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Defense digs in

EUGENE — Oregon’s defense helped to win the Pac-12 championship.

That’s something first-year coordinator Don Pellum is quite proud of, especially considering how shaky his unit looked during the early stages of the transition.

In the 51-13 victory over Arizona at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., the Ducks (12-1) held the Wildcats to 224 total yards of offense and two second-half touchdowns after the game was already out of reach.

The fundamentals Pellum has been preaching about since replacing the retired Nick Aliotti are starting to pay off.

“The thing we did is what we’ve been talking about all year. We played our gap control, we got off blocks, we didn’t miss a lot of tackles and we communicated well,” Pellum said. “The couple times we didn’t communicate, (Arizona) scored. It’s kind of indicative of all the things we’ve been talking about.”

South Dakota, an FCS team that finished 2-10 and 10th in the Missouri Valley Conference, piled up 370 yards against Oregon in the season opener on Aug. 30.

After allowing Michigan State to score on four consecutive possessions while building a 27-18 lead, the Ducks mixed up their coverages and started getting pressure on quarterback Connor Cook during Oregon’s 46-27 comeback win over the Spartans.

Wyoming had 439 total yards with a 100-yard rusher and a 100-yard receiver. Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday passed for 427 yards and four touchdowns.

But Marcus Mariota’s magic kept the Ducks unbeaten.

Missed assignments and tackles finally cost Oregon during the 31-24 loss to Arizona. The Wildcats scored 21 points in the decisive third quarter, finished with 495 yards of offense and scored the winning touchdown after Tony Washington was called for unsportsmanlike conduct celebrating a sack.

“We’re not going to let any loss define us as a team,” senior linebacker Derrick Malone said after the Ducks’ championship dreams appeared to be dashed.

Since the Oct. 2 defeat, Oregon has given up an average of 22.0 points per game.

“The last half of the season, we’ve practiced hard,” Pellum said. “Hard and smart. There’s no question the way we’ve practiced has made a difference in the performance on the field.”

After giving up 30.5 points per game in October, the Duck defense got stronger in November (18.0 ppg) and then dominated Arizona in the December rematch.

“That was probably the best performance we’ve had,” defensive end Arik Armstead said of the Pac-12 championship game. “We’re turning it on at the right time I think, growing throughout the year and getting a lot better. Young guys are stepping up, and we’re going to need them to continue that.”

Oregon’s defense, which has lost all-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu to season-ending knee injury, is preparing for a Florida State (13-0) offense averaging 34.8 points, 134.8 yards rushing and 299.8 yards passing this season.

Jameis Winston has completed 65.4 percent of his passes for 3,559 yards with 24 touchdowns and 17 interceptions.

Wide receiver Rashad Greene (1,306 yards, seven touchdowns) and Mackey Award-winning tight end Nick O’Leary (614 yards, six touchdowns) are the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner’s top targets. Running backs Dalvin Cook and Karlos Williams have combined for 1,514 yards and 18 touchdowns.

“I think their offense is totally different than the offenses we’ve been facing. It’s a pro-style offense,” Pellum said. “There’s no chinks in the armor. They’re really good. It will be an exciting opportunity for us to see what we can put together.”

Oregon defensive end Arik Armstead (center) said the Pac-12 championship game 'was probably the best performance we’ve had.' AP PHOTO