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What to watch for when Arizona opens Pac-12 play at Oregon

arizona-wildcats-oregon-ducks-preview-pac12-autzen-eugene-thibodeaux-quarterbacks-defense-fisch-2021 Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats failed to pick up a victory during nonconference play, losing twice at home despite being favored in both games, to extend their skid to 15 games.

And it doesn’t get any easier.

The UA (0-3) opens Pac-12 play Saturday night at No. 3 Oregon, throwing a team still searching for its offensive identity—and that coveted first victory—into about as close as a no-win situation as imaginable. The Wildcats opened as 27-point underdogs, with the line increasing to 28.5, which would be the largest spread they’ve faced since closing as 37.5-point dogs at USC in 2005 (a game they lost, but covered, 42-21).

Here’s what to look out for when Arizona takes on the Ducks in Eugene, where it last won during the magical 2014 season:

The quarterback derby

Gunner Cruz started Arizona’s first two games, looking great against BYU and then far from good against San Diego State, getting replaced by Will Plummer. Plummer got his chance to start against NAU and threw two picks, one returned for a touchdown that completely changed that game, and eventually was pulled for Jordan McCloud.

Who will start against Oregon? And how long will they play?

McCloud and Cruz have taken the bulk of the snaps in practice, coach Jedd Fisch said Thursday, so expect one of them to be the first to take the field with the UA offense at Autzen Stadium. If it’s McCloud, the South Florida transfer, it would mark the first time since 2006 the Wildcats have started three different QBs.

Fisch said the plan is to have whoever starts play the entire game, save for maybe a few snaps like when Plummer got a series against BYU, but that scenario didn’t pan out against SDSU or NAU so there’s a good chance at least two QBs will see action against Oregon.

Protecting whoever has the ball

Who is Arizona’s QB is important, but equally (if not more so) is the ability to keep that passer protected and able to operate the offense. So far, though, the offensive line has failed to do this while also struggling to provide running lanes for the ground game.

The Wildcats have allowed 10 sacks in three games, most in the Pac-12 and third-most nationally among power-conference teams. That’s contributed to a run game that is averaging a conference-worst 79 yards per game and 2.9 yards per carry.

Arizona has stuck with mostly a six-man rotation on the line, something offensive coordinator/OL coach Brennan Carroll said he’s comfortable with, assuming they can all work together.

“We’ve got some variations in our technique that we got to cut out, and there’s better ways we can call for them be more effective<‘ Carroll said. “We’ll keep working on this.”

Fisch said Arizona may line up in “more multiple looks” in order to prevent Oregon from being able to easily predict what the call is.

“What we’ve got to do is we got to mix different slides, different chips, different schemes that would enable us to be able to prevent them from a free hit on the quarterback, and also prevent them from being able to change the line of scrimmage,” Fisch said. “You’re gonna have to mix run and pass, we’re gonna have to give different looks. We’re gonna have to be able to run both on the perimeter and the inside game. You can’t just, you know, say we’re gonna line up mano a mano and we’re going to tell you what we’re going to run and run it. You’re going to have to give them different looks and try to make it challenging on their defense, because of the way that defense is playing this year, because of how gap sound they are, because of kind of the way they shed blocks. We’re going to have to find the right double teams and then we have to take advantage of that the best we can.”

Arizona scored only six points the last time it played in Eugene, in 2019. The Wildcats head there this weekend having failed to score 20 points in six consecutive games, the longest stretch since doing so in seven straight in 2004.

Those dominant Ducks

In case you haven’t been paying attention, Oregon has already managed to distance itself from the rest of the Pac-12 in terms of its early-season play. The Ducks (3-0) are the only remaining unbeaten team and they have arguably the best nonconference win of any team in the country via a 35-28 victory at Ohio State in Week 2.

Oregon is one of two Pac-12 schools (ASU is the other) averaging more than 200 rushing and 200 passing yards per game, with the run attack a three-pronged attack led by running backs Travis Dye and CJ Verdell and quarterback Anthony Brown. Brown, who has run for 122 yards and two TDs, has yet to throw an interception this season and hasn’t been picked since he was at Boston College in 2019.

That offense will be a big test for Arizona’s much-improved defense, which is tied for second in the Pac-12 in tackles for loss and has allowed the fewest yards over a 3-game span since 2017. UA defensive coordinator Don Brown has some experience with the Ducks’ scheme, as he faced it when Oregon offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead was at Penn State (and Brown was DC at Michigan) in 2016-17.

Brown’s unit held Moorhead’s offense to 191 yards and 10 points in 2016, but a year later the Nittany Lions put up 42 points and 506 yards on Michigan.

But considering Arizona’s offensive woes, dealing with the Duck defense will be even more of a concern.

Oregon has registered seven sacks in three games, doing so despite star defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux only playing part of the opener before suffering an ankle injury. He’s considered day-to-day but Arizona is preparing for him to be back.

“If Thibodeaux is playing we’ve got to have a great plan for him,” Fisch said. “He’s an elite edge rusher. He’s an elite player that has done a great job in their system.”

Silencing the noise

Although it was considered a neutral-site game, the crowd for Arizona’s opener against BYU in Las Vegas was very pro-Cougar. Yet when the Wildcats got on a run in the second half you could hear ‘U of A!’ chants from within Allegiant Stadium.

No such luck this weekend. Nearly every seat in Autzen Stadium will be occupied by someone wearing some variation of Oregon’s eleventy billion color combinations, and that stadium has a reputation for getting loud.

That means Arizona’s offense and defense will need to adjust their communication in order to get the right plays called.

“We certainly practiced all week with noise,” Fisch said. “Obviously silent county is critical, being able to communicate with the defense, the linebackers have to communicate. Traditionally what happens is, your noise comes when the offense is on the field calling the play from a huddle. You’ve got to be keenly aware that that that’s a challenge so we’ll see how much huddle we do. We also have to look at what is the plan defensively, when the offense makes a big play and they get loud, how quickly can we communicate the next call. So we’re working on both of them and we’ve had noise and we will continue to work on hand signals.”

Sticking to the process

Beating Oregon would be a monumental upset, there’s no denying that. But even staying competitive against the Ducks would go a long way toward making all of Fisch’s talk about “the process” not sound like empty words.

He and his staff’s long-term plan for Arizona football is much more geared toward the team’s younger players, as well as to recruits who have committed to (or are being pursued by) the Wildcats. Yet there are quite a few key contributors who aren’t likely to be around beyond this season, and Fisch said keeping them bought in is also important.

“One of the things that I’ve talked to those guys about individually, as well as collectively, is you can be a part of the process by being the first,” Fisch said. “You could look back on it and say, ‘hey, I was in that. I was on that team. I was part of the change.’ What the seniors are looking at right now, what I keep challenging them to say is, hey, first of all, we’re in a 9-game Pac-12 seasons. So what can we do with these nine weeks. If we get better every day, what will October (and) November look like? And then secondly, as we’re building this foundation, you are the core. The house would fall over without a foundation. So this season is the foundation of the process and of the change.”

Arizona has 17 seniors on the roster, eight of whom have started at least one game this season. And thanks to everyone getting an extra year of eligibility due to COVID, more than half the roster is draft-eligible if they wanted to turn pro.