Arizona (6-4, 3-4 Pac-12) wraps up its three-game homestand on Saturday with its toughest opponent yet, North Division-leading Oregon (9-1, 6-1).
The Wildcats have lost their last two games, both in Tucson, falling 31-26 to UCLA and then 24-17 to Washington State last weekend. While the loss to UCLA was understandable, falling to the Cougars served as a shock to the system, putting what looked like a sure-fire bowl bid in doubt if the Wildcats fail to win another game this season.
Oregon moved back into the lead in the Pac-12 North with last week's win over Utah and Stanford's loss at USC. The Ducks would take the division and play in the conference title game if they win out.
Oregon throttled Arizona 49-0 last season, turning a tight 13-0 game at halftime into a defensive masterpiece.
When: Saturday, Nov. 23, 3:30 p.m. ET
Where: Arizona Stadium, Tucson, Ariz.
TV: ABC/ESPN2 (reverse window)
Radio: Arizona IMG Radio Network; Oregon IMG Radio Network
Line: Oregon is favored by roughly 20 points in most Las Vegas sports books, according to VegasInsider.com.
According to the Arizona Daily Star's Daniel Berk, Arizona hasn't completed a pass for more than 27 yards during its two-game losing streak. Yet during a three-game stretch earlier in the season, the Wildcats had at least six completions for more than 30 yards.
The change? It hasn't been one of design as much as opportunity, as Arizona's receivers have failed to get open on deep routes, forcing quarterback B.J. Denker to check down to safer, shorter routes.
As a result, Arizona's pass game has managed just 386 yards in the past two games, with a dismal 5.4 yards per attempt.
In order to keep pace with Oregon's quick-strike offense, the Wildcats are going to need to score fast as well. That means taking some shots downfield, so look for Arizona's receivers to be fighting harder to get separation off the line.
Win special teams
The Wildcats have muffed several punt returns this season, losing a few. Against Washington State last week, they also turned it over on a punt when Drew Riggleman dropped the snap before he could get off a kick, and the Cougars recovered and scored a touchdown a few plays later.
Kicker Jake Smith missed two relatively easy field goals against WSU as well, making him a suspect 12-for-18 on the season.
It's hard to win games when special teams, an area that usually gets its own devoted part of practice and involves many unit specialists, has so many miscues.
Oregon has a reputation for being a very tricky, flashy team, one that goes for wild, weird plays full of misdirection and speed. Whatever the Ducks are doing on offense, it works.
Arizona proved last week it has trouble dealing with a team that schemes, as Washington State's decision to come out running—despite averaging just 52 rushing yards per game—threw the Wildcats' defense off so much that it stopped being able to handle WSU's true strength, a spread passing game.
Ducks coach Mark Helfrich called Arizona's defense "fast and physical" during his weekly press conference, but that speed and strength can be confused, too.
Keep the fans in their seats
Two of Oregon's last three trips to Tucson have resulted in field-rushing by Arizona fans, even though Oregon won one of those games (more on that in a later slide).
With Arizona riding a two-game losing streak and in desperate need of another win to ensure a bowl game—due to the likelihood the Pac-12 will have more bowl-eligible teams than it has affiliated slots to fill—the crowd will be looking for the home team to pull off another big upset like the 2007 takedown of a top-five Ducks team.
If Oregon can jump out early on the Wildcats, the crowd will be out of it quickly, looking to get out of the still-warm November sun.
Carey had a subpar (for him) game against Washington State, rushing for 132 yards and a touchdown while also adding a receiving score. The junior surpassed 100 rushing yards for the 13th straight game, and now stands just 117 yards shy of the school's career rushing mark.
With the junior considered the 45th-best overall prospect and the second-best running back in the 2014 NFL Draft, it's likely Carey is going pro after this season.
That means this will be his last game in Arizona Stadium, and assuming the game situations allow for it, Carey should break the school rushing mark on Saturday.
Griffey, the son of baseball great Ken Griffey Jr., made his first career start at wide receiver for Arizona last week. The redshirt freshman caught four passes for 45 yards, taking advantage of some injuries as well as impressive, physical play on Arizona's special teams, FoxSportsArizona.com's Steve Rivera wrote.
At 6'3" and 191 pounds, Griffey is on the bigger end of the Wildcats' relatively diminutive receiving corps. With the expectation Arizona will try to take more shots downfield this Saturday, Griffey could be the guy that gets the call to go deep for a big play.
Mariota has been battling a knee injury since late October, the USA Today reported. Though the junior has been leery about discussing the ailment, his recent numbers show something's wrong.
Mariota has just 52 yards on 17 carries in the past three games, compared with 49 rushes for 425 yards and nine touchdowns during the first seven contests. He'd scored at least once in all seven of those games, and now with his running ability limited, Oregon has seen its rushing average drop from 334.7 to 289.5 yards per game over the last three weeks.
If Mariota can't count on himself as an option, it limits the effectiveness of an option known as the read-option.
The junior quarterback is a semifinalist for nearly every major college football award given to a defensive player, and he can count Arizona as one of his references for that. In last year's 49-0 win over the Wildcats, Ekpre-Olomu picked off Arizona quarterbacks twice, including one that he returned 54 yards for a touchdown.
This season he has only two interceptions, neither of which were returned, but that's mostly because he's smothered his assignment so well that opponents don't in throw that direction.
Rushing the field and the Oregon Ducks have become synonymous at Arizona Stadium over the past six years.
Though it didn't happen in 2011 when Oregon breezed to a 56-31 win, the Ducks' previous trips to Tucson (in 2009 and 2007) both involved thousands of red-clad Wildcats fans storming onto the field in celebration.
It was very deserving in 2007, when Arizona pulled off a 34-24 upset that knocked Oregon out of the national title race. But the 2009 field rush, that was the stuff of infamy.
The above video shows students from the "Zona Zoo" section launching themselves out of the stands and lining up behind Arizona's bench, ready to run onto the field the second the game was over. The thing was, Oregon was down only 31-24 and was driving in the final minute.
The Ducks ended up tying the game, forcing overtime, and won 44-41 in two OTs. This forced the students to have to climb back over a wall, but not before someone in the Arizona crowd decided to vent their frustrations in a felonious manner, Oregonian reporter Ken Goe writes:
After the game, (Oregon) cheerleader Katelynn Johnson was hit by a mostly full water bottle thrown from the stands. She was taken by ambulance to a local hospital. Johnson suffered a concussion, but recovered and went to become a sideline reporter for Fox Sports.
If the game is close late, don't be surprised if the premature stand departure happens again.
Oregon didn't look particularly sharp in its last game, possibly still shaking off the disappointment of the loss at Stanford, but the Ducks are still among the best teams in the country.
Arizona, meanwhile, has fallen back to earth after a 3-0 start. Twice, now, the Wildcats have followed up a three-game win streak with back-to-back losses, but the fact that these last two have been at home (while the others were on the road) have been particularly deflating.
With Oregon back atop the Pac-12 North standings, and next week's Civil War with Oregon State looming, there's a chance the Ducks could be overlooking a struggling Arizona team. But not a good chance.
Prediction: Oregon 45, Arizona 27