Why Arizona is a dangerous opponent, and what the Ducks must do to win

Arizona is dangerous because they are next. There are a dozen other reasons, but that’s the first and most important.

It’s an old adage of football that teams make the biggest improvement between game 1 and game 2, but if the Ducks want to win a fourth PAC-12 title and stay viable for the biggest prize, they’ll have to show their biggest improvement today. 

And an equally strong improvement in each of the coming weeks. Because the standard isn’t just mailing it in over Tennessee Tech or squeaking by the Wildcats. They have to get good enough to beat the best in the conference and the best in the country. They have to run an 11-week guantlet where everyone knows their name and reputation.

Marcus Mariota, while showing some good things this year and having a few teachable moments, has thrown just 77 passes. He hasn’t faced the speed of a PAC-12 defense, and he hasn’t faced maximum pressure from a fast front seven. He will in the coming weeks. He has adjustments to make, and must show he can keep his coolness as the intensity ramps up. This week’s opponent  is led by a coach that’s one of the architects of the modern spread offense. Rich Rodriguez knows where the rivets and bolts are, and he’ll know where to attack Oregon, how to try to make the Ducks and Mariota uncomfortable. The first year starter will  be tested.

3-0 Arizona is a dangerous matchup for the Oregon defense. Rodrigez inherited some great weapons for his style of play, and he has them playing extremely well together. Matt Scott, his 5th-year senior at quarterback, has thrown for 995 yards and rushed for 190. The Oregon front 7 has to contain him, pressure him, and keep him from getting outside or exploiting lanes in the pass rush. He’s a true dual-threat quarterback that can get chunks of yards with his arms or his legs.

Oregon’s defense hasn’t had to work hard so far this season, and today they’ll have mandatory overtime. Around the country many analysts point to Nick Aliotti’s unit as the reason the Ducks can’t contend with Alabama or LSU. Fair or not, that label remains until they stop a quality opponent. They’ve shown some vulnerabilty to the run and the pass, and the Wildcats do both very well. Ka’deem Carey, their 5-10, 203-lb. sophomore tailback, runs with speed and power, a hybrid of Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas in one package. He had four touchdowns against Oklahoma State, 344 rushing yards for the year, by far the most dangerous back Oregon’s faced this year. They gave up 85 yards to Arkansas State’s David Oku and 115 to Robbie Rouse of Fresno State, albeit with the fourth team finishing the game.

If the Ducks want to belong in the PAC-12 or national championship game, the first team defense and second team rotation has to prove they can stop the run and contain an elite back. Ka’deem Carey is a tough matchup for them.

Outside, Arizona has two very good wide receivers. Both Dan Buckner, 6-4, 214, and Austin Hill, 6-3, 211, are on the Biletnikoff Watch List. Hill already has 319 yards, 2 100-yards games, and an average of 18.8 yards per catch. He’s explosive. Buckner’s a senior, very smooth, fluid and consistent. He’s already caught 22 passes and is featured prominently in the Wildcats’ screen and quick passing game. They have to tackle him and make it harder for him to move the chains.

Oregon likes to commit hard to stopping the run and creating turnovers and big plays with their blitz packages, a strategy that’s paid off 37-6 since Chip Kelly’s been here, but it puts a lot of pressure on cornerbacks. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Terrance Mitchell, Troy Hill and Dior Mathis will be on the island today, and no one will be bringing them pina coladas. They’ll be isolated against big, fast targets, the same way they’ll be isolated against Keith Allen, Marqise Lee and Robert Woods later in the year.

Offensively, Mariota and his offensive line will be tested by Arizona’s innovative 3-3-5 stack defense, which lines up the three linebackers directly behind three down linemen, with five fast guys in the secondary flying to the ball. The alignment is designed to attack spread offenses by disguising where the pressure is coming from. They’ll overload gaps to try and get penetration, trying to disrupt the timing of what Oregon likes to do. The Webfoots redshirt freshman starter and his protectors had some trouble with Fresno State’s stunts and blitzes, especially in the third quarter when the Bulldogs held them to 5 yards of offense. Bet Rodriguez and his staff has studied that film carefully. They’ll try to punch Mariota in the mouth with pressure, and they’re certain to have their players clawing at the ball when he has it or he gets it to De’Anthony Thomas, who already has three fumbles to go along with his 7 dazzling touchdowns this year.

Arizona’s best chance to win is to shock the Ducks by jumping out early and forcing some turnovers, getting them out of their rhythm and quieting the crowd. The Ducks haven’t been in a close game this year, and this one could stay close for a while. Many expect that the hosts will pull away in the third quarter when their depth advantage kicks in. Upsets happen when turnovers and mistakes keep the underdog amped and the favorite off their feed. The Ducks must show composure and preparation.

The experts from the neon palaces in the sand say today’s game will be a track meet. They predict at least 77 points will be scored, and the Ducks to win by three touchdowns and a field goal. For any of that to come true, the Ducks offense has to play sharp, mistakes-limited football, and Oregon’s defense has to play more like fans expected them to when workouts started in August. This is the PAC-12, the start of big-boy football. Are the Ducks ready? We’ll know by 10:30 tonight.

RichRod is one of the handful of coaches that can transform a program with his personality. He chose his landing spot very well in coming to Arizona, inheriting a team that had the right weapons for his offense, and a program that was ripe for a new energy. Already he’s infused this team with confidence and commitment. They’ve bought the message. At West Virginia he built a periennial Top 15 that won two BCS bowls. At Michigan he created a high-powered offense but was undermined by a defense that couldn’t stop anybody and the lingering spectre of not being a Michigan man. He’s eager to show he’s still a winner, and nothing would be a huger, bigger, more electrifying splash than beating the Ducks. Win tonight, and he’s front page of espn.com for a week, the Wildcats are 4-0, and he’s being interviewed by everyone from Paul Finebaum to Ivan Maisel. It’s a script-changing, life-changing opportunity for a football genius that hungers to be recognized among the best.

Fortunately the Ducks have a visor-wearing savant on their side with the same hunger. That may be the ultimate showdown on a night of intriguing matchups.