This cross-divisional Pac-12 matchup could determine the postseason fates of both Arizona and Stanford. The two meet for the first time since 2016 Saturday at The Farm, with both facing looming questions about their quarterback situations.
The Wildcats got off to a 4-1 start that seemingly blended the best of Khalil Tate the 2017 ball carrier with Tate the '18 passer. He threw for a career-high 404 yards and three touchdowns in an Oct. 5 win at Colorado, and he rushed for more than 100 yards against both Hawaii and Texas Tech. But in losses to Washington and USC, heavy pressure and a hamstring injury led to rough outings for the senior quarterback. He was replaced midway through the Week 8 defeat at USC by freshman Grant Gunnell, a four-star prospect who led UA to a win over UCLA on Sept. 28.
At Stanford, third-string quarterback Jack West was thrown into the lineup late in an upset of Washington. Both Week 1 starter K.J. Costello and backup Davis Mills — who played great in wins over Oregon State and Washington — missed the blowout loss to UCLA due to injury. Each is questionable ahead of Saturday's pairing with the Wildcats.
And those are just some of the injury-related question marks setting the scene for Saturday's matchup.
Arizona at Stanford
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 26 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: Arizona -1
When Arizona Has the Ball
Washington attacked Arizona's multifaceted offense with an aggressive, blitzing strategy. Huskies defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake sent defensive backs on routine corner blitzes, denying Tate the ability to scramble or throw the ball downfield. His struggle to get passes to outlet targets quickly contributed to offensive stagnation.
USC followed a similar playbook, although defensive end Caleb Tremblay said the Trojans took their game plan from watching film of NFL defenses against mobile quarterbacks. No matter if Stanford coordinator Lance Anderson looks to the pros or within the Pac-12: The blueprint for slowing down a high-scoring Arizona offense is laid out. However, the key to attacking the Cardinal defense has been demonstrated this season as well.
Stanford's typically stout defense is giving up 4.2 rushing yards per carry and 8.2 yards per pass. Both rank in the lower half of the conference. The Cardinal are also coming off an awful showing against UCLA's rushing attack last week, surrendering 263 yards. Arizona's injury issues have whittled down what was one of the deepest running-back rotations in the Pac-12, knocking out breakout performer Gary Brightwell and change-of-pace back Bam Smith. The Wildcats re-added J.J. Taylor for the Washington game, and he's shown bursts similar to a season ago when he finished second in the conference in rushing. Power back Nathan Tilford has also shown signs of busting out.
Should the Wildcats establish a consistent run game early against Stanford, the team's passing woes of late won't be as much of an issue. Coach Kevin Sumlin said following the USC game that Tate would start, but expect Gunnell to see snaps.
When Stanford Has the Ball
Just as the Stanford offense appeared to be turning a corner with Mills behind center, his injury against Washington exacerbated the Cardinal's struggles on that side of the ball. Stanford started three freshmen on the offensive line last week against UCLA, and it showed. Third-string quarterback West took a staggering seven sacks in the loss. The Cardinal's inability to withstand heavy pressure also manifested in a 1.8 yards per carry output.
The return of either Mills or Costello behind center could bolster the offense somewhat, but without adequate protection up front, it's almost a moot point. Expect Arizona defensive coordinator Marcel Yates to follow a strategy similar to UCLA's and let loose with the blitz, in particular unleashing tenacious linebacker Colin Schooler.
The Wildcats defense has played well for most of the last seven games. That's an odd statement given that Arizona has allowed 52 and 41 points the last two weeks, but those scores were inflated by turnovers deep in their own territory and mounting attrition from the offense's three-and-out possessions.
To that end, defense may be the best offense for Stanford. Create takeaways in Arizona territory, limit what the Wildcats do on their drives, and eventually a big play from running back Cameron Scarlett, tight end Colby Parkinson or receiver Connor Wedington could be on the horizon.
Both teams' seasons may well hinge on this result. Both have been through remarkable highs and lows to this point, so facing the other is a chance to capitalize. Each has a win over an opponent the other lost to — Arizona over UCLA, Stanford over Washington — but the general weirdness of the Pac-12 would indicate that those outcomes should be taken with a grain of salt.
The quarterback quandary each team faces should shape this game. Tate's play went from arguably the best and most well-rounded of his career to a handicap in short order. Gunnell played well against UCLA, but Arizona mustered only 20 points in that win. Stanford has seen impressive production out of both Costello and Mills, but it may not matter who is playing given the offensive line issues.
This game may be an unexpected grind. In a contest like that, defaulting to the more productive rushing attack may be the answer.
Prediction: Arizona 21, Stanford 17
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.