TUCSON, AZ - SEPTEMBER 17: Quarterback Nick Foles #8 of the Arizona Wildcats throws a 6 yard touchdown reception against the Stanford Cardinal during the second quarter of the college football game at Arizona Stadium on September 17, 2011 in Tucson, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Much has been made over our opponents rushing statistics through the first three games of the season. We have questioned the front seven as Missouri State and Nevada garnered big yardage totals by running right at the heart of our defense. We've wondered whether it was a case of us merely trying to find a reason to panic--as were our fears after Washingon State had an unusually strong offensive performance against Oregon last season in Pullman--or if there is legitimate concern that Pac-12 teams were going to be able to run the ball down our throats at will.
Fear not. At least this week.
To put it mildly, the Wildcats are not a big rushing threat. Through three games, Arizona averages 55 yards a game on the ground, on 21 attempts. They don't try and run the ball much and, when they do so behind their completely rebuilt offensive line, they're barely getting two and a half yards a carry. I know teams adjust their game plan for the opponent they play, but they don't change their identity. There is no way the Wildcats are going to run the ball forty times against Oregon. They are going to do what they do--dink and dunk with the short passing game, then try to suprise the defense and hit Juron Criner or Dan Buckner deep for a score.
Keoila Antolin starts at tailback for Arizona. He shouldn't see a ton of carries (only nine versus Stanford) and is more of an east-west runner, not the type to excel against Oregon's speedy defense. You do have to watch for him to leak out of the backfield, though.
The key, however, is to get Nick Foles out of his comfort zone. Foles started 17 of 17 against Stanford, and Arizona's short passing game will give him ample opportunity for safe, easy completions. As Matt Daddy said in the ATQ Podcast, the concern here is that what should be short completions turn into big gains if Oregon shows the poor tackling for that they did in the first half against Missouri State. However, if Oregon's linebackers can make sure tackles, Arizona's short passing game will not score enough points to beat Oregon. Foles is not a threat to run, but also doesn't get sacked a ton because of the short nature of Arizona's passing game. Making Foles uncomfortable doesn't necessairly mean getting in his face and knocking him down, its maybe even more important just to have good coverage and force his shortest throws.
In addition to sure tackling, the other big factor is big plays, as the Wildcats will take shots downfield to Juron Criner and Dan Buckner. Remember, Criner is one of the best receivers in the nation, and one only need look at his long touchdown reception against the Ducks last year to realize what he is capable of. The Ducks' secondary has been really good this season, and I've got a good feeling that Cliff Harris will return to regular playing time this game to cover Criner. The Wildcats have a bevy of good receivers, and already have six players with double digit receptions on the season. They will empty the backfield and split out five wide. Oregon will need to go deep into its defensive back rotation, and it will be a test for young players like Terrance Mitchell and Troy Hill, who have already played well this season. If Harris and Gildon are the starters, I love the matchup for Oregon in this aspect.
The bottom line is this: the worst case scenario if Oregon's defense doesn't play well is a shootout. And while Arizona is capable of putting up points, without a consistent ground threat, its going to be extremely difficult for them to score enough points to beat the Ducks. If Oregon's defense steps up to the challenge and play well, its got the potential to get ugly, as UA's defense has not been terribly impressive to date. However, a good defensive performance in the desert will make us feel a lot better about this unit going into the bye week.