I hope everyone is having plenty of fun, food and football on this Thanksgiving day. But let's take some time to talk about what Oregon needs to do to Win The Day on Black Friday, and I don't mean being first in line to buy laptops for less than $200.
First and foremost Oregon has to want it more than Arizona. I don't mean in the cheesy Craig James "commentator speak," but instead I mean in realizing what is at stake in this game. For Arizona this is really just a game to try and knock off #1. They aren't moving up or possibly down from #3 in the Pac, so for them this is a chance to lead off SportsCenter, upset the BCS apple cart and be a typical thorn in the side of the Ducks. For Oregon the stakes are much higher.
Jeff Maehl, DJ Davis, CE Kaiser, Jordan Holmes, Bo Thran, Brandon Bair, Zac Clark, Kenny Rowe, Casey Matthews and Spencer Paysinger are all starting their last game at Autzen Stadium. We could write volumes about what these guys have meant to this team. I'm sure that every single one of them remembers the pain of 2007 in Tucson, and I'm sure they don't want to revisit that again. For these guys there isn't a chance next year, another Autzen encore, or any way of making up for slipping up now.
For the entire team the National Championship game is close enough you could reach out and touch it. There is one home and one road game standing in the way. The mantra of "this week is our National Championship Game" is never more appropriate. This game is our Home National Championship Game. Every guy has to realize that and play like there is no tomorrow.
Next let's look at some of the statistics that will effect this game. Arizona is #5 in total defense in the Pac 10 against conference opponents. They are second in rushing defense, fifth in passing defense, second in scoring defense and fourth in sacks. This is obviously an above average defense in conference play, and Oregon is going to need to execute on offense if they want to move the ball and score. That means DT is going to need to be sharp, LMJ needs to focus on running north and south and getting the yards he can get, Maehl and the WR's need to block down field and make catches and last and most importantly the Ducks need to avoid putting themselves in bad situations with penalties.
In the last two games, Arizona's defense has shown some weakness where USC and Stanford rushed for 205 and 180 yards respectively. But their biggest weakness has been in their pass defense and especially in short yard situations. DT is going to need to step up his game find the open guy and make accurate throws. I think being at home is going to really help the offense both from a penalties perspective but also from a making Thomas comfortable. While Arizona's defense is not as good as Cal's their offense is worlds better, and so therefore our offense is going to need to put up points.
Here are some statistics about Arizona's offense. They are #6 in scoring offense against Pac 10 opponents. They are fourth in rushing offense and third in total offense. What makes their offense really deadly is their passing game. They are first in the Pac in passing yards per game, first in attempts, but only thrid in yards per attempt. Arizona has the weapons to stretch the field in Criner and Foles, but they are content to also dink and dunk you to death. They run a lot of short slant, crossing and screen plays. Foles is one of the most accurate passers in the country with a 71% completion percentage. One of their biggest problems is that once the deep ball is taken away and Arizona is in the Red Zone they bog down offensively. They are #8 in the conference in Red Zone scoring percentage and #10 in TD%.
This is the perfect type of game for Aliotti to put the reins on the defense and make Arizona work to take the ball down the field. Play a lot of zone between the 30's and then switch to man in the Red Zone, and keep everything in front of you. This will have two desired effects. First it is going to wear Zona's offense down. That plays into Oregon's hands later in the game if Aliotti wants to turn the pressure up at that point. Their o-line will be more tired later from long sustained drives and their skill players won't be as sharp either, meaning more drops, less crisp routes , and less broken tackles. The second benefit of playing soft and keeping everything in front of you, is that it will force Arizona to convert in the Red Zone, where they are weakest. I like the match up of our skilled, fast, ball hawking play makers on defense in close quarters against their players. Last year, in Tucson, Arizona capitalized on those types of plays at a tremendous rate. The formula hasn't changed. If we try and gamble early on their offense, they can and will burn us. If we make them be efficient in the Red Zone, one on one with blitzes coming in Foles' face after a 10 or 12 play drive, we'll win a few, wear down their offense, and give our offense a chance to put the pedal down.
Lastly, I think the little things are really going to matter in this game. Special teams need to be special. Any time you can flip field position on one play, you change the momentum of the game. Huff and Harris need to make plays on special teams. Another little thing that I hope Oregon worked on in the bye week is penalties. Penalties on offense will allow their two most explosive defenders in Elmore and Reed to pin their ears back and get in the backfield after LMJ and DT. Penalties on the defense will help Zona move the ball without having to work for it. We have to clean that up.
I think Oregon has a great shot in this game if they play their game. I know the players realize what is at stake, both as a team and for the Seniors. I expect DT and the o-line to bounce back at home from one of their worst performances of the year against Cal, and our defense is deep enough, quick enough and talented enough to force Arizona to work for anything they get. If Oregon does all that and keeps the penalties to a minimum, they should win their Home National Championship game.