Three weeks into the Rich Rodriguez Era, the mood is cheerful in Tucson. The Wildcats are 3-0, have a marquee win under their belts, and appear to be much more polished than most anticipated at the outset of the season.
WR Austin Hill has helped to stretch out Arizona's passing game, vertically.
And yet, as the UA heads to Eugene to clash with No. 3 Oregon on Saturday, the overwhelming presumption is that the Wildcats will surely wind up the latest in a long line of blowout defeats, at the hands of the mighty Ducks.
If recent history is an indicator, that notion may prove correct, though it’s hard – given what the Wildcats have shown thus far – to believe that Oregon will simply rout the Cats, en route to covering the 22.5-point spread.
Yes, UO has dropped Arizona by way of averaging 50-points and winning by two touchdowns over the past four years, but while the Flyin’ Phil Knights look a lot like they did during each of those seasons (blazingly fast, all over the field), the Wildcats appear a completely different team, and not just in terms of their offense and defense, but also in the what they exhibit on the gridiron – a collective resolve that, to date, is undefeated.
The Cats may well lose on Saturday, but there’s good reason to believe they will prove the Las Vegas odds-makers wrong, remaining competitive throughout and keeping the game well within reach.
One way or another, Saturday represents the kind of early season test that will give the Wildcats and their fans a fair understanding of where the team will go over the next two months.
Why is this a good thing? Some historical perspective will provide the answer.
Two years ago, the Wildcats floated through the first two-thirds of the season, winning game after game, ascending to a No. 9 national ranking, while opening with seven wins and just a single, two-point loss.
The program and its supporters dreamed of big things, though the biggest games of the year still lied ahead in November. Their dreams weren’t complete delusions, either; the Cats had knocked off what seemed to be some top-caliber opponents on the way to their monumental road showdowns with a pair of the nation’s elite in the season’s final month.
Arizona ambushed No. 9 Iowa in week three, a thrilling victory that was to catapult the program into a new football echelon. A week later, the UA survived the almost inevitable letdown, narrowly escaping Cal’s Golden Bears, 10-9, and found themselves ranked 9th as they headed into their bye week.
Though they narrowly lost to Oregon State at home two weeks later, the Cats rebounded to defeat Washington State in Pullman. And despite the knee injury quarterback Nick Foles suffered during that victory, Arizona remained resilient, as backup QB Matt Scott helped the UA top Washington and UCLA, thus closing out an October that ended with the program riding its biggest high in 12 years.
Arizona rose back up to No. 15, then was thoroughly humbled in November away affairs at No. 13 Stanford, 42-17, and No. 1 Oregon, 48-29. The Cats were finally given the chance to find out how they stacked up against the nation’s best, and they clearly demonstrated they did not belong in that category.
To make matters worse, while this was all happening, Arizona’s program-changing victory over Iowa in September was continually discounted, as the Hawkeyes underachieved and finished with the same mediocre 7-5 record that the UA ultimately did.
What hurt the most in 2010 was that it took nearly a full season to find out what the team was truly capable of achieving, yet the season that started with so much promise eventually proved a house of cards, blown over by the gale of good competition.
In 2012, however, the answer will come early, because Oregon – despite having coasted through three veritable cupcakes in Arkansas State, Fresno State, and Tennessee Tech – certainly looks deserving of its lofty ranking.
And that is not to take anything away from the Cats’ surprising upset of Oklahoma State two weeks ago. The Cowboys rebounded to lambaste Louisiana Lafayette, 65-24 last week, primarily using their backup quarterback in doing so. OSU still will almost certainly win nine or 10 games this year, thereby validating what Scott and Co. were able to do to them in Tucson, when they were ranked No. 18.
But Oregon remains the biggest test, as they are the current cream of the Pac-12 crop. For sure, Arizona will learn one of three things based on Saturday’s outcome:
If they are blown out, as many believe, then we’ll know the Cats are a solid team that will be overmatched when facing the very best, meaning losses to Stanford and USC are likely imminent.
If they keep it close, the reaction in Tucson will be one of a team with the potential to upset the giants, of a season in which the UA should finish in the upper-third of the conference, with eight or nine wins.
And if Arizona wins – which isn’t unimaginable – it will be an early boost in the now wide-open Pac-12 South division, due to USC’s week three loss to Stanford. A victory would be an enormous boon to Rich Rodriguez’s program makeover, and would buy a few more weeks, at minimum, for the Wildcats and their faithful to dream of playing for the conference title on Nov. 30.
To the last point, Arizona should have a legitimate shot, for a few reasons.
First, like Oregon, they can play fast, too. They’re better conditioned than the 2010 UA team that faded in Eugene, and while that squad may have been deeper, they were spent by the end of the game, allowing 34 points in the second half, as the once-close contest turned into a trouncing. The UA has allowed just 27 total points in second halves this year, and their nonstop hustle is best illustrated by their unified sprint from one end of the field to the other, as the teams change directions at the end of the first and third quarters.
Next, Arizona runs a similar style offense, meaning their defense has practiced against Oregon-type plays and speed every day. The Ducks may have some explosive athletes faster than anything the Cats will trot out, but at least there shouldn’t be many surprises.
And although both offenses are fundamentally alike, Arizona has the edge in the passing game, and Scott should seek to exploit Oregon’s small secondary – which is without its injured captain, senior safety John Boyett – by hitting his 6-foot-3-plus receivers, Dan Buckner, Austin Hill, and Terrence Miller, with great regularity.
With passing in mind, the UA should witness a few mistakes by the Ducks’ redshirt freshman signal-caller, Marcus Mariota. How big those mistakes are, and how the Wildcats take advantage, will perhaps play the most important part in the outcome, just as did UA cornerback Jonathan McKnight’s late-game interception return for a touchdown against Oklahoma State’s inexperienced Wes Lunt. That play was the game’s final momentum shift, and Arizona could absolutely use something similar on Saturday.
Oregon’s Autzen Stadium is feared across the land as one of the most intimidating, loudest places to play, yet a personal experience reveals part of their daunting secret – they pipe in much of that sound through the P.A. system.
The Wildcats can’t do anything about that; they’ll need to discover some advantages of their own if they are to win this weekend. But Rodriguez’s bunch will indeed be confident, and it’s hard to argue why they wouldn’t be, based on their performance so far.
There’s a lot to be learned about this team, and thankfully, answers will arrive with the first day of autumn.
If Saturday’s game was played in Arizona Stadium, picking the upset would be easy. But for one more week at least, the tentative approach will remain the norm.
Oregon 49, Arizona 38, though a loss won’t rule out many future victories.
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