Pac-10 football in Arizona is being played for high stakes this weekend as conference games get underway. The University of Arizona needs to prove to its fans that last week’s win over a ranked opponent wasn’t a fluke, and Arizona State will try to prove to its skeptics that it can win against a quality team.
Both teams will get a chance to make their cases in front of friendly, frenzied fans at home.
So, who’s got the most to gain this weekend?
That would probably be ASU’s head coach, Dennis Erickson. He needs to show that his new offense is for real, and what better way than against one of the best teams in the country?
And who’s got the most to lose this weekend?
That would have to be UofA’s boss, Mike Stoops. His Cats have momentum, but now have to keep it going against a team they’re expected to beat.
Let’s consider UofA first since the Wildcats are holding everyone’s attention right now, after jumping from No. 24 nationally to No. 14 with last week’s 34-27 upset of then-No. 9 Iowa.
The Cats will host California tomorrow, trying to keep their 3-0 record spotless as they open Pac-10 play against a team that boasts two of the conference’s individual leaders in offense.
Junior tailback Shane Vereen leads the Pac in rushing, with 108 yards per game, and scoring, with 16 points per outing. Marvin Jones, the junior wide receiver, has more receptions than any other player in the conference (21) and is second on the list of receiving yards per game, with 109.
Vereen has found the end zone for eight scores and 48 points already this season, which puts him tied for second nationally in scoring. He is a dual threat, scoring six of his touchdowns on the ground and the other two off pass receptions.
The Golden Bears started the season 2-0 and earned a No. 24 ranking, but were knocked out of the Top 25 when they dropped a 52-31 decision to Nevada last week.
Meanwhile, Arizona has not skipped a beat in its 3-0 start, the first time that has happened in Coach Mike Stoops’ six years at the helm. The Cats are ranked No. 6 in the land in passing offense and No. 3 in total defense.
And they are being led by one of the best quarterbacks in the country. Nick Foles set a school record for single-game pass completion percentage earlier this year against Toledo, converting on 86.4 percent of his attempts. He is currently the No. 2-ranked quarterback in the nation, with a 78.6 percent completion rate.
And wide receiver, Juron Criner, has established himself early in the season as one of the outstanding pass-catchers in the country. After leading the Pac-10 last year with nine receiving touchdowns, he has added two more to put him just one shy of moving into the UofA top 10 all-time. He had a 10-catch, 176-yard performance this year against Toledo.
Last week, the Cats had to engineer a late 72-yard drive and then block an extra point try to hold off an Iowa rally. But the defining moments came on the Hawkeyes’ final possession when Arizona smothered Iowa’s hopes for one last score by flooding the backfield and recording four straight quarterback sacks.
They will bring that momentum into tomorrow’s contest at Arizona Stadium, where they have won 14 of the last 17 games. Last year, Cal beat the Cats, 24-16, to knock them from a No. 18 national ranking to being just another unranked team. But… the last time the Bears came to Arizona Stadium, the Cats score 28 points in the third quarter to seal a 47-27 win.
Arizona State, too, plays at home tomorrow. But it will be hosting the No. 5-ranked team in the country.
And the home-field advantage hasn’t been all that helpful when it comes to the University of Oregon. Even though the Sun Devils are 8-6 all-time against the Ducks at home, Oregon has won the last three times on its visit to the desert.
According to the numbers, Oregon might just be the best offensive and defensive team in the nation. They lead the country in total offense and total defense. They’re No. 2 in rushing, averaging 381 yards a game.
A win against a team of this caliber would go a long way toward building the players’ confidence in a new offensive system, the fans’ interest, and the fragile job security of a head coach coming off two consecutive losing seasons.
Erickson almost got that win over a quality opponent last week, as the Sun Devils came devilishly close to upsetting No. 11 Wisconsin. ASU had several missed opportunities in that game, including a missed PAT that would have tied the game. Instead, the 20-19 outcome became the Devils’ first loss of the season and spoiled a chance to make a huge statement.
ASU is looking back on five straight losses to the Ducks, who have more than doubled the Devils’ scoring on average for those five contests.
And this edition of Oregon football is fully capable of putting big points on the board once again. The Ducks have beaten their opponents so far this season by an average score of 63-4 and feature a rushing game that averages almost seven points a carry.
They’re a talented, fast team – much like ASU. And they run a spread-option offense which, again, is similar to the Sun Devils.
That offense goes to work in a hurry, generally putting up enough points in the first quarter to knock the other team back on its heels. In their last game, against Portland State, the Ducks racked up 21 points in a span of less than five minutes.
ASU will look to get its points in a number of ways. Quarterback Steven Threet is second in the conference, averaging 280 per game, and either a rusher or receiver has contributed at least 100 yards in each of the first three games. Deantre Lewis ran for 122 yards against Wisconsin and Cameron Marshall had a 100-yard game in the season opener.
And Threet has a full complement of good-hands receivers. A total of 14 different receivers have made catches so far, with Aaron Pflugrad leading the way with 15 catches and Kerry Taylor racking up the most yards, with 180.
But it will likely take some big plays from the special teams to keep up with the Ducks tomorrow, like the Omar Bolden 97-yard kickoff return against Wisconsin or the 80-yard punt return by Jamal Miles in the same game (which was called back). The Devils rank second in the country in kickoff returns, averaging 37 yards per boot.
Earlier in the week, Oregon coach Chip Kelly turned the heat up past 90 degrees in the team’s practice facility, to try to simulate the conditions they can expect when they get to the desert.
That’s just one advantage ASU will enjoy tomorrow. But they need to make the most of it.
The Sun Devils go on the road after this game, and won’t be back for another home game until Halloween weekend.