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Oregon at Arizona: Will The Ducks Escape The 'Zona Zoo?

Tristan HolmesCorrespondent INovember 21, 2009

EUGENE,OR - NOVEMBER 14: Quarterback Jeremiah Masoli #8 of the Oregon Ducks outruns safety Ryan McFoy #2 in the third quarter of the game at Autzen Stadium on November 14, 2009 in Eugene, Oregon. Oregon Defeated arizona State 44-21. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
Steve Dykes/Getty Images

I am a Ducks fan, and I am scared.

I am scared because I have seen this episode before, and it was one of my least favorites in the last several seasons of this gut wrenching show that is called “Oregon Football.”

Oregon is riding high and controls its own BCS destiny, but they have to play the Arizona Wildcats in Tucson.

The hairs on the back of my neck refuse to quit standing on end.

I still remember Kellen Clemens broken ankle in 2005. Dennis Dixon came into the game and immediately suffered a concussion. If it weren’t for “the pride of Cottage Grove” (linebacker Brent Haberly) and a fumble return for a touchdown the Ducks may well have lost. As it was they escaped 28-21.

Two years later Dixon returned at the head of a team ranked #2 in the nation and a favorite to win the Heisman trophy. But he completed a tear in his ACL that had originally been hurt the previous week. Oregon lost that game and the rest of its regular season matches.

Chip Kelly has done a good job downplaying the recent history of the Ducks trials in the desert. This is a good thing for the team because they have enough to worry about the here and now with this year’s Arizona team.

The Wildcats are unbeaten at home this year and both of Oregon’s losses have been on the road. Sophomore quarterback Nick Foles has revived Arizona’s offense while its typically accomplished defense has one of the most athletic front lines the Ducks have had to face all year.

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The Ducks lost their opener at Boise State because the offense was completely inept. It took until the Pac—10 opener against Cal until this unit truly hit its stride, but it has been all but unstoppable as long as quarterback Jeremiah Masoli has been healthy.

Even when the offense has struggled, Oregon’s defense and special teams have generally covered the team’s back. That is except when they ran into Toby Gerhart, Andrew Luck, and Chris Owusu on the Farm. Stanford’s physical offense manhandled the athletic but undersized Duck defense to the tune of 51 points in the loss to the Cardinal.

Arizona was recently humbled against the Cal Golden Bears. Even without star running back Jahvid Best, the Bears were able to contain the Wildcats’ potent offense and overcame some mistakes by quarterback Kevin Riley to hand Arizona only their second loss in the Pac-10 conference.

But Arizona, just like Oregon, still controls its own destiny in the Pac-10 championship race. If either team wins the rest of their games, they will go to the Rose Bowl.

That is what makes this game so dangerous for the visiting Ducks.

The Wildcats have already had a letdown late in the season and will be fired up for this game as ESPN’s Game Day arrives for the first time in Tucson to see Arizona play for the opportunity at their first Rose Bowl in program history.

With such a motivated team as an opponent, there is no room for error for Oregon. The offense, defense, and special teams must all be productive to snatch a win from the Wildcats and set up what might turn out to be the biggest Civil War game in over fifty years.

The biggest concern for the Ducks offense is simply keeping their composure. As long as the offensive line plays at a high level and they avoid turnovers and penalties, there is not much that can put the brakes on Chip Kelly and Kurt Helfirch’s spread option offense.

Last week Arizona State had the best running defense in the conference but were gashed by Masoli, LaMichael James and the Ducks. As long as all the starters stay healthy and assignments are carried out, Oregon should still be able to pass just enough to keep Arizona honest and live off of the run.

But if the “’Zona zoo” gets to the Ducks, things could get dicey. A few bad plays could disrupt the rhythm and quick play calling that characterize Oregon’s offense. Any failed third down conversions will only exacerbate the problems the Ducks defense will have playing so many snaps.

The matchup with Foles, Nic Grigsby, and the Wildcats offense is the biggest concern for the Ducks. The one piece of good news (for Oregon’s defense, not for college football in general) is that Rob Gronkowski, otherwise known as the bane of Nick Allioti’s existence, will not play.

Stanford proved that as athletic as the Ducks are on defense, they are vulnerable to power running and sustained drives. Though they needed the help of turnovers, even the struggling Sun Devils offense was able to find success up the gut at Autzen last week.

The key for Oregon is for their front seven to find a way to get off of blocks and find penetration. When they get the opposition out of proper down and distance the Ducks can use their team speed and creative blitz packages to get pressure on Foles and get the ball back to their potent offense.

But if Arizona can find consistent gains on first and second down, they can use their power running game and efficient short passes to grind out drives and wear Oregon down without giving the green and yellow (and black, and chrome, and …) an opportunity to respond. The blitz happy Ducks must also beware being caught out of position against the Wildcats effective screen passing game.

After seeing how they performed on the road against Golden Bears, I would give Oregon the slight advantage in overall talent. But it is by a slim margin, and the Wildcats are different beasts when they are in the desert.

Like any game, it all comes down to turnovers. I include third down stops and big special teams plays in that formula as well as interceptions and lost fumbles. All four have the effect of changing field position, momentum, and time of possession.

If the Ducks are able to keep the momentum and put some distance between themselves and Mike Stoop’s Arizona team they should be able to hang on for the win. But if the game is close in the fourth quarter, the home field and efficient offense might let the Wildcats pull the upset.

I’m not going to tempt fate and even contemplate what might happen if a “_________ injury” occurs again.

MY CALL : Oregon Ducks 30, Arizona Wildcats 24

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