STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL/GAME BREAKDOWN
Scouting the run defense: The battle of bests features Oregon’s rush defense against Arizona’s rush offense.
The Ducks boast the Pac-12’s second-best run defense, giving up 116.3 yards per game. The combination of Jordon Scott, Jalen Jelks, Austin Failou and Justin Hollins give the Ducks as strong as a defensive front anywhere in the nation. All four players are physical and nasty at the point of attack, but most importantly, know their roles.
Scott and Failou plug up the middle, often taking on double teams without getting the actual tackle. Jelks and Hollins set the edge against pulling offensive linemen or tackles, forcing the ball carries back into the mess created by Scott and Failou.
This leaves linebackers Troy Dye, Kaulana Apelu and Lamar Winston Jr. as the playmakers who can play physical and downhill. This combination only thrives because each player understands what they do on every given play, showing a tenacity to never give up.
This week, they’ll be tasked with stopping the diminutive, yet powerful JJ Taylor. He is fourth in the conference in rushing, averaging 102.1 yards per game. Listed at 5-foot-6 but weighing 184 pounds, Taylor is a combination of speed and burst with power, staying low to the ground and being difficult to bring down.
Arizona’s offensive line is an improving unit as well, getting better and more comfortable each week.
The Ducks could find more trouble if quarterback Khalil Tate returns healthy. Tate, who’s been nursing an ankle injury for much of the season, missed last week’s contest and his status is unknown for Saturday.
When healthy, Tate is the most dynamic quarterback in the country, rushing for 1,411 yards and 12 scores last season. He’s fleet-footed and strong, and when combined with his better passing skills, nearly unstoppable.
To stop the Pac-12’s second best rushing attack, the Ducks must stay disciplined and not be caught with misdirection. The Wildcats get creative when running the ball, forcing Oregon to stay gap controlled and rely on its film study. If Tate is back, having a spy will be essential to slowing him down. But if Tate doesn’t play, the Ducks might overload the box and force quarterback Rhett Rodriguez to beat them with his arm.
Scouting the pass defense: Much like the rest of the Oregon units, the Ducks struggled last week against the nation’s No. 1 passing offense in Washington State. They gave up 323 yards and four scores through the air but did pick off Cougar quarterback Gardner Minshew II twice. The Ducks nearly came up with a game-altering third interception, but safety Jevon Holland couldn’t come down with it in the end.
On the season, Oregon is giving up 251.0 passing yards per game, the third-worst showing in the Pac-12. Safeties Ugochukwu Amadi and Holland are ball hawks, each with three interceptions on the season. Cornerback Deommodore Lenoir got his second and third interceptions of the season when he picked off Minshew twice last week.
The Ducks will be preparing for either Tate or Rodriguez to be slinging it come Saturday.
Tate is the more gifted passer, showing his improvement from last year by throwing for 1,415 yards and 11 touchdowns in just over six games this season. Rodriguez is the more cerebral passer. The son of former Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez, Rhett makes up for a lack of arm strength with the ability to diagnose defenses and get the ball out quick.
Regardless of who’s at quarterback, Shawn Poindexter and Shun Brown will be the two players Oregon must stop in the passing game.
Poindexter is a massive receiver at 6-foot-5, 218-pounds who’s having a breakout senior season. He leads the team with 552 receiving yards and four touchdowns, averaging 18.4 yards per catch. Brown is the opposite, a quick and athletic receiver who’s listed at 5-foot-10, 188-pounds. A big-play threat every time he touches the ball, Brown leads the Wildcats with 36 catches on the year.
Oregon’s best pass defense will come from its pass rush. Jelks and Hollins are two of the better pass-rushers in the conference, using their 6-foot-5 frames to pressure opposing quarterbacks into rushed throws. The Ducks will attempt to create pressure this way, forcing quick throws and then rely on their tackling to keep the Arizona receivers in front of the sticks. If Oregon can get pressure up front, it allows the defensive backs to play more freely and take more risks, something the Ducks have capitalized on with their 11 interceptions on the year.