Previewing Arizona: Strength on Strength

Both teams are 7-1 and ranked in the Top 15 of the BCS standings. The game will be showcased nationally as "Big Game" Brent Musberger and his ABC crew invade Palo Alto. Even outside of those factors, however, Stanford has no shortage of motivation heading into the battle with Arizona.

The Cardinal were dropped in a 43-38 shootout at Tucson last year. The loss wouldn't have been so hard to swallow had Stanford not surrendered a 15-point lead it held late in the second quarter. The players haven't forgotten what happened.

"I definitely think with some of the older guys, it's in the back of their minds to not let it happen again," said Shayne Skov. "That offense is certainly talented, but we made some defensive errors that cost us the game."

"A lot of guys on this team were part of that game, and we'd love to get back at them and get a win. So yeah, there is a little bit of extra motivation," Andrew Luck added.

Both Arizona and Stanford are coming off convincing wins. The Cardinal's margin of defeat was much wider than Arizona's 29-21 win over UCLA, but that contest wasn't as close as the final score indicated.

The Wildcats held a 19-7 lead at the half and by the end of the game had outgained the Bruins 583-299 in total yardage. Matt Scott played well, but an end-zone interception, a fumble on the UCLA 15-yard line and a few bad passes in the fourth quarter allowed for the comeback.

Scott has been a serviceable replacement for Nick Foles, who missed the majority of the last three games because of a dislocated kneecap, but the Cats' original starting quarterback gives them the best chance to win week in and week out.

Foles was deemed healthy enough to play against UCLA, but Arizona elected to stick with Scott, probably because they knew they could beat the Bruins without him and to give the knee more time to heal. But when the game tightened in the fourth and Scott was struggling to move the chains, Foles was seen on the sidelines warming up.

Arizona head coach Mike Stoops wouldn't divulge who which would play this week but did say that Foles was "100 percent." Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh said that his team will prepare for both quarterbacks.

"They haven't sent the memo over as far as who's starting, so you've got to prepare for both of them," he said. "They both play at an extremely high level and understand what their role is."

Scott is more mobile than Foles. In his two starts, he ran for 136 yards on 19 carries. In fact, with Foles out, the Wildcats transitioned to more of a run-first team behind Scott and their stable of backs. They ran the ball 142 times the last three games which produced a 20-minute advantage in the time of possession average margin.

Don't be surprised to see both signal callers on the field Saturday. While Foles is expected to start, Arizona could sprinkle Scott in during some of the zone-read running packages.

"It wouldn't surprise me at all if we saw both of them, because the other quarterback presents more of a running threat," Sione Fua said of Scott. "So we could see some of the gun-run schemes that we saw against Oregon and Washington with him."

The Arizona offense is designed to spread the defense and get the ball into its playmakers' hands quickly. Foles is an extremely accurate passer, which is why the Wildcats have completed nearly 75 percent of their attempts this season—the best mark in the country. He gets the ball out hastily with short drops, which helps negate the opposing pass rush. Last year against Stanford, Foles completed 40 of his 51 pass attempts for 415 yards and three touchdowns.

Juron Criner hauled in 12 of those passes for 152 yards. He is one of the Pac-10's top receivers and is complemented by big-play threats in Bug Wright and David Roberts. All of these wideouts can gain yards after the catch, as Stanford's defenders know.

"They want to spread you out and get their playmakers the ball," Fua said. "It's going to be imperative to come out and execute the game plan, make tackles in the open field."

Stopping Arizona's passing attack might be the easiest part of the defensive challenge. The Wildcats arguably have the best running back trio in the league in Keola Antolin, Nic Grigsby and Greg Nwoko. The first two are smaller, shiftier runners, while Nwoko is the change-of-pace back at 6-2, 230.

But the success of the offense starts with the behemoth line Arizona has in the trenches. The center tips the scales at 300 pounds, while the rest of the line weighs in at 320 or higher. Fua called the grouping the best O-line in the conference.

Antolin has been the team's best runner recently and he started over Grigsby against UCLA. Grigsby actually left that contest in the first quarter with a sprained ankle but is expected to be ready Saturday. Antolin has 66 carries for 387 yards and six touchdowns the past four weeks.

"Tackling in space is going to be huge," Harbaugh said. "Those are strong, quick speedsters that are built low to the ground. They run with great forward lean and they've given us fits in the past."

Grigsby came into last year's game banged up but still managed 89 yards and a touchdown on just seven carries. Nwoko only had three rushing attempts but ripped off a 43-yard touchdown with 10 minutes left to pull Arizona within two points.

Defensively, the ‘Cats are the class of the Pac-10. Stoops is the only head coach in the scoring-happy conference with a defensive background, and it shows.

Arizona ranks 10th in the FBS in total defense (286.9 ypg), fifth in scoring defense (14.4 ppg) and sixth in rush defense (88.4 ypg).

"They might be the best defense we've faced so far," Luck said. "They force turnovers and they're fast. They have really good defensive ends, secondary players and linebackers."

Paced by defensive ends Ricky Elmore and Brooks Reed, the Wildcats record 3.4 sacks per game—the fifth-best mark nationally. Harbaugh said those were the two best ends in the conference "by far." He is also impressed with the backups on the line and said that reserve defensive end D'Aundre Reed would be starting for any other team in the Pac-10.

Stanford's veteran offensive line has yielded the second-fewest sacks in the country this season (3.0), so something will have to give Saturday. Stepfan Taylor anticipates the running backs will have to chip out and help the tight ends with blocking.

"They are physical up front," he said. "The safeties also come down and hit, so we have to watch film and game plan to be ready."

It all adds up to what should be an incredible Pac-10 bout at Stanford Stadium. Strap into your seat and get ready for the ride.

About the Author: Bootleg Senior Writer Scott Cooley has worked in the sports media industry throughout his professional career, including serving as a writer for an ESPN production house and a professional football franchise. His work has been published in multiple print and online platforms including ESPN.com. He currently writes for yours truly, as well as Bookmaker, Covers and Red Hott Locks. Cooley specializes in football, baseball and basketball with an emphasis on sports betting. Cooley and his wife reside in California, contact him at scottwcooley@gmail.com


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