Santa Clara, CA (SportsNetwork.com) - The third-ranked Oregon Ducks will have revenge on their minds when they take on the eighth-ranked Arizona Wildcats in the Pac-12 Conference Championship game at Levi's Stadium on Friday night.
On Oct. 2, the then unranked Wildcats stunned the second-ranked Ducks, 31-24, in Autzen Stadium. The win was the second straight for Arizona over Oregon, with the Wildcats also logging a 42-16 triumph last season. Oregon still leads the all-time series, 24-16. It will be even more desperate to capture the 25th all-time win against the Wildcats this week.
"We're just going to play our game," Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota said. "Arizona did a great job setting and dictating tempo in the last meeting. If we go out and execute to the best of our abilities and execute the game plans that are put in front of us we should hopefully be successful."
After defeating the Ducks, Arizona lost two of three games, including a 17-7 setback on the road against UCLA. However, the Wildcats resurrected their conference title hopes by winning their next four games, including a 42-35 victory over in-state rival Arizona State last Friday. With that win, the Wildcats improved to 10-2 overall, marking their first 10-win season since 1998. They are still alive in the hunt for the College Football Playoff as well, but they would need to win their first-ever Pac-12 title, and first league title since tying for the Pac-10 crown back in 1993, to have a chance at the final four.
Since losing to the Wildcats, Oregon has been red hot, ripping off seven straight victories. The Ducks' average margin of victory during the lengthy win streak is an astounding 24.2 points per game. The setback against Arizona was the only one they suffered during the regular season, as they finished at 11-1 overall following last week's demolition of Oregon State (47-19) in the Civil War. Oregon won the first-ever Pac-12 title in 2011 after notching back- to-back Pac-10 championships, but it has failed to get into the title game the last two seasons. A victory on Friday would all but guarantee the team a slot in the inaugural College Football Playoff.
This contest promises to be quite the offensive exhibition, as both squads have had their fair share of success on that side of the ball this season. The Wildcats finished the regular season ranked fourth in the Pac-12 in both total offense (481.3 ypg) and scoring (36.7 ppg). The success of the team in that area, as well as in the standings, earned Rich Rodriguez Pac-12 Coach of the Year honors.
One of the best decisions Rodriguez made all season occurred back in August, when he chose redshirt freshman Anu Solomon has his starting quarterback. Solomon rewarded Rodriguez's faith by turning in a strong campaign, completing 58.2 percent of his pass attempts for 3,424 yards, 27 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. His yardage total is fifth-best in the conference, although his completion percentage (.582) ranks 12th. Solomon was solid last week against Arizona State, accumulating 208 yards and two touchdowns on 15- of-21 passing.
Samajie Grant was exceptional in that win, picking up 91 yards and two touchdowns on four receptions. Grant (40 receptions, 645 yards, five TDs) is part of a trio of receivers who have been instrumental to Solomon's success. Cayleb Jones (63 receptions, 831 yards, eight TDs) and Austin Hill (42 receptions, 586 yards, four TDs) are both dangerous as well and they will be needed even more this week, as Grant will not start after being cited on suspicion of driving under the influence last weekend.
Of course it wouldn't be a Rodriguez offense without a strong running game, and Nick Wilson has made sure the Wildcats have one. Wilson (1,263 yards, 15 TDs) may not have had the explosive campaigns of Ka'Deem Carey, but he did rank fourth in the Pac-12 in rushing yards and second in rushing touchdowns.
The real star for the Wildcats isn't on offense, however. Scooby Wright was named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, and for good reason as he led the Pac-12 in tackles (140) and tackles for loss (28.0), while logging 14 sacks. Despite those efforts, Arizona is still a run-of-the-mill defensive squad, allowing 25.5 points and 434.7 yards per game.
Wright and company know just how challenging it will be to slow down Oregon again. The Wildcats limited the Ducks to 446 yards in the meeting earlier this season. Repeating the accomplishment will be tough against an Oregon team that ranks fourth in the country in total offense (539.5 ypg).
The top priority will be slowing down Mariota, a task Rodriguez knows is nearly impossible.
"I don't think you can say that we stopped him. If you look back at his stats, he got a lot of yards and big plays, but we got a couple turnovers," Rodriguez said of his defense's performance earlier this season. "We have just been really lucky to get some things offensively and keep him off the field more often."
Mariota, who was an easy choice as Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year, turned in a regular season for the ages, throwing for 3,470 yards and 36 touchdowns, with only two interceptions. As if his ability to throw wasn't frightening enough, Mariota also ran for 636 yards and 11 scores.
Even if Arizona manages to cause some problems for Mariota, it still has to contend with a number of talented skill position players. Royce Freeman (1,185 yards, 16 TDs) was the team's leading rusher during the regular season. He has had at least 100 yards in five of the last seven games. Byron Marshall can run a bit as well (352 yards, TD), but he has been exceptional as a receiver out of the backfield, leading the Ducks in receptions (56) and receiving yards (791). Devon Allen (36 receptions, 638 yards, six TDs) and Dwayne Stanford (37 receptions, 557 yards, six TDs) are two targets Mariota favors as well.
While it laid waste to regular season opponents on offense, Oregon was less dominant on the defensive side of the ball. The Ducks rank eighth in the Pac-12 in total defense (429.6 ypg), although that is partially a symptom of the quick-strike scheme of the offense, which often requires opposing offenses to be on the field more often and throw the ball more frequently.