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What to watch for when Arizona football hosts No. 12 Oregon

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Arizona’s 2022 season is nearing the halfway point, and with a 3-2 record the Wildcats find themselves in the conversation for their first bowl bid since 2017.

The upcoming schedule will go a long way toward determining if the program can go bowling, as the UA’s next five opponents are ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 and the next six have a combined record of 26-4. First on that list is 12th-ranked Oregon, which is Arizona’s opponent on Saturday night for Family Weekend.

Here’s what to watch for when Arizona tries to beat a ranked opponent for the first time since knocking off the Ducks at home in 2018:

Trusting the (offensive) process

Arizona is averaging 32 points per game, nearly double what it scored last season, and its 476 yards-per-game is its best since 2017.

The bulk of the Wildcats’ production has come via the air, with quarterback Jayden de Laura becoming the first UA passer since Matt Scott in 2012 with consecutive 400-yard games. His 484 yards against Colorado were fifth-most in school history, and his six touchdown passes tied the single-game program record.

Oregon (4-1, 2-0 Pac-12) has the worst pass defense in the conference, allowing 282.2 yards per game with 12 TDs, so it stands to reason the Wildcats could go heavy on the pass and only run (against the Pac-12’s second-best rush defense) when necessary. That seems to fly in the face of past comments by Jedd Fisch and offensive coordinator Brennan Carroll about being balanced on offense, but on Thursday Fisch said offensive balance is subjective.

“I remember years ago Mike Leach made a comment one time about balance, and he said balance isn’t run/pass, it’s how many touches your best players get,” Fisch said. “I think that there’s a lot of value in that statement, it rings true.”

Including sacks and QB scrambles, Arizona has called 238 pass plays and 140 run plays, about a 63-37 split. That’s up only slightly from 2021 (61.9-38.1), but the difference this season is the number of reliable offensive weapons the Wildcats have.

A year ago, Stanley Berryhill III was the only player targeted more than five times per game and who played all season (Dorian Singer averaged 6.2 targets over the five games he played). This fall Singer, Jacob Cowing and Tetairoa McMillan are all averaging at least 7.6 targets, while Tanner McLachlan has been thrown to more times (22) than leading tight end Alex Lines was (20) all of 2021.

Michael Wiley is getting 40 percent of the carries and has also been thrown to 19 times, while fellow running backs Jonah Coleman and DJ Williams have carved out specific roles in the run and passing games.

“We really believe in our system of offense, which is we’re going to try to attack teams as often and in as many different ways as possible,” Fisch said. “And we’re not going to get wrapped up in, let’s call it numbers. What do we need to call and when do we need to call it, we need to just find a way to to be able to be balanced enough to get the ball in our playmakers’ hands. We just have to really move the ball any way we possibly can because we know it’s going to be a great challenge.”

Living for the next play

Arizona has turned the ball over eight times this season, and six of those have come in its two losses. De Laura threw three interceptions against Mississippi State, then at Cal he was picked off twice and was stripped on another play.

All three giveaways at Cal were with the UA trailing in the second half, the same with his last two picks against MSU, and four were with the Wildcats down by two or more scores. Fisch said that’s a normal byproduct of playing from behind, trying to get it all back in one play.

What can’t happen, he said, was having those things happen on early downs. Three of the five while-trailing turnovers came on first or second down.

“When you’re down by a score you can’t really force the ball,” Fisch said. “The best chance you have to get back into the game as you complete your pass to your team. We just continue to talk about it and we continue to protect the ball, and regardless of the score of the game we want to try to always make sure that we are in control of when that ball goes to the other team.”

Nixing Bo

Transfer quarterbacks are all over college football, particularly in the Pac-12 where seven of the starters were at different programs last season. Arizona isn’t the only team in the league reaping the benefits of the portal like this, as Oregon quarterback Bo Nix has been just as impressive.

The Auburn transfer has thrown for 1,261 yards with 12 TDs and three interceptions, completing 68.9 percent of his passes. He’s also run for 261 yards and five scores, going for 141 yards and two TDs last week against Stanford including an 80-yard score on a scramble play.

“80-yard scramble, that’s a long scramble, so his athleticism is showing up,” Fisch said. “One of the biggest things that we’ve talked about, in this room, is that if you get about 40 or 50 yards from your quarterback that’s how you have one of those top 25 rushing attacks. It seems to me that they’re getting more than that from him.

Nix has only one pick during Oregon’s 4-game win streak, which included him throwing for 428 yards in a win at previously unbeaten Washington State. Arizona’s pass defense has been solid this season, particularly, but Fisch said the key to stopping Nix isn’t just to keep him in the pocket.

“The key is to tackle,” he said. “So if he’s out of pocket we gotta tackle him. If he’s in the pocket we’ve got to pressure him. And if they’re handing the ball off or they’re having some quarterback runs, we can’t let those turn into explosives. It has to be, it has to be a game of tackling this week. And it starts with tackling the quarterback.”

Nix has only been sacked on 3.2 percent of pass plays when he’s been pressured, by far the lowest rate among Pac-12 QBs.

Speaking of tackling

Arizona had another dozen missed tackles against Colorado, per Pro Football Focus, but that’s still a huge improvement from the 22 it had at Cal. Only six of the 12 were on run plays, compared to 19 the week before.

One slightly better performance doesn’t mean Arizona’s tackling problems have been solved, but Fisch said the way his team looked in practice this week indicates that they gained confidence from the most recent effort.

“I think each week we’re gonna have to treat it as a separate entity,” he said. “I’m not exactly sure if we can really say that, because we did a good job, for the most part, tackling, therefore we will continue to do that. What our guys need to do is just continue to practice. I think if you practice well, then you should play better. I felt this week was a very good week of practice so far. Sunday night there was a lot of energy and enthusiasm out on that field. A lot of times that does happen after a victory. And then Tuesday, Wednesday was a very disciplined, determined football team, a team that’s excited about the great challenge that’s ahead of us. We recognize how good Oregon is, and we’re going to we’re going to do our best to fight, scrap, claw and play our best game.”

Oregon leads the Pac-12 and is 10th nationally in rushing, at 228.8 yards per game. Nix is one of three players with 200-plus yards, along with Minnesota transfer Bucky Irving (362) and Western Kentucky transfer Noah Whittingham (244). Add in an offensive line that Fisch said is made up entirely of 4- and 5-star recruits, as well as the run defense numbers the Wildcats have posted, and you’ve got all the ingredients for another rough time in the trenches.

Oregon’s run grade, per PFF, is seventh nationally, while Arizona’s run defense grade is tied for sixth-worst.

An actual real, live packed house

Fisch said Thursday that only 800 tickets remained for the Oregon game, making it very likely Arizona Stadium will have its first sellout since Sept. 26, 2015 against UCLA. That game drew 56,004 but since then capacity has been reduced several times due to renovations and now sits at 50,600.

(UPDATE: the game is officially sold out)

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The last crowd of 50,000-plus for a football game in Tucson was the 2018 Territorial Cup (51,805).

“It’s amazing for our players to be able to run out of the tunnel to a full house,” Fisch said. “As we’re building a program, and as we’re trying to get to where we one day want to be, we need these types of moments. Moments where our stadium gets full for a great game ... and continue to have that mentality and just keep supporting us as we’re building, knowing that there’s ebbs and flows of everything. But the energy and excitement around our program right now is in a good place.”