TUCSON, Ariz. — Oregon found itself trailing in the Pac-12 North race after losing to Stanford two weeks ago, but kept playing hard, hoping for another opportunity to earn a spot in the conference championship game.
That chance came last weekend.
Shortly after the fifth-ranked Ducks rolled over Utah, Southern California knocked off Stanford. Just like that, Oregon was back on top of the division, controlling its fate in a bid for a second trip to the Pac-12 title game in three years.
“It’s one of those deals where you just have to control what you can control,” Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota said. “It just happened that Stanford lost and now we control our own destiny. But really it’s just one game at a time like we always take it.”
The next one is against Arizona.
The Ducks (9-1, 6-1 Pac-12) are heavy favorites, but it’s a dangerous game.
The Wildcats (6-4, 3-4) have one of the fastest-snapping offenses in the country — just a notch behind Oregon — and one of the nation’s top running backs in Ka’Deem Carey, an All-American last season who is second nationally with 150 yards per game.
Arizona will be playing with a sense of urgency, too.
While the Wildcats are bowl eligible, they have lost their past two games, both at home and both games they could have won.
The first, against UCLA, Arizona had trouble getting out of its own way and couldn’t stop Myles Jack, a freshman linebacker taking his first turn at running back for the Bruins. The Wildcats followed that up with an even more disappointing loss, 24-17 to a Washington State team that had lost its previous three games by a combined score of 162-83.
Arizona also has the added incentive of playing its final home game against one of the nation’s elite programs, so the Wildcats should be up for this one.
“It’s a huge game, just to try to get some national respect and it being our seniors’ last home game,” Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. “I’m probably over the top on that. I want them to really enjoy their last home game.”
Here’s five things to look for when the Ducks meet the Wildcats in the desert:
Tempo up: Oregon has been the standard bearer for fast-paced offense the past few years and has again been close to unstoppable this season. The Ducks are second nationally in total offense (580 yards per game), third in scoring (nearly 51 points) and have been the quick-strike kings, scoring in two minutes or less in 47 of their 66 scoring drives this season. Arizona has taken the speed approach since Rodriguez became the coach last season, playing at a pace few teams can match — except maybe Oregon.
Thomas returns: De’Anthony Thomas had plenty of expectations for his junior season after a superb sophomore year. It didn’t work out quite the way the Oregon running back had hoped, thanks to an ankle injury that kept him out of nearly four full games. Thomas returned with a flourish last week, returning a kickoff 86 yards for a touchdown and catching a touchdown pass in Oregon’s 44-21 victory over Utah last Saturday. Thomas says he’s healthy now and should give the Ducks a huge boost for the stretch run.
Catching Carey: Oregon is the last team in the past two seasons to hold Arizona under 100 yards rushing. The Ducks will have their hands full this time trying to stop Carey. An All-American last season, he’s been just as good this year, ranking seventh nationally with 1,353 yards despite playing one less game than most of the leaders. With 117 yards, Carey will become Arizona’s career rushing leader — as a junior.
Magical Mariota: Mariota has been arguably the most efficient offensive player in college football this season, which is why he is one of the front-runners for the Heisman Trophy. The sophomore has thrown for 2,819 yards and 25 touchdowns, and hasn’t thrown an interception since Nov. 17, 2012, against Stanford. He has thrown 343 passes without a pick, a Pac-12 record, and is the NCAA’s career leader in interception percentage (0.97) among quarterbacks with at least 600 pass attempts.
Red-zone woes: Arizona was solid in the red zone early in the season, scoring on 25 of their first 28 chances inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. The Wildcats haven’t been nearly as good over the past two games, scoring six of 10 times with just two touchdowns. Arizona failed on a fourth-and-1 and lost a goal-line fumble against UCLA and last week failed on a last-chance play inside Washington State’s 20 when Samajie Grant caught B.J. Denker’s pass out of bounds. The Wildcats can’t afford to lose points like that against Oregon.