The Arizona Wildcats entered the 2018 season with lofty expectations, albeit ones that probably weren’t as inflated as those of the fan base. Yet entering the final weekend of October both the team and its supporters face a stark reality: even a bowl game isn’t likely to happen this season.
With a 3-5 overall record, Arizona must win three of its last four games to become bowl-eligible. Three of those contests are at home, beginning with Saturday’s visit from Oregon (5-2), but the Wildcats’ 2-2 mark at Arizona Stadium is an indication that they haven’t had much of a home field advantage.
It’s Homecoming, and Arizona is 58-37-5 all-time in games associated with this alumni event including 8-5 since 2005. Last year the Wildcats beat Washington State 58-37 to become bowl-eligible.
What could happen this time around? Here are the storylines to keep an eye on:
And the starting quarterback is … ?
Khalil Tate’s injured left ankle kept him out of last week’s 31-30 loss at UCLA, with Arizona turning to sophomore Rhett Rodriguez at quarterback. The first career start for the Catalina Foothills High School grad (and son of fired coach Rich Rodriguez) had both its good and bad parts.
Will RhettRod get a second start against Oregon? That’s anyone’s guess right now.
On Monday, coach Kevin Sumlin indicated that a decision on who would start would likely be made after evaluating Tate’s ankle during practice that afternoon. He even went as far as saying “I’ll probably say something (Tuesday) about it.”
If he did, none of us have been told. That means we probably won’t know who is starting at QB until Arizona heads out onto the field Saturday night for pre-game warmups. If Tate is dressed—he wasn’t at UCLA—he will likely be the starter, but if he’s in street clothes look for RhettRod to be taking the first snaps.
Facing a future first-rounder at QB
Oregon’s Justin Herbert is a junior, and thus eligible to enter the NFL Draft after this season. If you listen to draft experts that seems like a foregone conclusion since he’s projected to be one of the first players taken next spring.
CBS Sports has Herbert as the top draft-eligible quarterback in the country, while Bleacher Report NFL Draft expert Matt Miller has him going fifth overall to the New York Giants in his most recent 2019 mock draft.
Herbert has thrown for 1,883 yards and 18 touchdowns on 61.5 percent passing this season. Last year he was 14 of 21 for 235 yards with a TD and an interception in Oregon’s 48-28 home win over Arizona, a game that marked Herbert’s first action in almost seven weeks after suffering a broken collarbone.
The down that shall not be named
Sumlin re-iterated this week the importance of “staying on the field and getting off the field” for Arizona’s offense and defense, respectively. The Wildcats haven’t been particularly good at either, and as has been the case all season that boils down to their performance on third down.
Arizona converts 39.1 percent of its third downs on offense, which is below Sumlin’s desired 40 percent goal and seventh-best in the Pac-12. The Wildcat defense allows first downs 43.5 percent of the time on third down, which is 109th nationally and third-worst in the conference.
Oregon is sixth in the Pac-12 in third-down defense, yielding conversions 40.8 percent of the time, while the Ducks move the sticks 48.6 percent of the time on third down when they have the ball. That’s just a hair behind Washington for tops in the league.
Sticking to the ground
Arizona is averaging 196.5 rushing yards per game this season. That total is down more than 36 percent from the 309.3 yards per game the Wildcats averaged in 2017 yet is still second-bet in the Pac-12 (California is first, at 196.9).
It’s been hit or miss for Arizona in the run game this year, with three really good games and five not-so good ones. But one of the better efforts was last week at UCLA, when the Wildcats ran for 289 yards and averaged 7.6 yards per carry.
Oregon coach Mario Cristobal noticed that, saying that Arizona’s running backs are the most “underrated position group in the Pac-12.”
JJ Taylor is second in the league—and eighth in FBS—with 817 rushing yards, while Gary Brightwell’s 443 yards are good for 10th in the Pac-12.
Regardless of who starts at QB, look for Arizona to continue to try and establish the run game. That won’t be easy against an Oregon defense that ranks second in the Pac-12 against the run, allowing 116.3 yards per game and 3.23 yards per carry.
But when Arizona throws ...
Look for senior Shawn Poindexter to be targeted quite often, possibly even more so than he has to this point as Arizona’s leader in receiving yards (582) and touchdowns (four).
At 6-foot-5, the former volleyball standout has a tremendous catch radius that has paid off immensely this season. He’ll have a major height advantage over whoever Oregon lines up against him since almost everyone in the Ducks’ secondary is 5-11 or shorter.
Oregon is 10th in the Pac-12 in pass defense, allowing 251 yards per game, with big receivers like Stanford’s JJ Arcega-Whiteside, Washington’s Ty Jones and Washington State’s Dezmon Patton all having their way against the Ducks’ DBs.