The showdown has arrived.
When Arizona upset Oklahoma State in the second game of the season, most Wildcat fans looked past last week’s opponent, South Carolina State, and on to the coming match-up with Oregon.
Now, with the day finally at hand, Arizona will face its toughest test of the season and possibly the biggest challenge of the entire year.
Autzen Stadium will be the toughest stadium to play in all season long and having it as the first road test could actually help the Wildcats out further along in the season.
While there has been a lot of talk about the offenses being similar, the style is the only true similarity. Both teams run different plays and have different formations. The read-option is the signature play that both teams use, but besides that, formations and personnel are vastly different.
The biggest difference in personnel is De’Anthony Thomas. He is a playmaker that Arizona, along with almost every other team in the NCAA, lacks. Thomas is a special athlete that scores just about every third time he touches the ball. He is a quick, shifty running back that can score from the backfield or from a pass down field. All eyes will likely be on him on Saturday.
With Thomas gaining most of the attention of offense, little has been said about the team’s leading rusher, Kenjon Barner. The fast-footed running back is the Ducks’ typical running back, lining up behind Marcus Mariota on just about every play. He has six touchdowns on the ground this season and is the featured back in the offense.
On the opposite side of the ball, it is hard to judge the defense. This is solely because of the competition that the Ducks have faced so far. The defense has given up yards and points to lesser opponents, but most of those points came in the second half, when the starters were no longer in the game.
A case can be made that the Ducks only gave up 25 points to a Fresno State team that put up an average of 52 points in the other two games this season, but the comparisons really don’t hold up.
The defense will be tested this weekend as we know that Arizona’s offense can push the gas pedal and score in bunches. The same goes for Arizona’s defense, which struggled to stop Oklahoma State earlier this year, despite being on the winning side of the game.
Players to watch:
#8 QB, Marcus Mariota – The freshman quarterback is a huge key to Oregon’s offense in this game. So far, he hasn’t seen a lot of pressure and hasn’t been tested by a quality defense.
Arizona’s defenders gave up career numbers to Wes Lunt earlier this season, but still forced an interception and a few mistakes. It will be interesting to see how Mariota handles the pressure.
#6 RB, De’Anthony Thomas – There is not a lot more to be said about Thomas that hasn’t already been touched on. He is the best player on Oregon’s team and one of the top players in the country. His quickness and elusiveness is going to give him opportunities to score. It is Arizona’s challenge to make those opportunities few and far between, but Thomas will find ways to get yards.
#24 RB, Kenjon Barner – Barner is a guy that has gone under the radar for Oregon this season so far. He has racked up more rushing yards than anyone else on the team and gone for six touchdowns, but the focus has stuck with Thomas.
As long as the national focus stays where it is, Barner is going to silently hurt teams that can underestimate his ability to perform. If Arizona doesn’t key on him early, he could have a big game similar to the one that LaMichael James had last year in Arizona Stadium.
#96 DE, Dion Jordan – As the only defender on the list, it says a lot about the defense. Jordan is the only player who has stood out for the defense so far, as it has yet to get a full game’s worth of work in.
Jordan is second on the team in tackles and leads the team in sacks. Oregon should blitz often and Jordan may be in prime position to increase his numbers if the Wildcats can’t stop the rush.
Keys to the game:
1.Make big plays: The Wildcats aren’t going to beat Oregon without a few big plays. Long plays, especially the plays that end with six points, can shift momentum in the game and a few early touchdowns can take the air out of Autzen Stadium in a hurry. Arizona shouldn’t have a problem scoring, but how it does it can be a factor in momentum.
2. Contain the threats: Thomas and Barner are going to be major threats to Arizona throughout the game. Thomas has the big play ability, but Barner has been the major producer this season so far.
We expect Thomas to get 15-20 touches, but if the Wildcats can keep him out of the end zone, they have done a phenomenal job.
3. Don’t fall behind: The theme for the game, and the given point, is that both teams should score plenty of points. While we look at the Arizona’s defense, it is also important that the offense doesn’t struggle.
Falling behind by two touchdowns isn’t the end of the world, but going down three might just be the nail in the coffin.
4. Get the kickers on the field: This may not come as a surprise, but Oregon’s special teams unit has only been on the field four times all season (not counting punt returns or kickoffs).
The Ducks have punted twice, for a mediocre 36.4 yards a kick. In addition, Oregon place kicker Rob Beard has missed his only two kicks this season, including one that was blocked.
5. Third and fourth downs: Arizona has steadily improved third down defense over the past few weeks after having a horrible showing in the first half of the Toledo victory.
While there is still room for improvement, the Wildcats have come leaps and bounds from that point. The problem with Oregon is that it has a knack for leaving the offense out on fourth downs. The Ducks have been successful on seven of nine this season. Arizona has to focus on stopping the offense on fourth down, as well as third down.