EUGENE — Nonconference punching bags Arkansas State, Tennessee Tech, Nicholls and South Dakota.
Pac-12 basement dweller Colorado.
These are some of the weak opponents Arik Armstead has terrorized during his career at Oregon.
Last Saturday at Autzen Stadium, the 6-8, 290-pound junior defensive end picked on someone his own size.
Armstead was dominant when it mattered most against then-No. 7 Michigan State’s sturdy offensive line, helping to turn the tide in the Ducks’ dramatic 46-27 victory.
“I think definitely Arik Armstead stepped up in a big-time situation,” coach Mark Helfrich said on Sunday after reviewing the film. “Some of his best games have not been against our best opponents. That was really encouraging to see his training, his kind of mentality changes pay off.”
Armstead decided to leave Oregon’s NCAA Tournament-bound basketball team last winter and dedicate himself fully to Jim Radcliffe’s football strength and conditioning program.
The dedication paid off late in the Michigan State game as Oregon’s defensive line started to collapse the pocket and apply consistent pressure on quarterback Connor Cook, who had picked the Ducks apart for 45 minutes.
“All football players lift and all football players work out,” Armstead said. “It comes down to your mind-set and going out there and winning those individual matchups and being relentless and playing as hard as you can.”
Armstead finished with a career-high five tackles, including two for loss and a timely sack of Cook.
“We’re happy for him because he made the decision (to focus on one sport), he’s playing football, he’s leading, he’s making plays and it’s all coming together for him,” defensive coordinator Don Pellum said.
DeForest Buckner, Armstead’s 6-7, 290-pound wing man, had seven tackles from the other defensive end spot to lead a robust eight-man rotation up front.
“We knew that this year we’d have to step up and have a bigger leadership role,” Buckner said. “We’re full-time starters now, the older guys are gone, so we knew from the start of the season we had to step up. So far it’s going well.”
Armstead played in 13 games in each of the last two seasons but struggled with injuries throughout.
“He has definitely developed a lot,” Buckner said. “My freshman year (2012) he was hurt the whole year after the first game. It kind of hindered his performance a little because he was hurt and it was his hand. Being a defensive lineman, you need your hands to get off blocks and strike and everything.
“Last year, unfortunately, he got hurt again. His main focus is staying healthy this year and stepping up and being a leader. He’s doing a great job of that.”
Armstead, Buckner and starting nose guard Alex Balducci are all members of the 2012 recruiting class. The trio’s chemistry has eased the transition from rotation guys to the starters at the point of attack in Pellum’s 3-4 scheme.
“It helps a lot,” Armstead said. “Those are my guys, and before we go out there we look each other in the eyes and know it’s go time and we have to get the job done. We’re all helping each other.”
Armstead was a top recruit coming out of Pleasant Grove (Calif.) High. Against Michigan State he certainly lived up to the great expectations Oregon fans had when he committed to the Ducks over a list of powerhouse programs.
“I think I’ve improved in every area. Football is a wide open game, it’s never-ending knowledge of things you can learn,” Armstead said of his development. “The older I get, I’m going to know more and more and more about football, so I think I’m going to continue to get better. …
“People have their own expectations of everybody. I have my own personal expectations and I hold myself to my own standard.”
No. 2 Oregon hosts Wyoming on Saturday at Autzen Stadium (11 a.m., Pac-12 Networks) before the quest for a Pac-12 championship begins.
“I think we saw how (Armstead) can play,” defensive line coach Ron Aiken said. “We’re just hoping that he continues to push and get better, because there’s still room for improvement.”