9:00 PM EST, FOX – Line: Oregon -15.5
Major postseason implications are on the line tonight, as the second-ranked Oregon Ducks battle the seventh-ranked Arizona Wildcats in the Pac-12 Championship Game at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California. This is the second meeting between these teams this season, as the Wildcats (10-2, 7-2 in Pac-12) went to Autzen Stadium in Eugene, and pulled off arguably the upset of the year, defeating the formerly undefeated Ducks 31-24. In a remarkably even contest, the visitors stormed out of Halftime trailing 7-3, and proceeded to outscore the hosts 21-7 in the Third Quarter. However, Oregon was able to tie the game midway through the final stanza, but Rich Rodriguez’s charges were able to take advantage of a bone-headed Unsportsmanlike Conduct Penalty from Ducks’ Defensive End Tony Washington, leading to what became the game-winning one-yard touchdown run from Terris Jones with just 2:54 left on the clock. But back to just how even this matchup turned out to be; Oregon posted 446 total yards of offense with Arizona logging 495, while both teams carried the ball a ton (41-55) with fairly little success (3.5-3.8), and each committed a pair of turnovers. Quarterback Anu Solomon completed 20-of-31 passes (64.5%) for 287 yards (9.7 yards/attempt), with a touchdown and an interception apiece, while the aforementioned Jones carried the ball 27 times for 115 yards (4.3 yards/attempt), along with reeling in four catches for 95 yards (23.8 yards/catch), including the decisive touchdown. Unfortunately, Rodriguez would witness his team drop two out of their next three contests, but thanks to four consecutive wins to close out the regular season, of which included a 42-35 victory over arch-rival Arizona State last weekend, coupled with UCLA’s loss to Stanford, propelled the Wildcats to this point.
Though Arizona’s Quarterback lacks the experience of his counterpart tonight, he has played well beyond his years. On the season, Solomon has completed 58.2% of his attempts for 3,424 yards (7.1 yards/attempt), 27 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Like many of Rodriguez’s Quarterbacks from years past, the Frosh has been at his best when on the move; Solomon has completed 76 passes when he has left the pocket and in transition, by far and away the most of any player at his position in a Power Five Conference this year, while also pacing the field in passing yards (1,016), passing touchdowns (10), and completions of 20 yards or more (14). He proved his resilience last weekend in the victory over Arizona State, putting together his most efficient performance in over two months; Solomon had been relegated to below 50.0% passing in three of his previous four contests heading into the season finale, yet rebounded nicely on 15-of-21 passing (71.4%) for 208 yards and a pair of touchdowns, all the while fighting through intense pressure from the Sun Devils, who sacked him five times. With that said, if Arizona is indeed going to knock off the Ducks for the second time this season, then their defense must continue on the trajectory they’ve been on of late. During this current four-game winning streak, the Wildcats have held three out of their four opponents under 27 points and 400 yards of total offense, while forcing a wealth of turnovers (13), leading to a solid plus-seven differential. And that is precisely the kind of play they’ll need to become the first team sine 2008 to defeat the Ducks in three consecutive meetings, in turn earning their first Pac-12 Championship since 1993.
Meanwhile, Oregon (11-1,8-1 in Pac-12) finds themselves in a situation that could very well make or break their season. With a victory tonight, they will virtually guarantee themselves one of the top two seeds in the inaugural College Football Playoff, meaning that they will likely play the Semifinal in Pasadena, California at the Rose Bowl, while not to mention enacting a measure of revenge against a team that has had their number in recent years. However, another loss to the Wildcats will spell doom for the Ducks, certainly dropping them out of the Top Four in the Playoff Rankings, relegating them to a less-desirable Bowl for the second consecutive year. One thing is for certain though, this is not the same team that was stunned back on October 2nd; since that defeat, Mark Helfrich’s charges have won seven straight outings, winning by an average margin of 24.3 points and racking up a whopping 543.9 total yards per game. Last weekend at arch-rival Oregon State, they humiliated the Beavers in the latest installment of the Civil War, winning 47-19 and outgained their foe by 202 yards. Heisman front-runner Marcus Mariota was stellar yet again, shredding the Beaver defense through the air and on the ground, completing 19-of-25 passes (76.0%) for 367 yards (14.7 yards/attempt), and four touchdowns, while rushing for another 39 yards and two scores on ten carries.
More so than anyone, tonight is Mariota’s opportunity to not only excerise the demons of past failures against Arizona, but also stake his claim for the Heisman Trophy, and thus lead his team to the College Football Playoff. The Junior has been absolutely fantastic this season, and has overcome playing behind an injury-riddled Offenaive Line to get stronger as the season has progressed. Through twelve games, Mariota has completed 68.6% of his passes for 3,470 yards, 36 touchdowns and only two interceptions, while leading the nation in Yards per Attempt (10.4) and Passer Rating (190.2). Furthermore his 48 total touchdowns are the most in the FBS, and more than any of the last three Quarterbacks that have gone on to hoist the Heisman. However, he’ll finally have to solve the riddle that is the Wildcats’ defense,’which has gotten the best of him in each of the past two encounters. How much has Mariota struggled against Arizona, you ask? Consider these numbers for a moment; the decorated is 0-2 versus Rodriguez’s outfit, despite owning a 22-1 mark against everyone else over the past two seasons, while posting a Total QBR of 62.0 opposed to 92.3 against all other opponents. Furthermore, two of the Ducks three lowest scoring games in that span have come against those same Wildcats. One of the biggest reasons for his struggles is that Arizona has taken away his ability to connect for huge plays downfield in the passing game. Mariota also led all Power Five Passers completing 58.3% of his attempts of fifteen yards or more downfield, but against Arizona back in October was a mere 2-of-10 on such throws (20.0%). Granted, a lot of that had to do with his pass protection, which has improved exponentially over the past seven contests.