In 2014, Arizona and Oregon faced off in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Just two seasons later, both the Wildcats and Ducks hit their worst lows in quite some time, with Arizona sputtering to a 3-9 finish, and Oregon going 4-8.
Things changed for both programs between the 2016 and '17 season. At Oregon, Mark Helfrich was let go and Willie Taggart was hired. His arrival and assembly of a staff that includes defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt reinvigorated the burgeoning powerhouse, and the Ducks have a chance to sew up bowl eligibility with a win on Saturday.
For Arizona, getting healthy in the offseason improved the Wildcats by leaps and bounds. But Arizona's primary transformation began in October with Khalil Tate replacing Brandon Dawkins at quarterback. The Wildcats ran off a 5-1 record with Tate, a budding Heisman Trophy contender.
Oregon's fate flipped similarly due to a quarterback change, though with the opposite effect. Former Arizona commit Braxton Burmeister replaced Justin Herbert on Sept. 30 when Herbert sustained a collarbone injury, and the Ducks went 1-4 thereafter.
Herbert looks ready to return to the lineup this week, however, increasing the stakes for this cross-divisional showdown.
Arizona at Oregon
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 18 at 7 p.m. ET
TV Channel: Pac-12 Network
Spread: Oregon -1
Three Things to Watch
1. A rejuvenated Oregon offense
Although Oregon thrived in years past with rushing quarterbacks like Jeremiah Masoli and Marcus Mariota, the freshman Braxton Burmeister has been a somewhat tenuous fit for the Ducks' current approach. His inability to pass effectively severely limited the multifaceted backfield of Kani Benoit and Royce Freeman, as defenses responded with 8-man boxes and zero-coverage looks.
Justin Herbert's efficient touch forces defenses to be honest against the potential pass, freeing things up for the prolific rushing attack. The Ducks have endured stagnant performances of 3, 7, 10 and 14 points over the past month and a half without Herbert, but that anemia should end on Saturday.
2. Khalil Tate's arm
Arizona's Tate has wowed the nation with his explosive running ability, filling highlight reels in just over a month of action. Thus far, no opponent has been able to slow him for an entire game — even USC, which limited Tate for a half, gave up 161 yards to the sophomore.
Yet, against Oregon, Tate could find himself having to complete more passes than usual.
Leavitt has transformed the Ducks' rushing defense, which is 25th in the nation at 125 yards per game, and gives up just 3.65 yards per carry. In contrast, Oregon has struggled mightily against the pass, ranking No. 99 nationally.
3. Turning point turnovers
A critical element behind Oregon's success in the previous decade was the ability of its defense to garner takeaways. Turnovers fueled the Ducks' high-powered offense, and vice versa. Opponents oftentimes forced plays to try and keep pace, which only further exacerbated the game of catch-up.
Arizona has thrived with a similar style of play in defensive coordinator Marcel Yates' second year. The Wildcats rank No. 16 nationally with 21 takeaways, including a Pac-12-best 16 interceptions. It's a tough defense against which to throw, especially for a quarterback returning from almost two months on the sidelines.
Similarly, the Oregon defense has regained some of its turnover-generating chops under Leavitt. The Ducks have 17 takeaways on the season. In Arizona's only loss with Tate at quarterback, USC forced three turnovers — and won by two possessions. Such is the roadmap to downing the Wildcats.
The return of Justin Herbert bolsters Oregon's chances, both against Arizona and for sealing a bowl bid in the final two weeks. Without him in the lineup Saturday, the Ducks could very well have been looking at another blowout loss, with all four during the October-November slide coming by at least 17 points.
Instead, a high-scoring shootout awaits in Autzen Stadium.
Oregon's run defense will be put to the test by Khalil Tate and the multi-dimensional backfield of Nick Wilson, J.J. Taylor and Zach Green. A Ducks lineup at full strength can keep up, but it might not be enough.