EUGENE, Ore. -- Oregon has become one of those programs that is evaluated like a binary code -- wons or zeroes. It's either winning every game as a national title contender or it is not. That was the case the previous two seasons, one that ended with a loss in the national title game and the other with a Rose Bowl victory.
And that appears to be the case again in 2012.
Oregon's blowout victory over No. 22 Arizona was an impressive win, but it was the "zero" in a 49-0 shutout that probably raised the most eyebrows across the college football nation.
On a night when the Ducks' offense sputtered early, it was the defense that stepped to the fore. Six times Arizona found itself in the red zone, and yet the bagel remained on the scoreboard. Heck, the Ducks' defense chipped in a pair of pick-sixes to win the day even without the offense's second-half assertion of will.
"It's a total team," Ducks coach Chip Kelly said.
They say "defense wins championships." "They," over the past six seasons, have mostly been SEC fans clucking about why their conference is hoisting a crystal football and others are not.
In the preseason, there was plenty of talk that the Ducks might have their best defense since their national uptick began in 2007. Yet big early leads against overmatched foes in the first three games yielded middling statistics: 24.3 points per game, 357.3 yards per game and 4.7 yards per play. Further, safety John Boyett, a potential All-American and four-year starter, was lost for the year to a knee injury.
So there were questions about how optimistic preseason projections were going to mesh with in-season reality.
Arizona arrived in Autzen Stadium unbeaten and featuring an offense that averaged 46.3 points and 604.7 yards per game, numbers rolled up against a schedule that included then-18th-ranked Oklahoma State.
It left with a zero laughing at it on the scoreboard.
"For any defense to pitch a shutout is just such an accomplishment," Oregon linebacker Michael Clay said. "It gives you confidence that we can do it to any team."
Kelly has long resisted the notion that his program has played anything but first-rate defense. The problem with posting fancy statistics was the Ducks' offense worked so fast, the defense would face more plays and possessions than an average team. More plays and more possessions inevitably led to more points and yards. Folks in the football office would point out that the Ducks' yards-per-play numbers on defense compared favorably to many of the nation's top units, but that often seemed obscure in a business that doesn't typically celebrate subtleties.
"Here it is hard to have great defensive statistics," coordinator Nick Aliotti said. "But most of the time you look at those numbers because you're losing."
Then he added, "The most important stat is the W."
True. And Oregon got that in its first test of the season, improving to 4-0 overall and 1-0 in Pac-12 play. The Ducks play Washington State in Seattle next weekend.
Yet Aliotti, a highly regarded coach who has often found ways to get his unit to play well enough to win without a bevy of budding NFL talent, admitted after the game that he was very aware of the void on the visitor's side of the scoreboard.
"Selfishly," he said, "I wanted the shutout."
This was the Ducks' first shutout in a conference game since a 35-0 blanking of Stanford in 2003. The Ducks last shut out Arizona in 1964, before the Wildcats joined the conference. In 2010, they shut out Portland State, an FCS team, 69-0.
Arizona finished with just 332 yards on 84 plays, an average of 4.0 yards per play. TCU, ranked ninth in total defense, gives up 4.39 yards per play (4.0 yards per play would rank eighth in the nation).
The Wildcats were 6-of-17 on third down and 0-for-4 on fourth down. Oregon had only one sack and just six tackles for loss, but it forced two fumbles and grabbed four interceptions.
On Oregon's first possession, it failed to convert a fourth-and-2 on its 39-yard line. It felt like a huge risk to take so early in the game on its own side of the field. But Kelly's taking that risk wasn't just about his confidence in his offense.
"I'm not averse to putting our defense on a short field because they can play," he said.
That appears true.
The Ducks' offense didn't post its best performance, though it's difficult to view 495 yards, including 228 yards rushing, as a bad evening.
But the Ducks' defense gives them the look of a national title contender. Again.