Arizona (4-5, 2-4 Pac-12) is coming off a bye, before which it lost four straight games and allowed a combined 189 points. Oregon (8-1, 6-0) has won eight in a row and is squarely in the hunt for a College Football Playoff spot.
To help us learn more about Arizona’s next opponent, we picked the brain of Adam Chimeo of SB Nation sister site Addicted to Quack to get his insight on the Ducks.
Here are his definitive answers to our basic questions:
Oregon is riding an 8-game win streak, and if not for a late score by Auburn would be unbeaten and no doubt in the top four of the College Football Playoff rankings. What has been the singlemost important development for this team over the course of the season?
“Definitely the receiving corps. It was the biggest question mark entering the season, and three injuries at the position during fall camp made the situation far worse. Jaylon Redd has been our most reliable receiver (nine total touchdown in the last eight games) and Mycah Pittman and Penn State grad-transfer Juwan Johnson have returned to the team from injury seemingly at the perfect time.
“Tight end Jacob Breeland’s absence is still a major blow to this offense, but Johnson’s recent performance against USC could be a way of replicating that success.”
It looks like QB Justin Herbert made the right choice to come back for his senior year, as his numbers have been stellar and he seems very poised. What is he doing best?
“Herbert has done an excellent job with the run-pass option, and when he’s able to get into a rhythm it can be hard to disrupt. We haven’t seen him go deep as often as he has in previous years, but he rarely turns over the ball and he can make any throw you need. That being said, he’s still human, and has had plenty of consecutive stalled out drives that were at least partially due to not seeing a painfully open receiver or making a lousy pass.”
CJ Verdell has had a couple massive games but was limited to six carries in Oregon’s last game against USC. Was he injured, and if so what’s his status for Saturday night?
“He should be good to go. (Mario) Cristobal keeps injuries pretty close to the chest, but it would line up with what they’ve done throughout the season if they limited Verdell’s role to rest him up for the final stretch. We have two capable backups in Cyrus Habibi-Likio and Travis Dye who have been successful throughout the season. Another thing that could explain his lack of carries in the USC game is that he was taken out as a cautionary measure in the second quarter and by halftime the 28-17 lead made his presence in the game less necessary.”
Oregon’s defense is in the top two in basically every category in the Pac-12, which is a major departure from recent years. What’s been the key to this turnaround, both in terms of players and schemes?
“The easy answer would be new defensive coordinator Andy Avalos. Willie Taggart’s hiring of Jim Leavitt certainly helped Oregon’s current defensive squad in their development, and now that we’re three recruiting classes removed from (Mark) Helfrich things seem to be falling into place with a good collection of experience and fresh talent.
“Even when they don’t record the sack, Oregon’s pass rushers (Kayvon Thibodeaux, Mase Funa, and Bryson Young) have greatly reduced the amount of time opposing quarterbacks have to make a decision and Oregon’s talented secondary, featuring two lockdown corners in Thomas Graham Jr and Deommodore Lenoir, has been able to reap the rewards, tallying the most interceptions in college football at 17. Avalos’ system has forced a lot of chaos through multiple fronts and pressure from many different points of attack, and has been a major improvement over past seasons.”
Arizona thumped Oregon 44-15 in Tucson last season, and while plenty has changed with each team since then there are a lot of the same pieces in place for both squads. Will the Ducks have that result in their minds when operating this time out, and if the chance is there to run up the score—both for revenge and to impress the playoff committee—will Mario Cristobal keep his foot on the gas?
“That’s a good question. I’m sure the players who were around last year remember that game and are ready to serve up some revenge, and undoubtedly the coaches are stoking that fire, but we don’t know for sure what Cristobal will elect to do should this game turn into a blowout. My guess is that he would take out a few key players on offense (Herbert, Juwan Johnson, Jaylon Redd), shuffle deeper through his defense to build some reps, and then try to run up the score into the 70s.”
Prediction time. Is there any chance Arizona can hang around with the Ducks, or will Oregon just blow the doors off the struggling Wildcats?
I mean, there’s a chance. Like, somewhere, in this universe, there is a single chance hidden in the vacuum of space, but I have no idea where to find it. Unless you can get Scooby Wright III back in uniform I think the Ducks will win this by a large margin in Autzen. Ducks 52, Wildcats 17.