Can Anu Do It Again?

2014 Pac-12 Championship Preview: Arizona vs. Oregon

Arizona (10-2) vs. Oregon (11-1) Dec. 5, 9:00, Fox

Here's The Deal: Oregon used to have a Stanford. If it stumbles in Friday night’s Pac-12 Championship Game, it’s going to have a gigantic Arizona problem.

The only thing standing between the Ducks and a perfect season so far in 2014 are the Wildcats. And the only thing that was standing between the Ducks and the North Division title last Nov. 23 was, yup, those feisty ‘Cats. Oregon has dropped two straight to Arizona, making Mark Helfrich 0-2 versus Rich Rodriguez, with the latest defeat coming Oct. 2 in Eugene. Now, it can be fair to assume that the Ducks are seeking revenge, or at least redemption, but this group has far loftier goals on its agenda. Oregon has gashed the last seven opponents with two defined goals in mind—recapturing a Pac-12 Conference that’s been the Cardinal’s domain for the past two seasons. And earning a spot in the College Football Playoff. The Ducks seize both if they can solve Arizona in Santa Clara, Calif. this week.

Arizona has been the Pac-12’s biggest surprise in Rodriguez’s third year in Tucson. Sure, they’d score points this fall. RichRod’s teams always score points. But winning the deep South Division after being picked to finish fourth in the preseason? That seemed like a predictable—and unreachable—preseason talking point for a team breaking in a redshirt freshman quarterback and replacing its All-American running back. Yet, here we are. The Wildcats experienced midseason misfires against the league’s two L.A. teams, USC and UCLA, finished with four wins in a row and then got help when Stanford upset the Bruins last Friday. And voila, Arizona is one step away from its first outright Pac-10/12 title since joining the league 36 years ago.

Why Arizona Might Win: The Wildcats own the secret sauce for beating the Ducks.

Having defeated a top 5 Oregon team twice in the past 12 months, Arizona will feel no fear or intimidation when walking into Levi’s Stadium Friday evening. None. QB Anu Solomon and RB Nick Wilson are no longer rookies, having grown immeasurably throughout the course of the year. The ‘Cats believe they can run on anyone, especially the Ducks, who are eighth in the league against the run, and are just average at the point of attack. Plus, Solomon cannot be ignored as a passer out of Arizona’s version of the no-huddle spread. The dual-threat is surrounded by a bevy of size-speed receivers, like Cayleb Jones and Austin Hill, who can outmuscle the Oregon defensive backs.

On defense, Jeff Casteel’s unique 3-3-5 stack has frustrated Marcus Mariota and the Ducks in their last two meetings. Arizona floods the field with high-motor, high-octane defenders, like do-everything LB Scooby Wright, who put Oregon in the unfamiliar position of having to earn every point they get. The ‘Cats will limit big plays, tackle with a swarming mentality and create a bunch of turnovers. The Ducks are going see maximum effort for all 60 minutes from the no-name Arizona defenders.

Why Oregon Might Win: This is a very different team than the one that bowed to the ‘Cats two months ago.

Back on Oct. 2, the Ducks were still somewhat of a work-in-progress, and the O-line was in need of an infirmary. While the front wall will again be shorthanded without C Hroniss Grasu, the presence of Jake Fisher at left tackle will be an immense difference from when these teams first met. Losing to Arizona might have been the best thing to happen to Oregon, a wake-up call that forever changed the 2014 team. Over the last seven games, the Ducks have soared by an average score of 47-23, mastering what it means to dominate game control. Mariota has elevated his game to an entirely new level, and he’s taken RB Royce Freeman and receivers Dwayne Stanford, Devon Allen and Byron Marshall along for the ride.

Coordinator Don Pellum plans to attack the Wildcats with speed, of which he has plenty at every level. The Ducks can be especially disruptive out of the defensive backfield, where CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and S Erick Dargan roam. If Solomon is the least bit careless with his decisions or his throws, Ekpre-Olomu and Dargan are going to pounce with a game-changing pick that goes back the other way with a bullet.
Who To Watch Out For: Wright has evolved into the epitome of what it means to be a Wildcat these days. Overlooked coming out of high school, he’s blossomed into one of the nation’s most impactful and hardest working defenders as a sophomore. Wright has 27 tackles for loss, 14 sacks and six forced fumbles, and he’ll be monitoring Mariota’s every single move on Friday night. If someone in green doesn’t get a consistent hat on No. 33, he’s liable to take the game over with his instincts, intensity and appetite for stops behind the line of scrimmage.

Few in Eugene are talking revenge this week. Senior OLB Tony Washington, though, could be an exception. It was Washington’s self-serving, nonsensical unsportsmanlike penalty that extended Arizona’s game-winning drive two months ago. And Washington has not forgotten the costly call. He plans to let his play do the celebrating this time around, coming off the edge to disrupt Solomon’s rhythm in the pocket. Washington leads the Ducks in career sacks and tackles for loss, and can greatly help support the inconsistent pass rush of ends Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner.

Penetrating the Wildcat front wall will be no easy assignment for the Ducks. In fact, Oregon has failed in this regard in the last two meetings between the schools. Arizona is big and physical, especially on the flanks with 6-8 tackles Mickey Baucus and Fabbians Ebbele. The Ducks are giving up 4.2 yards per carry, which stands tenth in the Pac-12. If the ‘Cats can blow Oregon off the line of scrimmage, Wilson and veteran Terris Jones-Grigsby will run with the north-south determination to get through the hole in the hurry. And the longer Arizona can hold the ball, the more time Mariota will spend impatiently waiting to get back on the field.

How will Oregon fare without its five best linemen on the field this time around? Mariota got harassed on Oct. 2 as the Ducks broke in fresh faces up front. Now, Grasu, one of the nation’s best centers, remains hobbled by a leg injury. While he remains optimistic about suiting up this week, it’s more likely that converted G Hamani Stevens will again handle the pivot, while redshirt freshmen Doug Brenner and Jake Pisarcik share reps at left guard. Besides Wright, the interior of the line must contend with experienced DT Dan Pettinato and Casteel’s mixture of blitzes from the second and third levels.

What’s Going To Happen: Oregon does not have an Arizona problem, but it is going to get challenged for 60 minutes by the Wildcats.

Arizona is no fluke, particularly as it pertains to the Ducks. The ‘Cats will continue to run the ball effectively with Wilson, while keeping Mariota from turning the Pac-12 title game into a foregone conclusion at halftime. They match up well, and they know all of the opponent’s tendencies. However, this is one of those moments in which the best player in the stadium is going to will his team to victory.

Mariota is a cut above the rest of the field, and unlike last year’s game in Tucson, he’s healthy. With one solid second-half, he’ll wrap up the Pac-12, the Heisman Trophy and a playoff bid. However, shaking loose from the Wildcats will once again be harder than most expect.

Prediction: Oregon 42 … Arizona 31
Line: Oregon -13.5 o/u: 72.5
Must Watch Factor: 5: The Interview – 1: CMA Country Christmas … 5
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