10:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Oregon -23.5
Two of the three remaining unbeatens in the Pac-12, face off tonight in Eugene, as the second-ranked Oregon Ducks host the Arizona Wildcats. Revenge should be on the minds of the Ducks (4-0, 1-0 in Pac-12), who were battered 42-16 at Arizona last season despite owning a 9-1 record heading into the contest, effectively ending their run of four consecutive BCS Bowl appearances. Star Quarterback Marcus Mariota, the current front-runner for the Heisman, hampered by injury that day, threw a pair of interceptions damning his team to defeat against their 3-4 hosts. The defense for it’s part, shared in the responsibility in the debacle, allowing 482 yards, including 304 yards and a quartet of touchdowns on the ground. The visitors also lost a fumble in the affair, matching their total for turnovers in a single game that season (three). However, Mariota is healthy now, and has yet to throw an interception this season, with Oregon coasting through their non-conference slate with victories over South Dakota (62-13), Michigan State (46-27), and Wyoming (48-14).
With that said, the conference schedule has proven to be a tougher task thus far, as Washington State gave them everything that Mark Helfrich’s team could handle two weeks ago. Mike Leach’s Cougars went toe-to-toe with the Ducks, torching them for 499 total yards, including 436 yards and four touchdowns through the air. Conner Halliday’s five-yard touchdown toss to River Cracraft tied the game at 31-31 with 8:57 left to play in the game, before the visitors engineered a nine-play, 79-yard drive culminating in a Keanon Lowe touchdown reception to put the visiting Ducks up for good. Mariota was sensational throughout the contest, completing an astounding 21-of-25 passes for 329 yards and five touchdowns, while rushing for another 58 yards to boot, which was all the more impressive considering he sustained seven sacks. The difference in the game was turnovers, as the hosts lost a pair of crucial fumbles, particularly one on their first drive of the second half , swinging the momentum the opposite direction. Receivers Devon Allen and the aforementioned Lowe accounted for a dozen catches for 246 yards and four touchdowns, while Tailback Royce Freeman paved the way with a team-best 75 yards on 20 carries. Injuries along the Offensive Line have factored heavily into the lack of rushing success, as well Mariota’s protection concerns, as Left and Right Tackles Jake Fisher (knee) and Andre Yruretogeyna (leg) are both expected to miss tonight’s outing. If Oregon is indeed to advance to the inaugural College Football Playoff, then Mariota must remain upright so that he can continue to post the baffling numbers he has thus far; the Junior has completed 74.0% of his passes for 1,135 yards (11.8 yards/attempt), and thirteen touchdowns, while rushing for another 214 yards (6.5 yards/attempt) and three scores.
However, the biggest concern for Helfrich and arguably the biggest obstacle towards postseason glory is their own defense, which has quite frankly looked offensive at times in 2014. During the offseason, Oregon bid farewell to longtime Defensive Coordinator Nick Aliotti, and have since struggled to pick up the pieces without him. Through four games, the Ducks are allowing an average of 21.2 points on 443.5 yards of offense (tenth in the Pac-12), including 315.02 versus the pass and 128.3 versus the rush. Opposing quarterbacks have had their way with them, completing 61.5% of their attempts, with Michigan State’s Connor Cook touching them up for 343 yards on 29-of-47 passing and two touchdowns, while the aforementioned Halliday dropped 436 yards and four scores through the air on 43-of-63 passing two weeks afterward. Thankfully, they’ve been able to force turnovers; Oregon has registered eight takeaways thus far, with four interceptions and four recovered fumbles apiece. If you’re averaging as many yards offensively as they do (555.3), you can get away with allowing so many the other way, but at some point you have to get stops, which has been easier said than done for this unit. Coming off a Bye, we’ll see how they perform against Arizona, who absolutely shredded their defense last November.
Meanwhile, Arizona (4-0, 1-0 in Pac-12) too comes off of a Bye Week, with their ridiculous 49-45 comeback victory against California still fresh in their minds. Trailing 28-6 at halftime, Rich Rodriguez’s kids posted 420 yards in the second half en route to Quarterback Anu Solomon’s epic 47-yard Hail Mary to Austin Hill as time expired. The Freshman, Arizona’s first to start since 2005, set a school-record with 520 passing yards in the process, leading an explosive offense that compiled 627 yards and 36 First Downs. This is a huge sign for a program that must replace both it’s starting Quarterback and Running Back, as Rodriguez has chosen to go with freshmen at those respective positions.; in addition to Solomon, Nick Wilson has gotten the majority of the reps in the backfield, rushing for 482 yards and four touchdowns on 77 carries thus far. If the Wildcats are indeed going to upset the mighty Ducks for the second year in a row, then they will likely feature Wilson early and often; when they destroyed Oregon’s defense last year, Tailback Ka’Deem Carey trampled them to the tune of 206 yards, with the hosts racking up 304, the most their opponents had allowed since 2007.
Everyone is familiar with Oregon’s offense, but through four games this season Arizona actually owns the more prolific of the two. Rich Rodriguez is one of the most innovative coaches in the country, and was revered for the work he did at West Virginia, where his spread-option attack took the College Football world by storm. At this point the Wildcats have averaged 42.0 points on a robust 593.8 yards of total offense (sixth nationally), including 365.8 via the pass, and another 228.0 via the rush. Solomon has been stellar in his maiden campaign, completing 63.4% of his passes for 1,454 yards (8.3 yards/attempt), thirteen touchdowns and three interceptions. Furthermore, his 365.8 passing yards per game ranks fifth in the country. Sophomore Wideout Cayleb Jones has emerged as his preferred target in the passing game, hauling in 29 balls for 475 yards (16.4 yards/catch) and six touchdowns. The 6-3 receiver has strung together three consecutive 100-yard games, including a monster thirteen-catch, 186-yard, three-touchdown performance against California two weeks ago. With that said, they’ll need a better performance from the aforementioned Wilson, who was relegated to just 33 yards on eleven carries versus the Golden Bears, as they look to take control of the clock keeping Mariota and Co. on the sideline.
Ah, but like their opponent tonight, defense has been something of a myth in Arizona, which could be their ultimate obstacle in getting off tot heir best start since 1998. As great as Rodriguez’s offensive acumen is, he’s not nearly as adept on the opposite side of the ball, and it has shown through the first four games of the season. Thus far, the Wildcats have allowed an average of 27.2 points on 430.5 yards per game, including 295.3 yards versus the pass and another 135.2 versus the rush. Opposing Quarterbacks have shredded them, completing 63.5% of their attempts, which is concerning given their caliber of competition to this point. Say what you want about Oregon’s pass defense, but at least they have faced Michigan State, the reigning Big Ten Champion, and Mike Leach’s high-powered passing attack at Washington State. The ‘Cats on the other hand have battled the likes of Nevada and California, the latter of which won just one game last season. Nevada effortlessly completed 29-of-39 passes for 321 yards and three touchdowns in a narrow 35-28 Arizona victory, while Cal torched them for 380 yards and three more passing touchdowns the following week. That simply doesn’t bode well for a team about to face Mariota, who has improved greatly as a passer this season. After all, the last time that the Rodriguez and Co. traveled to Autzen Stadium they were ran off the field in a 49-0 shutout defeat.