Arizona has gotten out to a 3-2 start to the 2022 season, already surpassing its projected win total. The road gets a lot tougher from here on out, starting with a visit from the Oregon Ducks.
The Ducks (4-1, 2-0 Pac-12) have won four straight since getting crushed by defending national champion Georgia in its season opener. At No. 12, they’re the highest-ranked opponent the UA has faced since hanging with Utah at home last November.
To better understand the Ducks, we reached out to Carl Blackwell of SB Nation sister site Addicted to Quack for some insight. Here are his dexterous answers to our clumsy questions.
AZ Desert Swarm: Not including interim guys, Oregon is on its fourth head coach in the past seven seasons. Yet it looks like Dan Lanning already has things moving in the right direction. What has he done so far that’s led to success, and how is he different from previous coaches?
Carl Blackwell: “Well, to answer that let’s talk briefly about the previous three head coaches. Mark Helfrich was given the keys to the Oregon Ferrari and he crashed it in spectacular fashion. He did good stuff as the OC under Chip Kelly, but the offensive scheme was Kelly’s all the way. Left to his own devices, Helfrich’s house of cards blew over. Enter Willie Taggart. While Taggart also struggled as a head coach, but what he brought was a more modern, aggressive recruiting effort that was lacking under Kelly and Helfrich. Slick Willie bolted for FSU, and left Mario Cristobol in a tough spot; however, Cristobol was (and is) a great recruiter and attracted a lot of talent - the likes of which Oregon had not seen before, at least not in terms of quantity or quality.
"Cristobal’s weakness is his offensive philosophy. He chooses a smashmouth, run-heavy offense that operates at the expense of an explosive passing game, and he doggedly pursues that to a fault. He did that at Oregon and he’s doing it at Miami. Mario did win games, and he recruited consistently well, but the Ducks fanbase was all too happy to bid him adieu when he was hired by his alma mater. The feeling is that he was angling for his new job somewhere around midseason and couldn’t be bothered to finish the season with Oregon. I don’t think that’s the truth of how events unfolded, but that’s where the emotions of the fanbase rest. So while Cristobal did find success in Eugene, there is no love lost amongst the Duck faithful.
"When Cristobal left, the new Oregon coach was going to have to contend with the same issue that Mario did - how to keep as many pieces of a great recruiting class together as possible, and fill the gaps...all in a very short period of time. Dan Lanning did that, and also used the transfer portal to fill in critical gaps. Then, Lanning had to build a coaching staff from the ground up. His choices have been interesting and appear to be as good as can be hoped thus far.
"Lanning’s success can be attributed to several factors. First, he inherited an Oregon team that had a lot of talent, defections notwithstanding. Taggart and Cristobal did not leave Lanning an empty cupboard. Lanning and his staff are also outstanding recruiters and they have been able to keep the momentum going in attracting top talent. Lanning is also experiencing success in hiring a brand new staff and making the machine work from scratch. So far, Lanning’s hire seems to be the home run that Oregon fans were looking for. Let’s not discount Oregon’s Athletic Director, Rob Mullins. Hiring Dan Lanning was a bold move, and it seems to have paid off."
Like Arizona, the Ducks brought in a transfer quarterback this offseason in Bo Nix from Auburn. What were the expectations for him this season, and has he lived up to them so far?
"Bo Nix came in as a mixed bag. Do you get the 'good Bo' or the 'bad Bo'? Nix earned SEC Freshman of the Year honors at Auburn in 2019. His subsequent seasons were not as successful, in part due to injury but also because he found himself playing for a different OC each season. Last December, Nix was looking at the prospect of playing for his fourth different OC in as many seasons, and he entered the transfer portal.
Bo Nix chose Oregon, playing for the same OC that guided him through his standout freshman year in 2019: Kenny Dillingham. Was Dillingham a primary factor in Nix’s success in 2019? If Bo Nix has a career season, is it in part because Dillingham is the QB coach? That’s an undercurrent that I’ve been paying attention to, and we may be able to answer that question at season’s end.
"Even with the 'good Bo' on the field, he’s prone to bad passes that become interceptions. So far, he’s been accurate, but he’s also been lucky that he doesn’t have more INTs in the box score than he does. If he continues like this, then he - and the Oregon Ducks - will have a very successful season.
"An interesting (and unanticipated) twist is that Bo Nix can run. And has. He’s a legitimate running threat."
Oregon is leading the Pac-12 in rushing, which hasn’t happened since 2015. What makes this attack so potent, and who is doing the most damage?
"It’s no secret that the Oregon offensive line is experienced and deep. They are the best line in the Pac-12 and arguably one of the best in the country. A great running game can’t happen without a great line.
"Our running back room is the deepest that it has been in quite some time. While we have five backs that have rotated in play, two are emerging as our lead RBs - sophomore Noah Whittington (a transfer from Western Kentucky), and sophomore Bucky Irving (a transfer from Minnesota). Both have legitimate game-time experience, and it’s showing in-game; especially Irving, who has plenty of Power 5 games under his belt. Both of these backs show patience behind their blockers and make great cuts when necessary."
What are the biggest strengths and flaws of the defense? Are they any players that Arizona should most be concerned with?
"The Ducks have depth and talent on the line and at linebacker; therein lies the strength of the defense. The defensive weakness is in the secondary, especially at cornerback. If the Wildcats are to have any hope of an upset, their passing game must be successful.
"The Ducks have enough depth at the line to rotate backups in and maintain performance. The player to watch is Brandon Dorlus. Of course, the moment I mention Dorlus then DJ Johnson will step up, or Bennett Williams. The anchor of the linebackers is Noah Sewell, and Arizona will see plenty of No. 1. And while the corners are suspect, Christian Gonzalez (who transferred from Colorado) is the real deal; a superb defender. Oregon’s defense is improving by the week, so don’t be surprised if the Wildcats struggle to move the ball. If they aren’t struggling, like teams not called Georgia are, it will be because they were successful with an explosive passing attack."
Oregon hasn’t won in Tucson since 2011 and has lost dropped its last two at ASU. Why do the Ducks struggle so much in the desert?
"Oregon has only played Arizona twice since 2011, and the 2022 incarnation is bigger and more talented than those teams of past. The Wildcats have not been the only Pac-12 team that had our number in that time period; Washington State in Pullman seemed to be a crapshoot and the Ducks have struggled against Stanford in that time period as well...coincidentally, the last two teams that Oregon defeated before traveling to Arizona this weekend."
Prediction time. Will Jedd Fisch get his first win against a ranked opponent or will Oregon keep making that season-opening beatdown to Georgia look like an aberration? Give us a score pick.
"Oregon ran all over Stanford last Saturday, and that should not have been a surprise, because the Cardinal has the third-worst run defense in the Pac-12. Second-worst and worst? That would be Arizona and California. Expect much the same from the Ducks on Saturday. They are going to use a successful run offense to chew up clock and keep Arizona’s offense off the field. I think that the only hope Arizona has is to win the turnover battle and have great success in the passing game. I just don’t see that happening on Saturday, and my prediction is that Oregon enjoys another comfortable win, 42-24."