Gameday Preview: Arizona at Stanford

Stanford is a six-point underdog versus visiting Arizona, but does The Bootleg think the Homecoming crowd will witness an upset? We bring you some hard-to-believe hidden stats, and break down the intangibles and the outlook when Arizona and Stanford each try to run or pass. You probably knew we're projecting that Willie Tuitama has a big day, but who else might shine Saturday...

Gameday Breakdown:
Arizona (4-1, 2-0 Pac-10) at Stanford (3-3, 2-1 Pac-10)
Sat. Oct. 4, 2 p.m. PT

Last year: Stanford 21, Arizona 20. Stanford played a ball-control game to perfection, calling 45 runs to 27 passes in the desert. Despite being outgained 369 yards to 277, the Cardinal won a thriller when their defense came up with big fourth-quarter stands, redeeming itself after blowing a double-digit lead to TCU the week earlier.

Stanford this year: The Card have been favored in only one contest, but have outperformed expectations to put themselves at 3-3 at the halfway mark, and in a position to challenge for a bowl berth. Stanford squeaked past Oregon State (38-26) in the nationally-televised season opener, was then blown out at Arizona State (17-41) and TCU (14-31), but then responded to down hapless San Jose State (23-10) and winless Washington (35-28). After last week's 28-21 loss at Notre Dame, and with USC, Oregon and Cal all on the horizon, this game is a must-win if Stanford is to keep alive its hopes of qualifying for the bowl season. 

Arizona this year: The Wildcats have creamed a bunch of nobodies. 70-0 over Idaho, 41-6 over Toledo, a shocking 36-28 loss at New Mexico, and then, in the Pac-10, 31-10 at UCLA and 48-14 versus Washington. You have to devalue these stats, therefore, but Willie Tuitama is completing two of every three passes, for 1207 yards and 13 touchdowns, and Nic Grigsby has run for eight touchdowns and 548 yards.

Key stats:
Arizona wins most of these comparisons handily.

- Arizona is winning its average game 44-15. Stanford loses its average game 24-27.
- Arizona outgains its average opponent 429 to 226. Stanford's average opponent wins the yardage battle 394-317.
- Arizona makes fewer mistakes, with four penalties and 1.4 turnovers per game, compared to Stanford's eight penalties and 2.2 turnovers per contest.
- The Wildcats also hold onto the ball for 53.7% of their games, far better than Stanford's 44.3% of possession.

It must again be noted, however, that the difference in schedule strength devalues any conclusions one can draw from a head-to-head statistical comparison.

Intangibles:

The Cardinal is 2-0 at home this season. Arizona is 1-1 on the road.

It's too early to know for sure, but Stanford may well be the best team Arizona's played thus far this season. Then again, Arizona's better than any team Stanford has beat all season.

With a line within a touchdown (Arizona -6), Vegas is expecting a close game. If you believe that teams get better in clutch situations with experience in clutch situations (color me skeptical until I see any empirical evidence suggesting this effect), give the edge to Stanford. Stanford is 2-1 in 2008 games decided by one score, while the Wildcats are just 0-1 in such contests.

The Wildcats are receiving the odd vote or two in the AP and Coaches' Polls, and rank in the mid-30's nationally. So, spoiling Stanford's Homecoming probably wouldn't vault them into the poll, but if Arizona were to follow it up with a win versus Cal next week, they may well be ranked for the first time I can remember under Mike Stoops.

When Arizona has the ball:

In the air:

As always, all analysis leans heavily on The Bootleg's preseason preview of Arizona. In it, we call for the Wildcats to be the most improved team in the Pac-10. And while we still have plenty of votes to count on that measure, the early returns are favorable, especially in Arizona's aerial game.

Willie Tuitama is averaging 258 passing yards per game with 14 touchdowns to two interceptions, for a superlative 157.4 quarterback rating. His accuracy is 66 percent and his favorite receivers are senior Michael Thomas (89 yards per game, three touchdowns) and sophomore Delashaun Dean (54 yards per game, two touchdowns). Watch out for tight end Rob Gronkowski, who has scored touchdowns on five of his eight catches.

Stanford, meanwhile, has allowed opposing quarterbacks a 138.6 rating and 274 yards per game. Fans, heading into the season, saw Bo McNally and Wopamo Osaisai anchoring a secondary that would become Stanford's most improved unit. As Notre Dame made painfully evident, it hasn't worked out that way at all.

Tuitama's per-game yardage would be a lot higher if his team weren't up by 32 at most halftimes. This game should be one of Arizona's closest this season, so expect the Wildcats to keep on passing until Stanford can stop it. I think it's a long day for the Card's secondary as Arizona throws for 340 yards.

On the ground:

Arizona is rushing for 170 yards per game on a 4.4 per-carry average. Clean up the screen passes and sweeps and sacks and you're left with Grigsby, the Wildcats' No. 1 tailback, putting up All-Pac-10 numbers: 116 yards per game on a 6.0 per-carry average. Stanford, meanwhile, is holding opponents to 3.3 yards per carry and 120 yards per game. Rush D is Stanford's strength, and so I think Arizona will scheme away from it unless it's garbage time.

