Arizona-Oregon: Five things to watch, prediction

Arizona-Oregon: Five things to watch, prediction
Anthony Gimino
Anthony Gimino

By Anthony Gimino / Special for Tucson News Now

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - The Arizona Wildcats take on second-ranked Oregon on Thursday night, looking for their second consecutive victory over the Ducks.

The degree of difficulty goes through the roof this time around. Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota is healthy, the game is in rowdy Autzen Stadium, and the Ducks do have revenge on their mind, which might count for something.

Here are five things to watch:

1. Marcus Mariota

Yeah. Pretty much had to start here. If Mariota plays his normal Heisman-frontrunner kind of game, Arizona won't have much of a chance. If he's Super Marcus, forget it. He's one of two quarterbacks in the country completing 70 percent of his passes, combined with at least 10 touchdown passes and no interceptions.

OK, that stat is a bit obscure, but you add that all up and run it through the college quarterback rating calculator, and he's the most efficient passer in the country.

And we haven't even talked about his legs yet. Let's do that. It's not like Arizona is great at pressuring the passer, but that might be a good thing. Where Mariota really makes killer plays is when he improvises after dropping back. UA's pass rushers can't get too far up field, allowing Mariota inside running lanes. Contain, contain, contain.

And then hope for the best.

2. Arizona's running backs

The streak of 20 consecutive games with a 100-yard rusher is over - but quite a streak it was, we say - with the Cats likely to go with a two-headed approach with Terris Jones-Grigsby and Nick Wilson.

Arizona's ability to run, move the chains and use clock will be vital if the Cats are able to get a lead. Last year's 42-16 victory over the Ducks played out perfectly - UA got an early turnover (an interception on the first snap), grabbed a 14-0 lead and then kept feeding Oregon a never-tiring Ka'Deem Carey, who carried the ball 48 times.

Oregon defensive coordinator Don Pellum told reporters in Eugene that Arizona's new running backs are similar to Carey.

"I think all their backs are similar," he said. "They have great feet. They have great vision. And they are really good getting downhill vertical."

3. A quick start

Arizona lost 49-0 when it last visited Autzen Stadium in 2012, a score that indicates nothing was going to save the Wildcats that day. They can't say they didn't have their chances to make the game interesting, however.

Arizona stalled near the goal line on its first possession and then didn't get off a 22-yard field-goal attempt because of a bobbled snap. Matt Scott was intercepted by cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu (he's still around) in the red zone on the next drive. Then the Cats were stopped on fourth-and-goal from the 2. And then a 31-yard field-goal attempt was blocked.

"I remember there were a lot of lost opportunities in the first half," Coach Rich Rodriguez said. "I knew at the time, 'Man, this is going to hurt us in the end.' And it just blew up in the second half on us."

When it was over, Arizona had six red-zone chances and no points.

4. Anu Solomon

For Arizona's redshirt freshman quarterback, it's his biggest game, against the best team, in the loudest environment, in front of the largest television audience ... oh, is that all?

"He's been in some big games at Bishop Gorman," Rodriguez said with a smile, referring to Solomon's high school in Las Vegas. "That's a powerhouse school that had some big environments."

RichRod is always good for a sly comment or two in his weekly press conference - we appreciate that - but the fact is that for as good as Solomon has been, he's going to have to be better than anyone would dare hope if he is going to be as mistake-free as Arizona needs him to be. But, imagine what a national coming-out party it could be for him.

5. A little luck

By luck, we mean turnovers. Oregon has committed only one through four games.

The ball bounced in funny and wonderful ways in Arizona's upset last season, while the Wildcats committed no turnovers and quarterback B.J. Denker was nearly flawless in his decision-making. That's what it comes down to - Arizona must be at its best, while Oregon needs to be ... meh.

"We played our cleanest game of the season," Rodriguez said of last year's game. "It goes without saying - for us to have a chance in this game, we have to play clean football offensively and not give up big plays on defense."

PREDICTION

If Oregon doesn't get healthier and fix its problems on the offensive line, the Ducks won't get through the Pac-12 undefeated.

With a trio of injuries up front, including to left tackle Jake Fisher (who is likely to remain out this week but return at some point), Oregon is starting true freshman Tyrell Crosby at left tackle and junior walk-on Matt Pierson at right tackle. The Ducks gave up seven sacks to Washington State.

But is this weakness on the offensive line an area Arizona's defense can exploit? I'm skeptical about that. If the Cats bring extra defenders to pressure Mariota or in an attempt to create havoc, that's just an invitation for one-on-one matchups and more big plays for the Ducks against a secondary prone to busting coverages.

Oregon 54, Arizona 28.

Anthony Gimino has covered University of Arizona athletics for more than two decades, including as the football beat writer for the Arizona Daily Star and the columnist for the Tucson Citizen.

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