Old Tucson has a reputation as one of the west’s wildest towns. Given the back-and-forth nature of Oregon’s recent flings with Arizona, nothing is expected to change anyone’s mind about that Saturday when Oregon faces the Wildcats to open Pac-12 play.
Two years ago, you will recall a last minute touchdown pass from Jeremiah Masoli to Ed Dickson sent the game into a pair of overtimes. Masoli’s one-yard keeper gave Oregon the win and sent the Ducks on to the Civil War with the home field advantage for the Rose Bowl.
But this fracas has deeper roots than that. The 1994 Rose Bowl team followed up Kenny Wheaton’s “Pick” with a tense 10-9 win over Arizona at Autzen, Josh Wilcox and Danny O’Neil teaming up for the decisive score.
In 2000, under the Autzen lights, Joey Harrington outgunned Arizona’s Oretege Jenkins in a highly anticipated mid-season match-up. The final score of 14-10 final belies the fireworks the game offered.
Oregon used that win as a springboard into the national rankings and the thick of the Pac-10 race. A three-way tie for the title sent the Ducks to the Holiday Bowl, and what could reasonably be considered an era changing 35-30 win over the Texas Longhorns.
There has certainly been a heartbreak side to the series as well. Nobody will forget the sight in 2007 of Dennis Dixon crumpled on the turf, putting an end to his Heisman-caliber season and Oregon’s #2 ranking.
Although Oregon held on for the win 28-21, Kellen Clemens suffered a similar fate in 2005.
And in 1998, a decent Akili Smith team was throttled 38-3. That loss spoiled any possibility of a bowl bid a bit more prestigious than their eventual Aloha Bowl joust with Colorado.
So, what can we expect this time in Tucson? That’s a complicated question. The Wildcats looked horrible in their two losses, but both were to very good teams: Oklahoma State and Stanford.
Since their opening loss to LSU, Oregon has been much more impressive. However, those wins came against the likes of Nevada and Missouri State.
The net result is that Saturday’s tilt becomes something of a season defining game for both teams.
Offensively, the Wildcats are led by senior quarterback Nick Foles, who Oregon head coach Chip Kelly considers “one of the best in the country.”
Also highly ranked on Kelly’s scale is the Arizona receiving corps, led by All Pac-10 selection Juron Criner.
Although the Wildcats have lost the past two games, that combination has been particularly lethal against Oregon.
In their first three games, the Wildcats have relied extensively on their passing game. So far this year, Foles has tossed 126 passes and completed 95 for a sick 75.4% completion average. He’s also amassed 1,049 yards and seven touchdowns.
Criner missed one game with an appendectomy, but still packs a 16.6 yards per catch average and has scored touchdowns.
Oregon’s secondary is forewarned.
Defensively, first Oregon must get pressure on Foles. DE Dion Jordan will be key coming off the edge, and expect defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti to turn Boseko Lokombo and Kiko Alonso loose on the blitz regularly.
Oregon’s secondary will likely press Arizona’s receivers at the line of scrimmage in order to jam up the routes and delay Foles quick release.
Complicating the issue is that Foles is 6’5”, 240 pounds and Texas (Austin) tough.
But the Arizona offensive line is young and inexperienced. So, if Jordan and the defensive line can get Foles on the move and the linebackers can close, the Ducks may be able to keep the Widlcats’ passing game under wraps.
The youth on the offensive line has also limited the Wildcat rushing attack to a pedestiran 167 total yards and an average of only 2.6 yards per carry. With that in mind, it would seem the Oregon defense will be able to pin their ears back and go. Nonetheless, running back Keola Antolin is a legitimate threat to go the distance anytime he touches the ball.
The Arizona secondary was carved up ruthlessly by Brandon Weeden of Oklahoma State and Stanford’s Andrew Luck. But Chip Kelly is wary of drawing conclusions based on those two outings, pointing to the years experience the Wildcat defensive backs bring to the equation.
At the same time, Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas may have offered something of a preview of this week’s game plan in the second half last Saturday against Missouri State. With the game well in hand, but before Thomas gave way to back-up QB Bryan Bennett, Kelly took advantage of the opportunity to have Thomas air the ball out a bit. That resulted in back-to-back 40 yard plus completions and a 37 second scoring drive.
Arizona’s secondary is similarly forewarned.
If Oregon is able to get LaMichael James untracked early and often, events could turn their way convincingly. But if left in the hands of the two quarterbacks, this game could boil down to a combination of penalties, special teams and who has the ball last.
Kick off is set for 7:15.
— Rick Morgan for EDN