I would imagine a repeat of last week's Notre Dame game. Stanford's rush defense isn't 2004 USC, but it's good enough when tested. Arizona, however, only bothers testing it enough to keep the Card honest, and on third-and-short or goal-to-go situations. I call for 100 Arizona rush yards on a limited number of carries.


When Stanford has the ball:

On the ground:

Stanford is doing quite well running the ball too, with 166 yards per game on a 4.64 yards per carry average. By means of comparison, the Card ran for just 111 yards per game on three yards per carry last year, meaning that this season's totals are about 50 percent better. A big, hidden factor has been the health of the offensive line, which, excepting Chase Beeler last week, hasn't suffered the same degree of in-season injuries as Stanford O lines in previous years. The most obvious factor is Toby Gerhart, who already has more rushing yards (525) than 2007's leading rusher, Anthony Kimble (509).

Arizona really hasn't faced a competent rush attack this season, but our preview suggests the Wildcats would be vulnerable on the ground. And, indeed, rush defense appears to be the relative weakness of the Wildcats, as opponents have racked up nearly as many yards on the ground (107 per game) as they have in the air (119). Arizona's 3.5 yards per carry allowed also is reason for optimism.

Talk about a hidden stat though: Stanford is averaging over five yards per carry in each of the first three quarters, but just 2.58 in the fourth quarter in 2008. I call for 170 Card rush yards , but they'll need more consistent production in the fourth quarter if they hope to salt away an upset.


In the air:

Eww.

Stanford is passing for 149 yards per game, on just six yards per pass. Unless you're Navy or Tom Osborne Nebraska, it's practically unheard of to gain more rush yards than pass yards. And, in Stanford's case, the rush numbers are pretty average, so this anomaly reflects primarily on the pass attack. Arizona's secondary, on paper, doesn't look to be the strength it was last year, but opponents have a QB rating of just 89, and are passing for only 119 yards per game.

The story for Stanford is worse yet at home, which brings us to our second hidden stat. Even though Oregon State and San Jose State were two of the weakest defenses Stanford's faced all season, the Card are completing a higher percentage of its passes (57 vs. 51) for more yards per attempt (6.2 vs. 5.6) on the road, strangely. Perhaps Pritchard is putting too much pressure on himself and pressing too hard in front of the home fans?

Then again, and after seeing the Notre Dame game I would personally be tempted to file this under "lies, damn lies and statistics," two of Pritchard's three highest-rated passing games were his last two, against Washington and Notre Dame. (Oregon State was the other.) A big reason is that Pritchard averaged under six yards per attempt in each of his first four games, but hit 9.3 per pass against Washington and 6.5 against Notre Dame. The Card will need to similarly stretch the field against Arizona to keep up with Willie Tuitama.

After the season's first six games though, I think your brain understands why I am a skeptic, even if your heart doesn't agree with me. I think Stanford passes for its average of 150 yards, less than half of what Arizona totals in the air. That should be the difference Saturday.

Vegas Prediction:

Arizona 30, Stanford 24. (Arizona -6, Over/Under: 54.) That sounds like a lot, but football lines aren't linear -- the difference between a four and six-point line is nothing compared to six and eight. And, in fact, I'm surprised the Wildcats aren't favored by at least a touchdown.


My Prediction:

Arizona 34, Stanford 20.

I see Tuitama carving apart the Cardinal secondary. Stanford is an ugly 0-2 against top-25 caliber teams, losing by 17 to TCU and 24 to Arizona State, who we now know isn't even that good. (And don't tell me Notre Dame's a top-25 caliber team: top-25 teams aren't touchdown dogs to North Carolina.) I don't see why the Card should do any better against the Wildcats.

Consider: Arizona doesn't have the recent success of Arizona State or TCU, but they are probably a better football team, especially than Arizona State. Plus, the Wildcats' pass-early-and-often offense perfectly exploits Stanford's defensive weakness. If the Card backfield looked comical against sophomore Jimmy Clausen and Notre Dame's wideouts, Willie Tuitama should be able to pick Stanford apart.

Finally, as opponents see more and more tape on the 2008 Card, the limitations at the quarterback position become painfully clear, in a way they weren't necessarily week one or two. I expect the Wildcats to continue what plenty of teams have done -- overload the box against the run, and make Tavita Pritchard and the Card win a shootout through the air. I don't think Stanford has the personnel to do that.

This season:

Predicted: Notre Dame 30, Stanford 20. Actual: Notre Dame 28, Stanford 21.
Predicted: Stanford 28, Washington 27. Actual: Stanford 35, Washington 28.
Predicted: Stanford 34, San Jose State 24. Actual: Stanford 23, San Jose State 10.
Predicted: TCU 23, Stanford 10. Actual: TCU 31, Stanford 14.


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