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Arizona at Oregon preview: Wildcats look to slow Marcus Mariota once again

LISTEN: Bearing Down with Adam and Jarrett - Oct. 1, 2014

Last year’s matchup between Arizona and Oregon, which ended with the Wildcats routing the fifth-ranked Ducks by a score of 42-16, is in the past.

But it’s far from a distant memory.

“The most lasting image is the seniors,” Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. “The happiness they had in the locker room with that being their last home game. Having people storm the field and the seniors being able to celebrate was the biggest image I have.”

It’s probably safe to say Oregon remembers the game very well, albeit with a different emotion.

The late-season blowout came as a shock to most, with the Wildcats dominating from the very beginning. Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota threw his first two interceptions of the season in the game — the first coming on the opening drive — and the Ducks cost themselves seemingly every drive with drops, fumbles and penalties.

It was a perfect storm for the Wildcats to pull off the biggest upset in the Rodriguez era. Ka’Deem Carey turned a school-record 48 carries into 206 yards and four touchdowns, while quarterback B.J. Denker had the game of his life by completing 19-of-22 passes for 178 yards with two scores, as well as running for another 102 yards on the day.

But as great as that rainy November afternoon was for Arizona, it will mean nothing when the teams take the field at Autzen Stadium Thursday in a nationally televised game.

The last time an undefeated Arizona team played there, they left as 49-0 losers. Teams don’t often go into Autzen and come out victorious.

“I never enjoy it when the atmosphere is loud unless we’re at home,” Rodriguez said. “When it’s loud and you’re on the road it makes it miserable.”

One way to make it less miserable would be to get off to a fast start, which Rodriguez said is important because if you get down early to a team like Oregon, “it’s going to be really hard because you know they’re going to score.”

“We’ve got to get some stops, first and foremost, and offensively, we’ve got to get some first downs,” he said. “That’s a big key. We can’t just get three-and-outs and throw our defense back out there.”

Seems simple enough, right?

Defensively, it all starts with slowing Mariota, a junior who would have been a top NFL draft pick had he gone pro last year. He’s off to another amazing start this season, completing 74 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns and zero interceptions. The Heisman Trophy favorite has also rushed for 214 yards and three scores.

“Coach (Rodriguez) has stressed the importance of bringing Mariota to the ground because he’s a big kid and a playmaker, so he’s always looking to make those plays and dish the ball off,” senior defensive lineman Dan Pettinato said. “As a team, we need to wrap up and stay in our lanes so we don’t let him get outside of them. When watching him on film, the first and biggest thing that sticks out to me is his speed. He’s quick and I’ve seen him outrun defensive backs and linebackers. There are times when you’ll see him looking one way, and then he’ll end up escaping the opposite way.”

After Mariota, the Wildcats — who have allowed just 3.6 yards per rushing attempt this season — will look to slow freshman running back Royce Freeman, who leads the Ducks with 261 yards and five touchdowns on the ground. And in the passing game, the team will need to slow explosive frosh Devon Allen. The Brophy Prep product has already scored five touchdowns and is averaging 21.4 yards per reception.

Offensively, Arizona may not want to rely on redshirt freshman Anu Solomon as much as it had to its last time out against California. This could mean leaning on Nick Wilson and Terris Jones-Grigsby in the running game. Assuming Wilson, who is listed as ‘probable’ with a concussion, is healthy enough to play, Arizona will have a solid duo with which it can use to help control the ball.

Or, if the Ducks decide to stack the box and dare the freshman Solomon to beat them, that’s what Arizona will try to do.

“It depends on how the play us,” Rodriguez said. “We can’t force the issue. If someone puts extra guys in the box and forces you to throw, you have to be able to throw. So sometimes I’m stubborn and keep trying to run it, our system runs better when we run and throw with the numbers.”

If nothing else, both teams have the capability to light up the scoreboard and each run a version of a fast-paced spread. While neither defense is likely to see its statistics improve in this game, someone is going to have to make some stops.

Given that Arizona is at least a 23-point underdog heading into the game, it’s clear most expect Oregon’s superior talent to be too much for the young Wildcats to overcome. Yet as last year’s matchup proved, you can never be 100 percent sure of what’s going to happen on game day.

“As I’ve said before, I love away games,” senior safety Jared Tevis said. “The energy is always inspiring, crazy, and loud. When you have your helmet on, it feels as if somebody is screaming right in your ears. I love playing in that kind of environment, and there’s nothing more exciting than hearing the ‘boos’ coming from the other side.

“To me, there are not many better feelings than being able to quiet the opponent’s crowd. Autzen is one of the best stadiums to play in, so I can say I’m excited. As a team, we’re going to need to feed off that energy and not let it get to us this weekend.”

What To Watch:

– Wilson is not Ka’Deem Carey, but his rushing numbers have been awfully similar. Here’s a comparison between the true freshman’s first four games of 2014 and Carey’s first four of 2013:

Carey: 94 rushes, 569 yards (6.1 yards per rush), five TDs

Wilson: 77 rushes, 482 yards (6.3 yards per rush), four TDs

Wilson rushed for over 100 yards in each of his first three collegiate contests, but was limited to just 33 yards on 11 carries against Cal before leaving the game with an injury in the second half. Wilson is expected to play on Thursday, but Oregon’s rushing defense (48rd nationally) is comparable to that of the Golden Bears (46th).

– As always, turnovers will likely tell much of the story Thursday. Arizona whooped Oregon last season thanks to winning the turnover battle by a 3-0 margin.

– Mariota has only thrown 10 interceptions in 30 NCAA games, but three of them have come against the Wildcats — his highest total against any team. He threw a pair of picks — including this play of the year candidate — in last season’s UA win, and he threw a third-quarter INT during a 49-0 win over then-No. 22 Arizona in 2012.

– Arizona’s Cayleb Jones has quickly emerged as one of the best receivers in the country, let alone the Pac-12. He has caught 29 passes for 475 yards and six touchdowns, and is coming off a game in which he caught 13 passes for 186 yards and three touchdowns. He’s become Solomon’s go-to target, and will likely need to make some big plays for Arizona’s offense in this game.

– The Wildcats have recorded just three takeaways (all interceptions) in four games this season. UA, which comes into the game in the FBS bottom 10 in passing yards allowed per game (295.3), will need to do better to once again slow down Mariota and Oregon, which comes in ranked 16th nationally in passing yards per game (330). Also, the Ducks are seventh in the nation in turnover margin per game (plus-1.75).

– Another stat to keep an eye on, especially when Oregon has the ball, is third downs. The Ducks are one of the best at converting them (56.3 percent; fifth in the FBS), and the Wildcats’ defense is decidedly average in allowing opponents to do so (36.8 percent; 55th).

– While Solomon is a mobile quarterback, like all passers he is better with a clean pocket. Arizona has allowed just seven sacks this season, though Oregon’s defense will present the toughest challenge to date for a veteran offensive line.

– The Wildcats will look to improve upon their season net punt average of 34.5, which ranks 105th in the nation and 10th in the Pac-12. Oregon is averaging 9.6 yards per punt return (52nd in the nation), while the Wildcats are allowing 9.57 yards per return (83rd).

– Speaking of special teams, a surprising bright spot for UA has been kicker Casey Skowron, whose 10 field goals lead the Pac-12. The junior has only missed twice this season, and he proved he can kick well in a hostile environment with his 4-for-4 performance, including a long of 44 yards, in the Wildcats’ 26-23 win at UTSA on Sept. 4.