Leading up to this weekend's game, Oregon fans are surely thinking about the last time the Ducks visited Tucson with Pac-10 title aspirations.
The year was 2007. The Ducks had lost to Cal, but beaten USC (back when that still mattered) and Arizona State to claim a tentative Pac-10 lead.
QB Dennis Dixon, having torched the Wolverines in the Big House, and fresh off a four-touchdown performance against the Sun Devils, was riding the zone-read spread attack all the way to the Heisman ceremony.
But things didn't go as planned. Dennis Dixon had injured his knee during the ASU game in Eugene but hadn't disclosed the extent of the pain. Near the close of the first quarter, Dixon rolled left and juked the last hapless defender of his college career, collapsing to the turf without getting touched, clutching his knee, and missing the rest of the game, and the season, with a full ACL tear.
The Ducks were forced to put in Brady Leaf (shuddering is the proper reaction), and three miserable, characterless quarters later, the national championship/Heisman dream was finished.
These Ducks appear strikingly similar to their 2007 doppelgangers: short of the national title/Heisman hopes, they're still on a mission to capture their first Pac-10 title since 2001, and return to the Rose Bowl for their first BCS bowl since the days of Joey Harrington.
LaMicheal James, like 2007's Jonathan Stewart, is already a 1,000-yard rusher, while quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, like Dixon, is second on the team in rushing with just shy of 600 yards.
And at the risk of what saying it might incur, Masoli has also struggled with a lingering knee injury this year. A sprain to his MCL held him out of practice on and off throughout October, but he's resumed his prolific ways since then. Masoli started against Washington and deftly quarterbacked the paddling the Ducks put on USC on Halloween night.
The similarities might be striking—even alarming—but the differences in this year's game definitely slant in Oregon's favor. They have to do with Arizona and a little thing called "national exposure."
As you might recall, 2007 was the year "upset" became the byword of college football. The humiliation each favored team faced at the prospect of losing leveled the psychological playing field for every underdog. Michigan, USC, Ohio State, Cal, LSU (twice), and Boston College all fell victim to this larger narrative.
Arizona was one of the underdogs that benefited. Entering the Oregon game, the Wildcats were almost entirely ignored by the national media. They were 4-6, suffering losses to New Mexico and Jim Harbaugh's young Stanford team, but coming off solid wins over Washington and UCLA. They were just good enough (and not terrible enough) for exactly no one to be paying attention.
Some programs and coaches thrive on inattention and the threat of surprise; Mike Leach, Nick Saban , and Houston Nutt come to mind. Other coaches merely exist in it, insisting that their team is not like the others, promising that one day, they will emerge.
Mike Stoops—whom you might know as Bob's brother—is the latter case. Whether it's fear of the "Stoops Big-Game Curse," or whether the rebuilding process has truly taken longer than many anticipated, Stoops' term in Tucson has been notably big-game free. Mediocre finishes and middle-tier bowls have been the order of the day—and that's when the Wildcats make the postseason, which, in 2007, they did not.
2009 has been the exception; Arizona hasn't had the luxury of laying low. Besides the ignominious tipped/kicked interception that put Washington over the top and made a few highlight reels , the Wildcats have been on and off the BCS radar all year, debuting at No. 22 in the first week of the rankings and reaching as high as No. 17 before disappearing entirely after the loss to Cal this weekend.
There's also been quiet talk about the steady play of QB Nick Foles, who led the conference in passing efficiency for much of the first half of the season.
The improvement of the Wildcats defense (Stoops was a defensive coordinator under his brother at Oklahoma before taking the Arizona job in 2004) also brought attention. The Wildcats currently rank second in the Pac-10 in total yards allowed and third in rushing. Defensive end Ricky Elmore is providing a legitimate pass rush, leading the Pac-10 with 8.5 sacks on the year.
Bigger than all of this is that the Wildcats, in spite of the loss to Cal and the fickle BCS love, are still playing for the Pac-10 title , courtesy of tiebreaker-friendly wins over Stanford and Oregon State earlier in the season. Beating the Ducks would put them in their first Rose Bowl ever.
Which is precisely why it will take a tremendous break from tendency for Arizona to win.
As the first Pac-10 title-deciding game Stoops' team will have played in, this is a tough draw. Oregon remains one of the hottest teams in the country. They've had two weeks to recalibrate from the Stanford loss, and put up 268 rushing yards against the Sun Devils in a tune-up game last weekend.
In spite of their good numbers, the best rushing attack Arizona has faced so far is either a healthy Iowa team in Week Two—against whom the Wildcats allowed 133 yards and three rushing touchdowns—or Stanford, which put up 150 yards and two scores.
What's more, Chip Kelly's fake-heavy spread is a far cry from Stanford or Iowa's power-running game (it remains my pick for the toughest offense in the country to defend, loss to the Cardinal notwithstanding). The strength of the zone-read is that it will confound good pass rushers like Ricky Elmore, catching him out of position with the believability of its fakes.
The intangibles deck is also stacked against 'Zona. It's the first time College GameDay is in town, and the national spotlight is rarely a warm bath a program slips into. Though fans may delight at seeing their idea for a funny sign behind Lee Corso's head finally come to fruition, it's a different story when the game is getting played on national TV. Turnovers, fumbles, and sacks are all augmented by the camera's eye, and it's a feeling Arizona is just not used to yet.
Oregon, on the other hand, rose to the national spotlight in magnificent fashion, exorcising the demons of the Boise State loss by steamrolling USC (with GameDay in town, I might add). And though it ended brutally, the brief time in the spotlight in 2007 probably helped the character of this program in the long run. Any publicity is good publicity, and the Ducks know better than the Wildcats the difference between feeling hungry and feeling desperate.
Nick Foles is young, a fact of which we were reminded during another ignominious play against Cal that displayed his (understandable) ignorance of the double-pass rule. With youth comes inconsistency—brilliance against Stanford, so-so play against Cal—and that doesn't bode well for the biggest game yet of his career.
And these Ducks are no slouches in pass defense. They're tops in the Pac-10, and have rattled better passers than Nick Foles en route to compiling 12 interceptions.
Even if the unthinkable were to happen to Masoli, Oregon has demonstrated the ability to overcome injuries to their quarterback in the road win over UCLA. The 24-7 victory with backup Nate Costa at the helm wasn't pretty—Costa isn't immobile, but his running poses a far lesser danger than that of Masoli, and he's less of a magician on the fake—but in that close game, the Ducks showed they can lean on their defense and running game and ask that, at the very least, the quarterback doesn't lose it for them.
With Masoli at the helm, things just run a lot smoother.
There are just too many breaks going against Arizona to believe the Wildcats can keep pace. The revenge factor is in there, but the Ducks have already shown they can be an explosive team without motivation beyond the Pac-10 title.
Oregon is a battle-hardened team; they've been on this big stage before, and they don't mind showing so. Beyond avenging the ghost of the brilliant Dixon, the Ducks will expose the relative youth and folly of the Wildcats, who can neither cloak themselves in the old garb of the underdog nor yet embrace their status as the nouveau riche of the Pac-10.
Oregon 33, Arizona 14.