Whispers of the College Football Playoff were drowned out amid the full-throated cries of thousands of Washington State fans last week for the Oregon Ducks. Although an unlikely berth in the final four for Mario Cristobal's squad is now a virtual impossibility, a shot at a conference championship is still attainable.
Oregon would need help — Washington losing once more, Stanford and Washington State (who play each other this week) losing twice more each — but that's all out of the Ducks' control. The first order for business for Oregon is rebounding from last week's loss in the first of four straight games against Pac-12 South opponents.
Up first is a trip to Arizona, which Oregon has not played on the road since 2013. Much has changed for both programs in the past five years: Kevin Sumlin replaced Rich Rodriguez as Wildcats head coach this past offseason, while Cristobal became Oregon's third head coach in that time. Each team has also adopted new styles of play under new regimes, with varying degrees of success.
Injuries and growing pains have contributed to a disappointing, 3-5 start to the Sumlin era. With three losses coming by a combined 10 points, including last week's 31-30 outcome at UCLA, Arizona has endured plenty of heartache this year. A win over nationally ranked Oregon on Homecoming would provide a positive boost for the program in the stretch run of this first year with a mostly new coaching staff.
Oregon at Arizona
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 27 at 10:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Oregon -9.5
Three Things to Watch
1. A game of runs
Both Arizona and Oregon lost a week ago as a result of the run, albeit for different reasons. Washington State rendered Oregon's typically prolific ground attack ineffective, yielding just 2.4 yards per carry for 58 in total. The Ducks' 24 carries were a season-low, the result of falling behind by four touchdowns in the first half and having to rely more heavily on the pass after intermission.
Conversely, Arizona ran the ball well against UCLA — the Wildcats' 289 yards were their second-most on the season — but the defense's inability to stop the run on one particular drive ended the game. Arizona performed adequately against the Bruins much of the game, holding them to 3.3 yards per carry, but UCLA's ability to grind out first-down yardage bled the final six minutes-plus off the clock.
Before that final drive, Arizona's rush defense looked the best it has all season, a byproduct of coordinator Marcel Yates making lineup changes to put bigger bodies on the line. The Wildcats need to find a way to slow Oregon's run game for a full 60 minutes.
2. Someone to lean on
Arizona faces a quarterback question ahead of Saturday's contest. The status of Khalil Tate was uncertain as of Tuesday; Tate missed the previous week's contest with a nagging ankle injury. The 2017 breakout star has consistently played at less than 100 percent, starting with last season's matchup against Oregon.
In Tate's place, Rhett Rodriguez looked solid for stretches against UCLA in between the occasional freshman mistake (i.e., a red-zone interception). Still, the Oregon defense is a much different challenge for the young Rodriguez, should he once again get the start. The Ducks have one of the most talented front sevens in the Pac-12, with stars Justin Holllins, Troy Dye, Jordon Scott and Jalen Jelks. An Arizona offensive line that has dealt with a smattering of injuries — most notably left tackle Layth Friekh — will have protection issues against that group.
Arizona used a combination of Gary Brightwell and J.J. Taylor on the ground at UCLA, with both going over 100 yards. The Wildcats will again need productive outings from both to keep some pressure off either an injured or young quarterback, and to have a chance of springing the upset.
3. Takeaways in Tucson
Arizona's last win came as a result of four takeaways and two defensive touchdowns, Oct. 6 against Cal. Turnovers function as equalizers for underdogs, and the Wildcats have their best hope of knocking off Oregon if they can generate some.
Oregon's plus-three on the season in turnover margin. Giveaways haven't been central to the Ducks' losses — they didn't turn the ball over last week, but got two interceptions of Gardner Minshew — but they were vital to the Stanford comeback on Sept. 22.
Generating interceptions is an especially challenging task against Oregon, with Justin Herbert going the last three games without a pick. He threw five in the first four weeks.
Arizona's three losses by 10 total points are likely gut-wrenching for Wildcats, making the difference in already having bowl eligibility sewn up, and now likely being out of the postseason hunt altogether. However, the two lopsided losses to Houston and Utah are more relevant to this weekend's contest.
Cristobal's introduced a physical brand of football at Oregon comparable to those teams that overwhelmed the Wildcats. The dizzying first half of last week's game at Washington State notwithstanding, Jim Leavitt's defense has been great, and Arizona flounders when an opponent sets the tone on that side of the ball.
The Wildcats have made considerable strides since September, particularly with the rejuvenation of the run game, and an improved defense. But as abbreviated offensive possessions pile up against the Ducks, the Wildcats defense will get gassed, allowing Oregon to pull away.