After a tough loss at UCLA, the Arizona Wildcats return home to face the No. 19 Oregon Ducks on Saturday night. Oregon is considered a strong favorite over the struggling ‘Cats.
In order for them to live up those expectations, the following players will need to perform well. Here’s who to watch on the Oregon side in Saturday’s game.
Justin Herbert, QB
This one’s a no-brainer, as Herbert is one of the biggest stars in the Pac-12 and will likely be playing on Sundays next season.
Nonetheless, it’s worth mentioning just how well Herbert has played this fall. He has completed 131 of 212 pass attempts this season, for a completion percentage of 61.8%. On those completions, he’s amassed 1883 yards, meaning he has 8.9 yards per attempt. His TD-INT ratio is also impressive, with 18 scores to five interceptions.
Herbert hasn’t quite played well enough to garner Heisman talk, his team losing an incredibly fluky game to Stanford during his best performance and his only truly bad half costing Oregon the game at Washington State. The Ducks are probably out of the Pac-12 North race, but that doesn’t mean Oregon isn’t a good football team, especially with herbert on his A-game.
CJ Verdell, RB
Verdell has experienced a wide range of games this season, but when you take them all together, it’s clear he helps make this team click.
Verdell is leading the team in almost every rushing stat. He’s run for 586 yards, with an average of 5.4 yards per carry, and four touchdowns. On top of that, he’s proven his capability as a receiver out of the backfield with 11 catches for 137 yards, good for fifth-most receiving yards on the team.
I mentioned above that Oregon lost a fluky game to Stanford, and a lot of that blame falls on Verdell, as he fumbled the ball while the Ducks were running out the clock. In just a few short weeks, though, Verdell had completely flipped the script, as he scored the walk-off touchdown to beat hated rival Washington. Against the Arizona defense, it’s much more likely Verdell is the hero instead of the zero this weekend.
Justin Hollins, LB
Oregon’s offense, as usual, has generated many more headlines than the Oregon defense. That’s not quite fair, as players like Hollins make this defense very underrated.
A redshirt senior and one of the few Ducks players on the roster for the 2014 team that played in the national championship, Hollins is one of the undisputed leaders of the team, and his stats back that up. He has 37 tackles, third-most on the team, plus an interception and three forced fumbles. Any time an Oregon opponent coughs up the ball, there’s a good chance Hollins created that takeaway. He’ll be looking to add to that total in Tucson.
Ugo Umadi, CB
Speaking of players responsible for lots of takeaways, Umadi is one of the best players in the country at taking the ball away from the offense.
Amadi is a senior just like Hollins, but hasn’t used his redshirt year. Nevertheless, he’s spent four years playing significant time in the Oregon secondary, playing in all but three games in his career. This season he’s exploded on the scene to become one of the best Pac-12 defenders. While he has 31 tackles (fifth-most on the team), his real impact is with his three interceptions, returning two of them for touchdowns. He’s also defended six passes and sacked the quarterback twice.
Another player responsible for tons of havoc this season, Arizona offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone will have to be prepared for Umadi to make an impact.
Tony Brooks-James, KR
While Brooks-James makes some plays backing up Verdell in the backfield, his real impact for the team is on special teams.
Under Chip Kelly, Oregon was known for exciting returners, particularly De’Anthony Thomas. For the first time in years, that spark has returned thanks to Brooks-James. He’s only returned 10 kickoffs this year but has average 27.8 yards on those returns. While that number isn’t stellar, and he hasn’t scored on a kickoff yet, just knowing that Oregon has than capability to strike on a return is a refreshing return for Duck fans.
Oregon probably doesn’t need all five of these players to have its A-game on Saturday to win, but these players will be undoubtedly some of the best on the field in Tucson. The game kickoff at 7:30 p.m. MST and will air on ESPN.