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What to watch for when Arizona football hosts No. 11 Oregon State

arizona-wildcats-football-preview-osu-beavers-dj-uiagalelei-quarterbacks-redzone-pac12-2023-defense Arizona Athletics

Arizona is set to face a fourth consecutive ranked opponent when it returns to action Saturday night at home against No. 11 Oregon State. The Wildcats blew out then-No. 19 Washington State on the road in their last game, which followed one-score setbacks to No. 7 Washington and No. 9 USC.

That 31-24 home loss to Washington, on Family Weekend, resulted in a sell out. But UA coach Jedd Fisch said Thursday only about 42,000 tickets had been sold for the OSU game, an indication the fanbase is still not fully on the bandwagon as Arizona (4-3, 2-2 Pac-12) tries to move closer to being bowl eligible for the first time since 2017.

“We should be able to sell out this game,” Fisch said of a matchup that he describes as a “heavyweight battle” between the Wildcats and the Beavers (6-1, 3-1). “For our team to have this opportunity to host them in our stadium is awesome. And we need to take advantage of that opportunity, and sure it will certainly put you on the map if you go ahead and take care of business and win this game. That will certainly put Arizona football on the map based upon how we played the last few weeks. The players understand that.”

Here’s what to watch for when the UA faces OSU for the first time since 2019 (and possibly the last time ever):

Another week, another big-time quarterback

This gauntlet in the schedule Arizona has been on hasn’t just been against ranked teams, but also ones piloted by well-regarded quarterbacks. The Wildcats managed to fend well against Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. and USC’s Caleb Williams before having no trouble with Washington State’s Cameron Ward.

Now comes Oregon State’s DJ Uiagalelei, who coming out of high school three years ago was the No. 1 quarterback prospect in the country. The 6-foot-4, 252-pound redshirt junior spent three seasons at Clemson, starting 28 games, before transferring to the Beavers, and in seven games with OSU he’s thrown for 1,573 yards and 15 touchdowns with four interceptions and run for five scores while only getting sacked six times.

“DJ has come in and really given a great spark to the passing game,” Fisch said. “I think they’re up maybe 30 or 40 yards a game. They’re making explosive plays downfield. They’re hitting on those deep crossing routes and big plays down the field that has really enabled him to take their offense one step further. And he’s also making good decisions in the red zone. They’re the number one red zone team in the country, they’re 25 for 25 down there. He’s another great quarterback that we’re going against.”

As for Arizona’s QB situation, Fisch said he’ll wait until just before the game before announcing whether Jayden de Laura will return to the starting job or Noah Fifita will get his fourth straight start. He said it’s been “talked about” using both in the game, as OSU does by bringing freshman Aidan Chiles in for the third series each outing, but wouldn’t say if that was likely.

Defending deep

OSU runs more often than it passes, with Pac-12 rushing leader Damien Martinez a bruiser at 6-foot and 232 pounds. But when the Beavers throw, they tend to go deep, with Uiagalelei’s average depth of target of 12.3 yards 10th-highest in FBS (and tops in the Pac-12) among players with at least 100 dropbacks.

Arizona’s QBs, for comparison, are 7.1 for de Laura and 6.5 for Fifita.

OSU does this despite having some of the smallest receivers in the country in juniors Silas Bolden and Anthony Gould, both of whom are listed at 5-foot-8, while senior Jesiah Irish is listed at 5-11. Bolden and Gould have combined for 894 yards on 59 catches, an average of 15.5 yards, and both average more than 11 yards downfield per target.

“They got speed at wideout, which I love and respect,” Fisch said. “You got cover that, you got to cover downfield. The biggest challenge for our corners will be if we don’t get a pass rush. We need to get a pass rush against this team, because what they’re going to do is they’re going to try to stretch the field with their speed.”

Trench warfare

There’s a possibility of cousin-on-cousin collision in this one, as OSU’s Uiagalelei is the cousin of Arizona sophomore defensive lineman Ta’ita’i Uiagalelei. Though not a starter, Ta’ita’i averages 23 snaps a game and has 3.5 tackles for loss along with a sack.

“He’s made an impact even starting last year,” Fisch said. “He had that huge sack against UCLA ... when we played them at their place. He’s’s been a great asset for our program, as a true freshman last year and now this year. We need a huge game this week from our defensive line.”

OSU has yielded only eight sacks in seven games but it has allowed 50 pressures, and Uiagalelei is only a 45 percent passer when under pressure.

The Beavers will likely run a lot on early downs, as they average 6.45 yards per carry on first down, tops in the Pac-12. Arizona gives up 2.96 yards per first-down run, second-best in the league.

Red zone results

As mentioned earlier by Fisch, OSU is the top red zone offense in the Pac-12 with 25 scores in 25 trips (Arizona is 29 for 31). The Wildcats are fifth-best in red zone defense, allowing a score on 76.9 percent of visits inside their 20, with only 57.7 percent of those resulting in TDs.

The UA has scored on 25 consecutive red zone trips, but in the last three games only managed nine TDs while having to settle for five field goals.

“You gotta be able run the ball in the red zone and not turn it over,” Fisch said. “Last year we had I think seven turnovers in the red area, whether that be turnover on downs or whether that be an interception or fumble.”

Both of Arizona’s red zone misses this season have been due to turnovers, while it’s averaging just 2.77 yards per carry inside the 20 compared to 4.99 overall.

“If you put yourself in position by running the ball, you give yourself the best chance to be able to score down there, get close enough to be in field goal range and then get into the end zone,” Fisch said.