The University of Arizona football team would have to pull off a ‘hat trick’ if it wants to beat the Oregon Ducks in tonight’s Pac-12 Championship game. It would be the third consecutive time in the last two seasons that the Wildcats have engineered a major upset of the Ducks, both times when Oregon was ranked among the top five teams in the nation.
Arizona, which was unranked both times, kinda snuck up on the Ducks; last year’s upset win was considered by many to be a fluke and this year’s stunner was also unexpected.
But there won’t be a sneak attack tonight when the teams meet for the conference title. The Ducks (11-1) will be ready – and primed for revenge. Last year’s stunning 42-16 loss to Arizona (10-2) knocked Oregon out of the BCS championship picture. Earlier this season, the Ducks were ranked No. 2 in the nation and the 31-24 loss to the Cats put a big dent in their plans to be one of the four teams in the College Football Playoffs.
Needless to say, there will be plenty of motivation for an Oregon win tonight when the teams face off in Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. The loss to Arizona was the only blemish to a perfect record this season. Oregon has won seven in a row since that Oct. 2 upset in Eugene, putting up an average of 24 points a game.
That’s several months of pent-up frustration over one under-performing quarter of play. The Ducks actually dominated three quarters in that Week 5 loss and took a 7-3 lead into halftime, but gave up 21 points on the first three possessions of the third quarter to lift Arizona to a 24-14 lead that Oregon couldn’t overcome. And prior to that game, the Ducks had allowed a total of three points in the third quarter of any game.
Arizona found a way to do what no other team has done this season – beat Oregon. But a repeat performance is going to be a tall order.
The No. 7 Wildcats are a good team this year, with some outstanding talent. But No. 2 Oregon isn’t going to let a chance at a national title slip through its grasp. Arizona has a couple of key issues working against its chances to beat the Ducks again, and possibly slip into the national playoffs.
At the top of that list is Marcus Mariota.
In that October win, the Ducks’ defense was able to put a lot of defensive pressure on the redshirt junior quarterback, who is considered a front-runner for this year’s Heisman Trophy, and held the Ducks’ high-octane offense to just six yards a play – a season low for Oregon at the time. He was sacked five times, including a critical dump in the waning minutes of the game that forced a fumble and enabled the Cats to hold on for the seven-point win.
But that porous Oregon offensive line that was missing three starters in that game is healthy again, and Mariota will have time in the backfield to work his usual magic. Mariota averages 289 yards a game passing and is also the team’s second-leading rusher with 821 yards. If he gets protection, he is a nightmare to defend.
And the Ducks’ O-line has been doing a much better job of giving Mariota time in the backfield, returning to an emphasis on fundamentals, getting off the ball better, and reducing the number of sacks by better than 30 percent a game since their awakening against the Wildcats.
Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez has been very open about his strategy in both wins over Oregon, emphasizing the need to keep the explosive Ducks’ offense off the field – a plan that worked well in both of the earlier wins. But when an improved offensive line is able to open the holes the running backs need, it’s impossible to accomplish that goal.
Yes, Arizona can definitely put points on the board, and score them in bunches. And that’s what it’s going to take tonight to be able to take the next big step on the national stage.
Much of that task will fall to a couple of youngsters, redshirt freshman quarterback Anu Solomon and true freshman running back Nick Wilson. Solomon has thrown for 3,424 yards and run for another 282, while Wilson has rushed for 1,263 yards and 15 touchdowns.
But Mariota is going to be too much to handle in a game of this importance. He’s accomplished just about everything possible in an impressive college career – which will also probably include the Heisman confirmation as the best player in the college game this season. He has thrown for 3,470 yards this season to contribute 36 TDs with his arm, and 11 touchdowns running for 633 yards. And he’s been nearly error-free, throwing just two picks in 12 games.
And now he has a chance to move the school within grasp of its first-ever national title in football. A win over Arizona would pretty much guarantee the Ducks a spot in the Football Playoff.
Keeping him from that final goal will be a huge order for the Cats, one they’re probably not quite ready for – yet.
(Photo: Oregon Athletics)