It's Homecoming Week at Arizona, and could not come at a more needed time for the Wildcats. Since starting 4-1, the Wildcats have dropped three straight to fall to .500, including the last two on the road at USC and Stanford.
The two California defeats followed much different arcs, but with very similar themes: The Wildcats were dominated at USC while having several misfires in Stanford territory that could have tied or given UA leads. In both instances, though, a quarterback question loomed with veteran Khalil Tate and freshman Grant Gunnell.
Oregon State, meanwhile, has played its best football of the last few years. A blowout loss to rolling Utah notwithstanding, the Beavers (3-4, 2-2 Pac-12) won two very different looking games against UCLA and Cal. They also took Stanford down to the final possession at the beginning of this stretch, and are just a few plays away from being 5-2. Three wins in the final five would send the Beavers to their first bowl game since 2013.
Oregon State at Arizona
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 26 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: Arizona -5.5
When Oregon State Has the Ball
Oregon State's explosive offense under second-year head coach Jonathan Smith is one of the most fun secrets of the 2019 college football season. Quarterback Jake Luton is playing savvy ball, throwing just one interception against 16 touchdowns on the season. Luton's hooked up frequently with Isaiah Hodgins, who has a strong case as the Pac-12's best receiver of 2019.
Don't just take this preview's word for it: Hodgins leads the conference in yards (745); yards per game (106.4); and touchdowns (10). Coming off two weeks in which USC wide receivers Michael Pittman Jr. and Tyler Vaughns, and Stanford's Simi Fehoko gave Arizona the business, the Wildcats' secondary must brace for Hodgins. And UA does it with a new defensive coordinator, Chuck Cecil.
After showing tremendous improvements in wins over Texas Tech and UCLA, Arizona gave up 30 points to Colorado and more than 40 in each of the three losses. Marcel Yates was ousted, and Cecil takes over. The Wildcats aren't without talent on that side of the ball; linebacker Colin Schooler's reminiscent of his new coordinator Cecil when the coach played at Arizona. But the Wildcats have been much too inconsistent throughout the season.
Limiting Luton and Hodgins is just one challenge for the defense. Oregon State has seen a breakout from senior running back Artavis Pierce since taking over the majority of carries from injured Jermar Jefferson. Pierce runs behind an outstanding offensive line, giving balance to a potentially potent offense.
When Arizona Has the Ball
Badly stagnating against Washington and USC, with both using frequent cornerback blitzes to get at Tate, saw Arizona head coach Kevin Sumlin shake things up. Sumlin said he always planned to use freshman Gunnell more than the four games allotted to maintain a redshirt, but Gunnell's made extensive appearances in each of Arizona's last three. That doesn't include his strong showing in the win over UCLA.
Both Tate and Gunnell played great in stretches at Stanford. Both committed costly turnovers deep in Cardinal territory that doomed the Wildcats late.
Consistent quarterback play is a must against a vulnerable Oregon State defense. The Beavers allow 31.6 points per game, an average bolstered by holding a badly dinged-up Cal offense to 17 points last time out. Attacking Oregon State's rushing defense, ranked No. 11 in the conference with 191.6 yards per game allowed, is a must for Noel Mazzone's UA offense.
Getting a healthy J.J. Taylor back provides a needed boost. Arizona also has Gary Brightwell back in the mix, as well as change-of-pace Bam Smith. This is the closest the Arizona backfield's been to 100 percent all season.
This is very well a bowl elimination game. Given the differing trajectories of the two teams, it's close to a toss-up pick. Oregon State needs to start fast to cool off Arizona's Homecoming crowd. The look of the Wildcats defense under new coordinator Chuck Cecil presents an interesting dynamic, which may be enough to reinvigorate an Arizona team that's looked listless amid this losing streak.
While the quarterback question provides uncertainty, Arizona's full-strength running back rotation should be able to provide enough explosive plays against Oregon State's defense to set the tone.
Prediction: Arizona 38, Oregon State 30
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.