Game of the Week: Oregon battles Arizona for Rose Bowl life
Four teams remain alive in the Pac-10, but Arizona and Oregon control their fates
Arizona's D must stop Oregon's lethal rushing attack, which is the Pac-10's best
An Oregon win would likely set up an epic Civil War matchup with Oregon State
Upsets may have eliminated the Pac-10's best from national title contention, but with four teams still alive in the Rose Bowl hunt and the (admittedly remote) possibility of a six-way tie in place, there isn't a more compelling race in football.
The murky conference-title picture should assume something close to clarity this weekend when Arizona and Oregon, the two teams still in control of their own destinies, meet in Tucson. The winner's BCS hopes will remain intact, while the loser will be left out.
Not that the winner's road will be clear. If the Ducks win and Oregon State beats 32 ½-point underdog Washington State, the Civil War on Dec. 3 would determine the conference champion. The Wildcats face an even tougher road, as trips to Arizona State and USC remain.
"We know we've got to win to stay in the big picture," Arizona coach Mike Stoops said. "There's a lot of football to be played, but pretty much it'll be over if we don't win."
Three and Out
1. Can the Wildcats handle the pressure? The Stoops era has been a slow revival, tempting fans with upsets before confounding them with yearly collapses. But now, Stoops has Arizona three wins from its first Rose Bowl berth.
Still, concerns remain. Last weekend's 24-16 loss to Cal trimmed the margin for error and raised doubts over Arizona's legitimacy as a Top 25 team. Back in the rankings for the first time since the end of 2000, the Wildcats posted their lowest points and rushing totals of the season and budding star quarterback Nick Foles delivered his third straight sub-250 yard performance. And, reverting to their error-prone ways of old, they allowed three sacks after giving up just four through their first eight games. Things weren't much better on defense, as the conference's No. 2 unit wilted, yielding eight points in the final 4:46.
The loss cast doubts as to whether a group of players unaccustomed to being in the hunt this late can handle the pressure -- which increases tenfold with the Pac-10's top-ranked scoring offense and defense on deck.
2. Can anything slow Oregon's running game? Tailback LaMichael James is coming off his fifth straight 100-yard game and seventh since taking over for LeGarrette Blount. That, combined with quarterback Jeremiah Masoli's 62 yards per game on the ground, gives Oregon the Pac-10's most lethal rushing attack (233.5 per).
Arizona's front seven has been the strength of the Wildcats' No. 18 defense, recording 26 sacks and allowing 104.8 rush yards per game. But the unit has struggled against dangerous runners like Stanford's Toby Gerhart (123 yards, two touchdowns), Washington quarterback Jake Locker (92, one), Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers (85, two) and Cal's Shane Vereen (159, one). James and Masoli enter the game as the Pac-10's second- and eighth-ranked rushers.
Despite those struggle, the 'Cats boast the personnel to make things interesting. To give 'Zone a chance, defensive end Ricky Elmore and linebackers Xavier Kelley and Vuna Tuihalamaka must prevent James and Masoli from getting into the open field.
3. How will the Ducks fare in their House of Horrors? Arizona Stadium has been like the Bermuda Triangle for Oregon, the place where its quarterbacks disappear. Four years ago, Kellen Clemens broke his ankle in Tucson; two years ago, Dennis Dixon's season ended, as did Oregon's BCS hopes.
But for Ducks coach Chip Kelly, who was in his first year as Oregon's offensive coordinator during that 2007 loss, the past has no bearing on the present. "We don't look at things in a rearview mirror," he said. "We're all about going forward and playing. What happened in the past really doesn't have any effect on us."
Even if the past doesn't concern Kelly, this piece of recent history should: This season the Wildcats are 5-0 at home, where they've scored 8.5 more points per game than on the road and held opponents to 13.5 less. The Ducks have sustained both their losses on the road (Boise State and Stanford) and against efficient passers. Foles, Arizona's signal-caller, boasts a completion percentage near 70.
Scouting Report: Arizona's Offense
The Arizona offense has come alive since Foles took over at quarterback. To find out how teams prepare for it, I spoke with Northern Arizona defensive coordinator Andy Thompson, who faced the Wildcats this season. Here's what he had to say:
"They can line up and run right at you. They're a tough, physical, very hard-nosed team, and then they have the game where they can spread you out and throw the football with a passing game that's very efficient. They make you cover the whole field. They have the ability to do both and it makes it very difficult on a defense.
"[Running back Nic Grigsby] is very quick, but also does a very good job running the ball toward the inside for some very tough yardage. He's electric. He's the best back we've played this year. We played Ole Miss, too, and I thought he was as good as anybody.
"You have to be able to disguise your coverages, you have to be able to disguise your blitzes, but I think the biggest thing is tackling. They have so many good athletes that if you're in space and they get the ball to them quickly, you have to be able to tackle their playmakers and not give them yards after catch. They make a living off of short throws or the running game where they make yards after the catch."
Tweet of the Week
Each week I'll feature the best prediction or trash talk on the week's featured matchup. Follow me to make your entry and check out the pairing for next week's Game of the Week.
As was evidenced last week, Arizona isn't an elite team. Their record was only strong b/c they hadn't got to the meat of schedule.
Oregon 34, Arizona 27. With Foles and Grigsby (who is returning from injury), the Wildcats boast the firepower to turn this one into a shootout. They also field an underrated defense that can pressure Masoli. Add in the Ducks' erratic play on the road and this has the potential to be the latest Pac-10 upset. But Oregon's fast, physical defense will disrupt an Arizona offense predicated on timing, and that will be the difference.
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