those numbers were delivered against an Oregon defense that came in last in the Pac-12 in third-down efficiency (45.7 percent) but the unit’s bend-but-don’t-break philosophy was played to perfection in Saturday’s 42-30 victory.

At least for the first 50 minutes.

Case in point: With the Ducks leading 15-3, midway through the second quarter, Oregon middle linebacker Joe Walker bore up the gut on third-and-2 and flattened UCLA running back Nate Starks for a 1-yard loss, the same Walker that beat out last season’s leading tackler, Derrick Malone, then went out and had nine tackles, including two for losses, in a 46-27 victory against then No. 7 Michigan State.

“Our guys were ready to go today,” said Oregon coach Mark Helfrich. “It meant a ton to them in every phase and they earned it.”

The Bruins had to settle for a 41-yard field goal try but the usually reliable Ka’imi Fairbairn missed wide and the Ducks proceeded to march down the field and take a 22-3 lead.

Oregon faced another key defensive series to start the third quarter after the Bruins had scored in the final seconds of the opening half to cut the deficit to 21-10. UCLA had second-and-1 but couldn’t get the first down. Again, the Ducks capitalized as Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota ran into the end zone from 3 yards for a 28-10 lead and Oregon was never threatened again.

Even more impressive was the Ducks played without defensive tackle Arik Armstead, who warmed up before the game but ultimately didn’t play because of an ankle injury.

Erick Dargan, Oregon’s active leader in interceptions with nine, left after making a hard tackle in the second quarter, just as another top defensive back, Ifo-Ekpre Olomu, was getting an ankle wrapped. Both eventually returned to the game.

FISHER MAKES RETURN: The Ducks received some good news when starting left tackle Jake Fisher returned to the starting lineup after missing the last two games with a knee injury. The Ducks had allowed 12 sacks in his absence but didn’t allow any against UCLA.

“I think he’s the best offensive linemen in the league,” said Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost.

The line also helped the run game average 6.3 yards a carry. Royce Freeman, ranked fifth in the FBS in rushing among freshman, finished with 121 yards on 18 carries and scored two touchdowns, becoming the first Oregon rusher to break 100 yards this season.

“I think they took it as a challenge,” Frost said of the offensive line. “Today we ran the ball up to our standards. That opened everything else up. I give a ton of credit to the improvement of the offensive linemen.”

UCLA also struggled with pass protection coming into the game and the Ducks made the Bruins pay early on, as Tony Washington forced a Brett Hundley fumble with blind-side sack, and the ball skipped around before Tui Talia recovered at the UCLA 13.

On the next play, Mariota tight-roped the sideline before diving for the right pylon, helping the Ducks to an 8-0 lead.

NUMBERS RISE: The Ducks increased their winning streak over the Bruins to six games, which extends the longest winning streak since the series began in 1928.

Mariota passed for 210 yards to put him at 7,967 passing yards. He is 339 yards short of passing Danny O’Neil (1991-94) for second on the school’s career list and 380 behind all-time leader Bill Musgrave. Mariota entered the week leading the nation in quarterback rating and now has 32 straight games with a touchdown pass after tossing two against the Bruins.

TROUBLE IN LA?: UCLA coach Jim Mora and defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich were seen arguing on the sideline after Oregon went ahead 15-3 early in the second quarter, Ulbrich at one point handing Mora his headset and notes. The Ducks were averaging 5.1 yards a play through that point of the game and the spat apparently didn’t help as Oregon went on to average 6.9 for the game.