Oregon's shocking 42-16 loss at Arizona in 2013 was explained away by the usual suspects of excuses. Oregon was flat after losing to Stanford two weeks before. The planets curiously aligned and Arizona played a perfect game. All the bounces went toward the Wildcats and away from the Ducks.
In fact, that loss was widely viewed -- at least among the chattering classes -- as fuel for the Ducks against Arizona on Oct. 5 in Eugene. Then-No. 2 Oregon was playing inside the friendly confines of boisterous Autzen Stadium, and Wildcats redshirt freshman quarterback Anu Solomon was making his first road start in the Pac-12. In their previous game, the Wildcats needed a Hail Mary pass to beat California. Oregon was expected to exact revenge -- in spades.
Of course, we all know what happened. Arizona, without playing a perfect game and without a series of "lucky" breaks, won 31-24. It outrushed, outgained and outplayed the Ducks. Sure, Oregon has some injury issues. Sure, the game was horribly officiated. But egregious calls went both ways. The Wildcats just played better.
Since that loss, the Ducks are 7-0 and again ranked No. 2. Their average winning margin has been 24.3 points per game. They have scored at least 40 points in seven straight games and gained at least 500 yards in six straight. Both are the longest active streaks in the FBS, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
“They’ve been rolling right by people," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. "In all three phases, they’ve been dominant. I think our guys see that. They know they are a better team.”
Ah, but Rodriguez and defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel seem to have some secret sauce for cooking the Ducks. While Stanford was once viewed as Oregon's nemesis, now the Wildcats are that team.
Take Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, who is trying to lock up the Heisman Trophy, the Pac-12 title and a berth in the College Football Playoff with a win over No. 7 Arizona on Friday night in Levi's Stadium. Since the start of last season, Mariota has a 62.0 Total QBR in two games against Arizona, 30 points lower than against all other FBS opponents. Since the start of last season, two of Oregon’s three lowest-scoring games have come against Arizona.
Over the past two years, Mariota and the Ducks have averaged 47.9 points per game and 7.6 yards per play. Against Arizona, that total falls to 20 ppg and 6.2 ypp.
So Arizona has twice put together a plan that has thwarted the heavily favored Ducks. The question is whether they stick to the basics of the previous plans that worked before or make significant tweaks in anticipation of Oregon making adjustments?
“You don’t want to confuse your own players too much," Rodriguez said. "You don’t want to have them out there thinking. You want them to play fast, especially when you’re playing a team as fast as Oregon.”
That means Arizona plans to stick to the schemes that won it the South Division championship and earned it 10 regular season wins, including one over the Ducks. Oregon also probably wants to be itself, as in playing like the team it has been the past seven games.
Recall that the loss to Arizona was supposed to have exposed Oregon's Achilles' heel: its offensive line. It was decimated by injuries and, combined with the preceding game against Washington State, had surrendered 12 sacks in two games. The return of offensive tackle Jake Fisher and, to a lesser extent, Andre Yruretagoyena, has bolstered the Ducks' line significantly. It has yielded just 17 sacks in the Ducks other 10 games.
Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said the Ducks had to make adjustments within their schemes and with the personnel to get the line to gel. The unit has been playing significantly better, though it has to be a concern that All-America center Hroniss Grasu is still out with a knee injury.
One line of thinking is the Ducks' desire for vindication should provide extra fuel. If so, Helfrich is fine with that. Whatever increases focus.
“The thing we always talk about is channeling your energy to preparation," Helfrich said. "Whatever it is, if it’s getting beat the last two times we’ve played these guys, if that motivates you to have a great practice today, perfect. Use it.”
That said, you'd think the Pac-12 championship and a potential berth in the playoff would be motivation enough.
Oregon expected to be here when the season began. No one predicted the Wildcats would crash the party. Yet it's Arizona that comes in with the favorable head-to-head ledger. That suggests both teams should be plenty confident in their personnel and plan when they strap it on for the 2014 conference crown.