After losing in close bouts last weekend both the Arizona Wildcats and the No. 18 Stanford Cardinal will try to bounce back this week when the two Pac-12 foes meet up at Stanford Stadium.
Arizona was riding high through its first three games of the season earning three victories and a spot in the top-25. Since then the Wildcats have fallen off with losses in back-to-back games with the most recent being 38-35 setback at home to No. 14 Oregon State.
Also gaining momentum through its first three games was Stanford which climbed all the way to No. 8 in the polls with a stunning 21-14 win over then No. 1 USC at home. However the hangover from that win was evident last time out, as Stanford fell 17-13 on the road to Washington.
After the loss to Washington head coach David Shaw was very clear about how he felt about his team's effort.
"We didn't play well enough to win," Shaw said. "We didn't make the throws we needed to make. We didn't make the catches we needed to make. We didn't sustain our blocks in the running game as long as we should have. We got outplayed tonight."
That leaves Stanford with a number improvements that need to be made as the Cardinal get set to take on Arizona with a chance to even up the all-time series. The Wildcats currently lead the series 14-13 although Stanford has won seven of the last nine meetings including a 37-10 victory last year.
To no one's surprise Rich Rodriguez completely transformed the Arizona offense and has it running at high speed so far with the Wildcats ranked third in the Pac-12 in total offense (538.2 ypg). The Wildcats have done so primarily through the air, ranking first in the conference in passing yards (1,719) through their first five games.
Quarterback Matt Scott has really excelled in Rodriguez's system, completing 64.1 percent of his passes for 1,608 yards and 10 touchdowns. However a tendency to turn the ball over (six interceptions) has kept the team from scoring at a higher rate. It is not entirely Scott's fault, as the Wildcats have scored only 65 percent of the time that they get into the red zone.
Austin Hill and Dan Buckner have been an effective receiving duo. Each has 31 receptions this season with Hill leading in yards (443) and touchdowns (three). Buckner has 422 yards and two scores.
Thinking that all Arizona does is pass the ball would be foolish as the Wildcats have also been a strong running team, amassing 972 yards on the ground. Ka'Deem Carey (538 yards, seven TDs) has carried the bulk of that load while Scott's ability to run (228 yards) has given the offense a more dynamic element.
The 3-3-5 defensive scheme Rodriguez has used throughout his career has taken some time to gel at Arizona, especially when teams are forced into a track meet with the Wildcat offense. Arizona is allowing 451.2 yards per game, while teams score at a 28.4 point per game clip. The offense's inability to capitalize in the red zone effectively has been compounded by the defense's failure to slow teams near the goal line. Opponents have converted 89 percent of their red zone attempts against Arizona.
The unit has not created much pressure (only five sacks) although Jake Fischer (49 tackles) and Jared Tevis (42 tackles) have each been strong in terms of bringing down ball carriers.
After seemingly progressing each week in the Cardinal's three wins, quarterback Josh Nunes took a big step back against Washington. The successor to Andrew Luck completed only 18-of-37 pass attempts for 170 yards and a costly interception.
"I know that I need to make a lot of those throws that we missed tonight. I feel like I let a few of the guys down tonight," Nunes said.
Nunes has yet to really impress this season, completing only 52.0 percent of his passes for 785 yards and six touchdowns to go with four interceptions.
Where the offense has been able to succeed is in the run game, led by star tailback Stepfan Taylor. The senior has rushed for 413 yards and three scores in four games and his 103.3 yards per game average is currently ranked fourth in the Pac-12.
Where Shaw's squad has not seen much change from last season is on defense. Stanford is second in the conference in scoring defense (15.3 ppg) and third in total defense (316.5 ypg). The Cardinal are especially stout against the run, allowing only 260 yards on the ground this season which is the third best mark nationally.
The defense is extremely active racking up 36 tackles for loss and 13 sacks with four different players having at least five tackles for loss and two sacks. Ed Reynolds (three interceptions) and Jordan Richards (two interceptions, nine passes defended) have also led an impressive pass defense.