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What to watch for when Arizona visits playoff contender Oregon

<span data-author="5158751">arizona-wildcats-oregon-ducks-vegas-point-spread-homecoming-odds </span> Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats were on a bye last week, which means their struggling defense couldn’t get exposed again. But now action has resumed on a season that went from very promising to nearly lost in a four-week span, and the upcoming stretch is the toughest on the slate.

Saturday night’s game against the Oregon Ducks in Eugene marks the start of back-to-back contests against Pac-12 schools vying for a spot in the College Football Playoff. Oregon (8-1, 6-0) is No. 6 in the latest playoff rankings, and Nov. 23 opponent Utah (8-1, 5-1) is No. 8.

That’s a heck of a 1-2 punch for Arizona (4-5, 2-4) to have to deal with, particularly when riding a four-game losing streak in which it has allowed 189 points and during which coach Kevin Sumlin made a change at defensive coordinator.

Not surprisingly, the Wildcats are heavy underdogs for this 8:30 p.m. MT kickoff at Autzen Stadium.

Here’s what to keep an eye out for when Arizona takes on the Ducks:

Cecil’s second impression

After seeing his defense allow 133 points in a three-game span, Sumlin fired coordinator Marcel Yates and linebackers coach John Rushing and replaced them with former players Chuck Cecil and Hank Hobson.

The changes did not go well, to say the least. Arizona allowed 56 points to an Oregon State team that would fail to score on offense in its next game.

At 37.3 points allowed per game, Arizona ranks 126th out of 130 FBS teams, and the 481.2 yards allowed per game are seventh-worst in the country. Both figures are perilously close to the worst in history, those being 38.3 PPG in 2016 and 499.0 YPG in 2012.

In fairness, Cecil’s first game calling defensive plays came on very short notice. Sumlin noted that Cecil moved from the sideline to the coach’s booth at halftime and “the results were a little better in the second half.” It’s likely Cecil will stay upstairs for the remainder of the season, and combined with an extra week to prepare the Wildcats could potentially look a little more competent on defense against Oregon.

Musical offensive line spots

If Arizona had to play Oregon last Saturday, instead of getting a week off, it might have had to try and sneak offensive line coach Kyle DeVan into a uniform to help field a complete unit up front. So it goes when the Wildcats had three linemen injured during the loss to Oregon State.

Left tackle Donovan Laie, center Josh McCauley and right guard Bryson Cain all got hurt at one point or another. That was in addition to Arizona already being without starting right guard Cody Creason while left guard Robert Congel coming off an injury earlier in the season.

“The way the game ended, we were down to our eight and ninth and 10th linemen,” Sumlin said. “I don’t know what program could be strong enough to do that.”

Among those pressed into action against OSU were senior Steven Bailey, redshirt junior Jon Jacobs and true freshman Jordan Morgan. All three could end up making their first career starts at Oregon.

“It’s been tough, we’ve been moving a lot of guys around to see who’s going to play where,” said Bailey, who has appeared in two games this season. “We’ll have it figured out this week to who our final five is.”

Whoever is on the line for Arizona on Saturday night will be dealing with a stout Oregon defensive front. The Ducks lead the Pac-12 with 26 sacks and are second in rushing defense, allowing 3.21 yards per carry and 100.1 yards per game.

We’ll see if J.J. Taylor, who ran for 212 yards and two touchdowns against Oregon last year, can find any room to run behind that makeshift line.

Quarterback carousel

Expect senior Khalil Tate and true freshman Grant Gunnell to continue to split series as they did against Stanford and Oregon State, but don’t be surprised if it’s Gunnell heading out with the offense first this time.

Sumlin said Monday that whichever QB has the better week of practice will be “the guy that goes out there first,” the first sign that he’s starting to lean toward the 2020 season when Tate will no longer be around.

Gunnell’s numbers against Oregon State were far superior to those of Tate, with Gunnell throwing for 269 yards and two TDs and leading Arizona on five TD drives while Tate threw for 109 yards and his drives only resulted in two red-zone field goals.

Mistake avoidance

Other than Gunnell’s efficiency, the only other bright spot that came out of Arizona’s blowout loss to Oregon State was that it did not turn the ball over. That had only happened in two other games this season—home wins over NAU and UCLA—and came after the Wildcats gave it away 10 times in the previous four contests.

For the year, Arizona has a minus-2 turnover margin, which is third-worst in the Pac-12. The best margin? Oregon, at plus-14.

The Ducks have picked off 17 passes (most in FBS) and recovered three fumbles, converting those takeaways into 106 points. Arizona’s 15 lost turnovers have led to 64 opponent points.

Spoiler alert?

While Arizona can still technically become bowl-eligible by winning two of its last three games, that doesn’t seem likely since it would mean beating at least one Top 10 team as well as winning at ASU (where it hasn’t been victorious since 2011). But stranger things have happened in college football this season, and the Wildcats’ history against the Ducks furthers this.

This is going to be the 12th time since 2003 that Arizona is an underdog of 20 or more points, and only once has it managed to win outright in such a matchup. That one time: 2014 at Oregon, when as 21.5-point dogs the Wildcats shocked the Ducks 31-24 in Eugene.

Sumlin said Monday he doesn’t believe in playing the role of spoiler, but the same can’t be said for his players.

“We do want to spoil some seasons,” senior safety Tristan Cooper said. “It sucks, because I would like to see some Pac-12 teams in the playoffs, but I don’t want to lose. We’re trying to do some damage.”