Reality has finally reared its unwelcome head at the Arizona Wildcats football team, and with that, the season’s final two months should see more games that resemble the deflating nail-biter the Cats dropped to Oregon State on Saturday night.
A healthy Jared Tevis will be needed as Arizona tries to match Stanford's physical play.
The assumptions coming into the season – that the offense would score points aplenty but the defense might yield too many – were proven accurate, as the Beavers outlasted Arizona, 38-35, in a fight that could have been a crucial victory for the Cats.
Arizona simply could not stop OSU at critical moments, and the Beavers’ domination of time of possession – by over 13 minutes – left the UA defenders flat in the final moments, as OSU quarterback Sean Mannion marched his team 75 yards on 10 plays to score the game-deciding touchdown.
The humbling loss brought the season – one that generated hopes hovering high in the stratosphere after three weeks – back to earth, as the true potential of this year’s version of Arizona Football has started to materialize.
At 3-2, and without a conference victory through two tries, the Cats’ hopes of winning a Pac-12 South division title are all but over by mid-season. And though a championship was not the expectation for first-year head coach Rich Rodriguez and his staff, their 3-0 start – which included a 59-38 stunner over No. 18 Oklahoma State – planted some seeds of optimism in the hearts of the program and its backers, who suddenly had visions of Rich Rod’s seemingly inevitable success arriving ahead of schedule.
Now, however, the truth is setting in, as the Cats are already living Phase Two of their coach’s philosophy about his upstart programs – first, they lose big (see Oregon 49, Arizona 0 two weeks ago), then they lose close. Maybe this two-game mini sample is a sign of an accelerated timetable, one that progresses toward winning close and winning big in Phases Three and Four sometime soon, but more than likely, the UA will reside in the neighborhood of the first two phases this week, as they head to Stanford to take on the 3-1, 18th-ranked Cardinal.
The ‘Trees’ are not unlike the Beavers, as they boast a stout run defense and a pro-style offense, one that features a rushing attack that should challenge the UA thoroughly (they also share the same No. 18 ranking that OSU had a week ago). The Wildcats surrendered 180 yards to Oregon State runners last week, with 161 of those gained by Storm Woods, the Beavers’ bruising freshman featured back.
The Cardinal have a premier back of their own in Stepfan Taylor, who averages 103 yards a game in 2012, and had Trojan defenders chasing him all night three weeks ago, when his 153 yards powered Stanford to a 21-14 upset win over then-No. 2 USC.
Perhaps the one clear distinction between the UA’s opponent from last week and this one has been the overall quality of play from the quarterback position. While Mannion, a second year starter, has averaged 362 passing yards while completing 64.6 percent of his throws in 2012 (and only appears to be getting better), Stanford’s junior signal-caller, Josh Nunes, has struggled to replace NFL No. 1 pick Andrew Luck, connecting on just 52 percent of his passes, while being picked off four times (Mannion has but one interception).
Matt Scott will need to keep the Stanford defense guessing by spreading the ball around the field.
Nunes looked pedestrian last Thursday in Seattle, hitting on less than half his passes while failing to toss a touchdown, and the interception he threw with just over three minutes left sealed Stanford’s fate – a 17-13 defeat at the hands of Washington.
That should be encouraging news for the Wildcats, who must focus on stopping Taylor this week while hoping to take advantage of any Nunes mistakes.
Mannion and his accurate right arm exposed the UA defensive backfield a week ago, and after every-down safety Jared Tevis went out with a first quarter ankle sprain, the sophomore from Pleasanton, CA took even greater advantage, abusing the Arizona secondary to the tune of 433 yards.
The thin UA defense could use a few untimely errors by Nunes on Saturday, as Tevis is listed as questionable for Arizona’s final game before its bye week.
And yet, Arizona’s greatest hope this week likely relies on the same thing it did six days ago – it will need to score often, and it will likely need to score last.
The often part may be doable, because although the Cardinal have the nation’s No. 4 rush defense (allowing just 65.3 yards per game), they struggle defending the pass, ranking 87th while yielding over 1,000 yards thus far in 2012.
The Wildcats gained 545 yards against a well-rounded Oregon State defense last week, and though 403 of those yards came through the air, Arizona maintained a balanced attack, gaining 142 rushing yards on 23 carries. Ka’Deem Carey once again led the Wildcats’ ground game, and his resilient 115 yards (and two scores) were his most notable gains of the year, as Oregon State had been stellar against the run prior to last week.
A balanced offensive effort would be the winning formula for Arizona on Saturday, and should the offensive line continue to protect Scott and open holes for Carey the way it did last week, the Wildcats could very well tally enough points to punch in a late score and steal a win on the road.
However, road games have been a career-long struggle for QB Matt Scott (who threw two second half interceptions last week) and his deer-in-the-headlights performance at Oregon two weeks ago strikes a serious blow to any confidence one should have in the Wildcats’ odds of pulling off the upset this weekend.
Scott’s hip is banged up, his ankle is tender, and for whatever reason, his confidence – like Tevis and center Colin Quinn’s status for Saturday’s game – is questionable.
Stanford 31, Arizona 28, as the Wildcats fail to score last and limp into the bye week licking their wounds from a sobering three-game tumble back to earth.
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