Heading into the Friday game between the Arizona Wildcats and the Oregon Ducks, you'd think that I'd be worried. As an Arizona fan, I should be deeply concerned that the Wildcats will suffer a humiliating blow-out loss on national television. With the two painful losses against Stanford and USC still fresh, and all Rose Bowl hopes dashed, there seems little to be excited about heading into this game. That is, of course, if you have a short memory.
Those with better memories will remember something that the other Pac-10 teams have known and feared for years now. The Wildcats play their best football when everyone counts them out. Arizona has recorded at least one major upset each season under Mike Stoops thus far. The game against Oregon would represent the only scenario where that could take place in the 2010 regular season.
Don't think the Wildcats can do it? Ask some teams from years past about that one. 2004, #20 Arizona State. 2005, #7 UCLA. 2006, #8 Cal. 2007, #2 Oregon. 2008, #17 BYU. 2009, #20 USC. All were projected to win against what were perceived as inferior Arizona teams. All lost.
There are a few more reasons to start thinking about pushing the 'upset alert' button, starting with the fact that Arizona has nothing to lose.
1. With the Rose Bowl out of the picture for the Wildcats, they are simply playing for Bowl positioning and national ranking now. In fact, assuming the Wildcats defeat the lowly Sun Devils next week, defeating Oregon will actually hurt Arizona's bowl positioning. With Oregon eliminated from the national championship race, the Ducks would go to the Rose Bowl, and Arizona would fall a spot further down the Pac-10 bowl list. With a win over the Ducks, the Wildcats would likely go from playing in the Alamo Bowl, to the Holiday Bowl. (It's confusing, I know. The Alamo Bowl is now the #2 Pac-10 bowl game, and the Holiday Bowl is the #3.)
So, you've got a team with nothing to lose, and wounded pride from two consecutive losses coming into your stadium looking to spoil your hopes of a national championship. And if they lose, they're actually better off than if they win. Sounds scary to me.
2. The 'Civil War'. I don't care how many times Oregon head coach Chip Kelly talks about focusing on one game at a time. Nobody can convince me that those Oregon players aren't looking ahead to the rivalry game next week against the Oregon State Beavers. That is one of the most bitter rivalries in the nation, and Oregon must be frothing at the mouth to dish out some punishment to the Beavers.
3. Arizona matches up better than any team Oregon has faced so far. Arizona has faced two option-style teams this season already, and had the luxury of winning while learning the most important defensive factor when facing an option offense. Discipline. Stick to your man. Don't leave him, ever. If you don't move over to help someone else, you won't bite on the fakes. True, the option teams that Arizona has faced were less than imposing. However, that simply allowed the Wildcats to learn from their mistakes and correct them in-game. Not on film the following week.
And don't forget those monster DEs, Ricky Elmore and Brooks Reed. They'll have something to say about that big, scary, Oregon rushing attack. If they're successful in limiting the outside runs, Oregon will be forced to pass more than they like to. Sound familiar? Then you probably watched the Iowa game, and watched Arizona completely shut down the run, and force the Hawkeyes to pass much more than they liked to. In fact, forcing opposing offenses to pass more often has been the best aspect of the Arizona defense all season long.
I have no doubt that Oregon will be game-planning for this, and possibly working a few more passing plays into that wierd flash-card rotation. But I don't see how a QB that passes mostly from play action will be able to handle being a pocket QB. Again, this only works if Arizona shuts down the outside runs.
I'm not saying Arizona fans should start beating their chests and predict an Arizona blow-out victory. Far from it. I expect a hard-fought, close game. I'm just saying that all of the ingredients are there for major, albeit close, victory for the Arizona Wildcats.
Bear Down, Wildcat fans. Beat the Ducks!