If you haven't recovered from last year's crushing loss to Arizona, I promise I'll try and keep this as painless as possible. If you've moved on like a good sports fan should, then you should be able to make it through this article without retreating into a dark corner to hide from bad memories.
The fact of the matter is that like most other opponents, Oregon has Arizona's number while playing at Autzen Stadium. The Ducks haven't lost to the Wildcats in Eugene since 2006. As a matter of fact, Oregon has beaten Arizona in five of the last six meetings. The Wildcats also haven't beaten a top 25 team on the road since 2009. However, Oregon will have certainly their hands full as Arizona ranks at the top of the Pac-12 and sixth in the FBS in total offense (593.8 ypg). Much like Oregon, they move fast on offense. Head coach Rich Rodriguez said you won't see Arizona in the huddle "holding hands and singing kumbaya," which is my favorite description ever of a no-huddle offense. Let's take a further look at what the Oregon defense is up against this weekend.
Leading the Wildcats' offense is Anu Solomon, a freshman from Las Vegas. Solomon is off to an impressive start in 2014 with 1,454 passing yards, 13 touchdowns and three interceptions, and an efficiency rating of 154.31. Solomon's 1,454 passing yards rank 10th in the FBS and the most of any freshman quarterback. Arizona is averaging 365.8 passing yards per game, good for eighth in the nation. Last week in a shootout against Cal, Solomon came up clutch against California completing 19-of-24 passes for 248 yards and four touchdowns and a passer rating of 220.97. Oh yeah, that was just in the fourth quarter alone. In that game, Solomon recorded 566 yards of total offense, a Pac-12 single game record for any player. Here are the other records Solomon set against Cal.
In Oregon's 38-31 win over Washington State, we saw Connor Halliday have his way with the Oregon secondary, even making Ifo-Ekpre Olomu look vulnerable at times. If Solomon can keep up his hot start, he should be able to keep Arizona in this one till the end.
You guys all remember Ka'Deem Carey, I'm sure. Last year, Carey demolished Oregon's rush defense, carrying the ball 48 times for 206 yards and four touchdowns. The good news is that Carey is now in the NFL and will be far far away from Eugene on Thursday night.
Filling Carey's shoes is freshman Nick Wilson who has 77 carries for 487 yards and four touchdowns. Through his first four games, Wilson is averaging 120.5 yards per carry, ranking 14th in the FBS. His 487 yards rank third among all freshman in the nation.
In previous years, I believed Oregon's kryptonite was a good rushing attack (just ask Stanford). This year, the Ducks have improved on stopping the run, so I don't think a 100-yard performance will be as vital to Arizona's success as it would've been in years past. However, Wilson can still play a huge role in Arizona's attempt at an early-season upset.
Leading Arizona's receiving corps is Cayleb Jones, a sophomore from Austin Texas. Jones leads the Wildcats with 29 catches for 475 yards and six touchdowns, accounting for nearly half of Anu Solomon's passing touchdowns. Jones' six touchdown receptions are the second most in the nation. After a slow opening performance against UNLV when he caught three passes for just 30 yards, Jones has strung together three straight games with over 100 receiving yards. Against Cal, Jones caught 13 passes for 186 yards and three touchdowns. Oregon's number one priority on defense Thursday night should be containing Jones as much as they can.
Also in the mix through the air for Arizona is senior Austin Hill who has 15 catches for 263 yards and three touchdowns so far in 2014. Against Cal, Hill had eight catches for 127 yards and two touchdowns, including the miraculous game-winner on a hail mary pass as time expired. In his career, Hill is just 62 yards shy of 2,000 career receiving yards and is on three different watch lists for awards this season (Maxwell, Biletnikoff, Walter Camp). Hill has also shown his ability to make big plays, including a 92-yard touchdown reception against UNLV.
Who to watch for
Much like against Washington State, it will be the passing game that'll make the difference. Cayleb Jones is off to a blistering-hot start so far in 2014 and if he keeps up his performance on Thursday night, the Ducks could find themselves in another game coming down to the wire. The last time Arizona came to Autzen in 2012, many predicted a shootout between the two offenses. In the end, it was Oregon's defense who stole the show as the Ducks shut out Arizona 49-0. So this week, Cayleb Jones is my X-factor for Arizona. I certainly don't think the Wildcats will be shut out. Oregon will pull out a win to celebrate Autzen's 100th straight sellout, but it won't be a blowout.