Keys to the game: Oregon at Arizona
Oregon opens PAC-12 play with a road game at Arizona, and again the crucial thing is not merely winning but playing in a way that shows improvement and gets the team ready for October and November, an eight-week battle to defend their conference title. Here are some of the key factors in the Ducks’ PAC-12 opener:
Keeping the Zona Zoo on their side of the mythical moat
Several Oregon players have said they relish competing in a hostile environment, notably starting quarterback Darron Thomas, who basically challenged the Wildcat fans to bring their worst, batteries and all. (Rule number one: always keep your helmet on, entering or leaving the field on the road.)
While it’s good that the Ducks acknowledge the challenge and welcome it, they have to be careful. They can’t become so preoccupied with egging on the Wildcat fans that they take their eyes off the actual Wildcats. They can’t give the crowd life with a slow start or unforced errors, the dreaded self-inflicted wounds. They must play disciplined football, keeping turnovers and penalties to a minimum. Arizona replaced all five starters on the offensive line this year and has lost three returning starters on the defense to knee injuries. As long as the Ducks don’t help them, they simply don’t have the staying power or the firepower to play four quarters with the Oregon offense. Not allowing the crowd to be a factor will help them avoid a road upset.
Fast, hard, finish? Important, but better in this game to have a smooth, efficient start
A smooth, fast start would be a big advantage, especially since Mike Stoops’ squad is coming off a pair of 37-10 losses to top-ranked teams, and trailing early would discourage both the players and the Wildcat fans. It’s a perfect opportunity for the Ducks to impose their will on a vulnerable opponent. Early success gives the Arizona team and supporters new life. Two quick Oregon scores might rob them of their will, encouraging a Mike Stoops implosion.
Critical matchup one: the Oregon secondary vs. the Arizona passing game
Through three games Nick Foles has thrown for 1046 yards and seven touchdowns without an interception. He spreads the ball around to five receivers that are all over six feet tall and more than 200 lbs. His two top targets, Dan Buckner and Juron Criner, are each 6-4, 220. John Neal’s talented but smallish secondary has to man up and tackle, avoid assignment errors and big plays. Foles will dink and dunk and move the chains, and it can be frustrating. He picks and picks, zipping the ball around with incredible efficiency (75% completions so far this year), and when corners creep up, his receivers have the speed to beat them deep. Terrence Mitchell, Troy Hill, Avery Patterson and Brian Jackson have to be ready for prime time. They have to win or at least hold their own in matchups against a deep receiver corps. And Oregon’s standout, experienced corners, Anthony Gildon and Cliff Harris, have to take on Buckner and Criner and contain them. The Wildcat twosome will make their catches, but they can’t be allowed to have a big day and dictate the game.
A prime time game from Oregon’s prime time db
It’s time for Cliff Harris to lock stuff down. He’s served a suspension and been relegated to spot duty, and now the Ducks need him to be the impact player who made several preseason All-America lists and placed high on the boards of mock NFL drafts. Harris at his best is one the fiercest lockdown cover corners in NCAA football. He’s a quarterback baiter and a star receiver negator who shines in big games. Now that he’s smoked it all he has to get out of his fog and start playing football. He has 12 games to show there’s a second chapter to the Kash legend. Cliff’s been quiet and refused interviews since his traffic stop. Trouble is, his play has been quiet too in limited opportunities.
No smash debuts or star-making turns
In November of 2006, in the midst of a four-game losing streak, the Ducks got blown out at home by the 5-5 Wildcats 37-10. A little-known running back named Chris Henry rushed for 191 yards and two touchdowns, adding another on a 21-yard pass reception. Inattention or bad tackling can turn an ordinary player into a star or launch a legend. The Cats have a freshman tailback named Ka’Deem Carey and a senior named Keola Antolin. Antolin’s had an undistinguished career, but as a freshman he erupted for four touchdowns against the Ducks in 55-45 shootout. Either of these backs are capable of a big day if the Oregon front seven helps them along. In the season’s first three games, they’ve had some trouble with assignments and execution against the run. Mike Stoops will test them early, and they simply have to come up with some stops, starting by being where they’re supposed to be and wrapping up.
The Oregon offense finds its rhythm and tempo against a better class of competition
They dominated the game against the Wolfpack and the Bears, but now they’re facing a team that has been battle-tested by Oklahoma State and Stanford. The yards, the holes and the open receivers won’t come quite as easily Saturday night on the road. Oregon’s still the better team, but the margin isn’t as great. The Ducks have to adjust to the speed of a tougher opponent and a bigger game, and execute as well as they have in the last two weeks. In particular, Darron Thomas has to be sharp and on target with his throws, providing the balance that keeps teams from loading up on the run. Arizona’s big vulnerability is the secondary where they allow the bulk of 473 yards per game in offense (111th in the country). Thomas has to continue to look off safeties and make good decisions with his reads. His improved play has made the Duck offense unstoppable in Autzen. Now he has to take that precision and consistency on the road, against a PAC-12 opponent.
If the Ducks play like they should in this game, they’ll win by more than two touchdowns. The danger is, the perils of travel and a hostile environment often makes things go bump in the night. The Ducks have to smooth their own road by performing to their awesome potential.