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Ducks in a zone since loss to 'Zona

EUGENE — It turns out the loss to Arizona didn’t kill Oregon’s season.

In fact, the stunning setback on the scoreboard made the Ducks stronger by forcing the team to close ranks and turn exposed weaknesses into strengths in practice.

Since the 31-24 defeat Oct. at Autzen Stadium, Oregon is 4-0 and averaging 47.8 points and winning by an average margin of 21 points.

During Mark Helfrich’s Sunday press conference, the coach said the players have been more competitive and shown a greater sense of urgency over the last month.

“Unfortunately, sometimes it’s adversity in the form of a loss that wakes everybody up,” Helfrich said. “You don’t want to lose, but how our guys responded to that and how they came together is very encouraging. And since then we’ve gotten better every week, we’ve competed better every week, we’ve been more physical. We want to continue to do that. You’re always walking that fine line of staying healthy, but hitting, tackling, competing and playing with that edge.”

The Ducks (8-1, 5-1 Pac-12) are expected to move into the top four in the College Football Playoff rankings when the selection committee updates the list Tuesday.

Oregon obviously had plenty of motivation entering Saturday’s 45-16 victory against Stanford. Now that the Ducks have taken two years of frustration out on the two-time defending Pac-12 champions, the focus must quickly shift to a tricky road game at Utah.

The No. 20-ranked Utes (6-2, 3-2) are coming off a 19-16 overtime loss at South Division-leading Arizona State. Last year Utah defeated Stanford in Salt Lake City, and they’ve already knocked off USC this season at home.

“All you have to do is flip on the film or watch the games, and they’re playing lights out, especially on the defensive side of the ball,” Helfrich said.

Oregon, which was also bolstered by the return of left tackle Jake Fisher after the Arizona game, continued to dominate in the run game with 267 yards.

True freshman Royce Freeman (98 yards) came up just shy of his fourth consecutive 100-yard game. Sophomore Thomas Tyner (63 yards, two touchdowns) played the best game of his career considering the opponent.

“Good players make coaches look better,” offensive coordinator Scott Frost after the Ducks finished with 525 total yards against Stanford. “I thought we came off the ball and hit them. Our running backs ran down hill, and our receivers blocked the best they have on the perimeter and sprung a couple of runs. I’m really proud of the way they executed.”

The offensive line’s depth will be tested once again as starting right tackle Matt Pierson was helped off the field after sustaining a knee injury. Defensive end Arik Armstead also left the game after tweaking his sprained ankle.

“Our guys buy into team first and me second. So this group is really coming together in a special way,” Frost said. “We’ve got a lot ground to cover to reach the goals that these guys want to reach, but everything is starting to come together the right way.”

THE LAST STAND: The game was already decided, but Oregon’s final defensive stand was important to Don Pellum’s unit to finish a solid performance against Stanford.

The Cardinal had a first-and-goal at the 6-yard line as the crowd started to thin out at Autzen Stadium:

First down: Raymond Wright was stopped for no gain by Tyree Robinson and Joe Walker.

Second down: DeForest Buckner pressured Kevin Hogan and forced an incompletion.

Third down: Wright rushed for four yards before getting tackled by Buckner.

Fourth down: Patrick Skov was stopped just short of the goal line by Walker and fellow inside linebacker Derrick Malone.

“Against UCLA, we let them back in it and that’s not really what an elite defense is all about,” Malone said. “So we had to be stubborn with the run and not give up any points. I’m proud we didn’t let them get it in there, no matter what the score was or what the time was. We rallied together as men and we stopped them.”

POLL POSITION: Oregon remained No. 5 in the Associated Press poll behind Mississippi State, Florida State, Auburn and Alabama.

TCU moved up from No. 10 to No. 6, and Michigan State moved up from No. 8 to No. 7 as Mississippi fell from No. 7 to No. 12 following its loss to Auburn.

The coaches came to their senses in terms of head-to-head results, moving Oregon up one spot to No. 5 and dropping Michigan State one spot to No. 6.

Oregon freshman running back Royce Freeman (21) came within two yards of his fourth straight 100-yard rushing game Saturday against Stanford. AP PHOTO