Steven Montez had another out of body experience at Autzen Stadium.
This time Andy Avalos’ defense turned the dynamic dual-threat quarterback’s field of dreams into a house of horrors as No. 13 Oregon turned four Montez interceptions into 21 points during a 45-3 thrashing of Colorado in front of a crowd of 50,529.
The Ducks (5-1, 3-0) will take the North Division lead and the Pac-12’s best defense to Seattle next weekend for the annual grudge match with Washington.
“I think you look back to the spring,” coach Mario Cristobal said of the improvement the defense has made even since leading the team to a 7-6 win over Michigan State in the Redbox Bowl to end the 2018 season. “It was a complete transformation.”
Oregon has held five consecutive opponents to single digits scoring for the first time since 1958.
During Colorado’s 41-38 win at Autzen in 2016, Montez made his first start for the injured Sefo Liufau. The redshirt freshman passed for 333 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 135 yards and another score.
Now a fifth-year senior, Montez finished with 143 yards of total offense (131 passing, 12 rushing) and no end zone celebrations in the rematch.
“I was here watching that whole game, and that was super disappointing,” said safety Brady Breeze, who redshirted during Brady Hoke’s disastrous season as defensive coordinator. “It just shows the difference of the defenders we have and the difference of the culture we have. …
“(Montez) was their backup at the time. He came in and absolutely dominated.”
With a horde of NFL personnel looking on from the press box, Justin Herbert was 18-for-32 passing for 261 yards and two touchdowns.
The Ducks’ star quarterback had a lot of help.
CJ Verdell bounced back from last week’s sprained ankle against California to rush for 171 yards on 14 carries (12.2 yards per).
Cyrus Habibi-Likio, who scored the go-ahead touchdown in the 17-7 win over the Bears, bulled his way in for three goal-line touchdowns against the Buffaloes.
Wide receiver Jaylon Redd had a touchdown catch and a touchdown run.
And Avalos’ defense finished with 10 tackles for losses, eight quarterback hurries and the four turnovers. Montez had only thrown two interceptions in the first five games for the Buffaloes (3-3, 1-2).
“It’s a lot of fun,” Herbert said of the complementary football Oregon has been playing during his senior season. “When they play like that, it makes our job so much easier. It’s fun supporting them and watching them because they’re playing very good defense right now.”
The only negative for Oregon was losing two of the team’s most consistent and productive players, tight end Jacob Breeland and safety Jevon Holland, to left leg injuries in the first half. Star linebacker Troy Dye was also on the sideline following his friendly fire collision with Holland.
Cristobal said Breeland’s status will have to be further evaluated, but the injuries to Holland and Dye are not believed to be serious.
The Ducks didn’t miss a beat without the three starters.
Redshirt freshman Verone McKinley returned his second interception 53 yards to set up a 3-yard touchdown run by Habibi-Likio to make the score 38-3 with 10:40 remaining in the third quarter.
Then Montez had a deep pass hit off the back of Laviska Shenault’s leg and picked off by junior safety Nick Pickett in the end zone.
On fourth-and-1 at the Oregon 12, Montez’s completion to Dimitri Stanley was blown up by Haki Woods for a 3-yard loss.
“I was so excited for Haki. He hasn’t really been able to get a chance because Jevon has been balling,” Breeze said of Woods, who finished with six tackles. “Then when Jevon went down, Haki got his shot and he just showed us he’s been working in practice and next man up.”
Verdell broke free for a 71-yard run to set up Habibi-Likio’s touchdown hat trick, which capped the scoring with 14:36 remaining.
Montez’s last pass of the first half and first pass of the second half were intercepted and cashed in for 14 points by Oregon.
McKinley made the first pick in the end zone and tipped the second turnover that was grabbed out of the air by linebacker Bryson Young.
“Verone is one of the smartest players you’ll see. He knows everyone’s assignment,” Cristobal said. “The guy really is a student of the game, and all of his confidence is paying off. He has the confidence of his teammates.”
Herbert threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Redd to extend the lead to 31-3 with 12:54 remaining in the third quarter.
The Ducks led 24-3 at the intermission the wild 14-point swing at the end of the second quarter.
Colorado had the ball at the Oregon 1-yard line before a false start and a holding penalty resulted in third-and-goal from the 11.
Montez threw a pass into the corner of the end zone tight end Brady Russell. Woods, who was in the nickel package due to Holland’s injury, tipped the ball, and McKinley made his spectacular interception with 1:27 remaining in the half.
“I’ve seen it all spring, I’ve seen it all summer,” Redd said of McKinley’s play-making abilities. “He just needed the opportunity. He’s always been one of the smarter players on the defense, definitely. So he kind of sees stuff before it happens.”
A personal foul penalty on Colorado and a 39-yard strike from Herbert to Mycah Pittman led to Redd’s 3-yard touchdown run with 24 seconds left to make it a three-touchdown lead at the break.
Oregon outscored Colorado 17-0 in the second quarter with Camden Lewis making a 32-yard field goal and Habibi-Likio scoring a 1-yard touchdown to make the score 17-3.
“It’s Cyrus’ turn,” Cristobal said. “He’s earned it and he’s made the most of it.”
On the opening drive, Herbert let a high snap slip through his grasp for a 19-yard loss but connected with Redd for a 22-yard completion on the next snap.
Herbert found Breeland for a 7-yard touchdown on third-and-goal to open the scoring.
After the defense forced a three-and-out, the Ducks were in position to add to the lead but Verdell dropped a pass on fourth-and-3 at the Colorado 19.
James Stefanou made a 27-yard field goal to cut the Buffaloes’ deficit to 7-3 with 2:46 remaining in the first quarter. However, the junior placekicker’s 33-yard try in the fourth quarter hit the upright.
It was that kind of night for the Buffaloes, who were herded out of town by a balanced Oregon team with Pac-12 championship aspirations.
“I feel like how they’re playing, they’re taking weight off our shoulders,” Redd said of the defense. “At the same time, I’m putting weight on my shoulders because I want to help them so much. I see they’re busting their behinds, making everything right, getting three-and-outs on almost every drive.”
Follow Ryan Thorburn on Twitter @RGDuckFootball and email podcast mailbag questions to email@example.com. For more Oregon sports coverage, visit DuckSports.com.