Monday, November 22, 2010
Arizona has a puncher's shot at Oregon
By ESPN.com staff ESPN.com
A year ago yesterday, Oregon and Arizona played an epic, double-overtime game that included a premature charging of the field by the 'Zona Zoo that was thwarted by one of the best individual performances of the 2009 season.
Suffice it to say, Arizona fans won't charge the field at Autzen Stadium on Friday until the clock reads zero and they have notched a shocking upset, and there will not be six touchdowns from Jeremiah Masoli (three passing, three running).
It won't be a walk in the park for Oregon up against Arizona quarterback Nick Foles and the nation's No. 10 passing offense.
In fact, the general feeling is this one won't be anything like that one in that it won't be close -- see the top-ranked Ducks as nearly a three-touchdown favorite.
Hmm. Really? Anyone else think this one might be highly competitive?
The Ducks shouldn't take the Wildcats for granted, that's for sure, and exhibit A is the razor-fine margin that earned the Ducks a 44-41 win last year that knocked Arizona out of the Rose Bowl.
Sure, Arizona is coming off back-to-back conference defeats to teams the Ducks handled fairly easily -- Stanford and USC -- but the Wildcats had a bye week in which to get rested and refocused. Oregon did also, of course, but it's generally considered a substantial benefit to have extra time to get ready for Oregon's spread-option offense, particularly its up-tempo pace.
Moreover, they had that extra time after watching California's defense hold the Ducks to season-lows in points and yards. The Wildcats have the talent and speed on defense to incorporate many of the elements that the Bears used so successfully, starting with defensive ends Brooks Reed and Ricky Elmore, who can bring edge pressure and prevent Oregon from getting to the perimeter.
Arizona ranks 14th in the nation in run defense, 12th in scoring defense and 15th in sacks. While Stanford and USC mostly had their way with the Wildcats, those two offenses are more downhill, pro-style attacks. The Arizona defense might be better suited for the Ducks lateral movement and zone blocking.
Further, quarterback Nick Foles and the nation's No. 10 passing offense might be able to keep up with the Ducks scoring pace, though Oregon ranks fifth in the nation in passing efficiency defense.
Foles isn't the sort who will be rattled by crowd noise. He and many of his best weapons -- receivers Juron Criner, David Roberts and Bug Wright -- have been playing hurt. The bye should have helped that. And, oh by the way, it appears that backup Matt Scott, who was so good when Foles sat out with a dislocated knee cap, also should be ready to return from a wrist injury. The athletic Scott could see action in specific packages, giving the Ducks defense a different look.
The stakes are huge for Oregon. It's unbeaten and two wins away from playing for its first national title. While the Ducks have been poised all year -- including the tight win at Cal -- it's not impossible to think that a few miscues could get them to tighten up.
Keep in mind that the biggest reason it never really felt like Cal was going to upset Oregon was the Bears' horrible offense. If the Ducks give Foles and company opportunities in the fourth quarter, they could take advantage.
Arizona is under little pressure. It's bowl eligible but out of the Rose Bowl race. A win would be good for the program. It would give the Wildcats a nice bounce in the national rankings. But it won't likely bolster their bowl position to a large degree. In fact, knocking the Ducks out of the national title game actually might send Arizona to a lower-rung bowl -- if Oregon and Stanford both earn BCS bowl berths the Wildcats would end up in the Alamo Bowl if they beat rival Arizona State at home on Dec. 2.
The overriding point is: Arizona has a chance. And not just because everybody has a chance in college football.
The Wildcats have a chance against the nation's No. 1 team in Autzen Stadium because they are a good and rested team with enough speed to keep up with the Ducks.