Here are three things to watch in the Arizona Wildcats’ game vs. Oregon at Autzen Stadium (Saturday, 5 p.m., Pac-12 Networks), plus a score prediction and some pertinent preview links:
1. IT MIGHT GET LOUD
Check that: It will. Although the Ducks aren’t quite back to being the Ducks yet, Autzen Stadium is still Autzen Stadium – the toughest road venue in the Pac-12. How will Khalil Tate and his mates handle the noise? Nothing seems to faze this sophomore version of Tate. He entered the Colorado game early in the first quarter, set the FBS rushing record for quarterbacks and led the Wildcats to an upset victory in Boulder. He calmly threw the winning touchdown pass in Arizona’s double-overtime victory at Cal. And he led a massive second-half comeback at USC that ultimately fell short. Tate will maintain his poise. The bigger concern is communication up front. Arizona is among the least-penalized teams in the conference. But all it takes is a handful of false starts to put the offense “behind the chains.” Those situations – second-and-long, third-and-long – are what the Wildcats must avoid. We know Tate can pass; it’s a lot harder when the other team knows it’s coming. So communication and concentration will be critical when Oregon’s fans crank up the volume.
2. JUSTIN TIME
Oregon coach Willie Taggart has been noncommittal about his starting quarterback, but all signs point to Justin Herbert returning to the lineup. Arizona has caught its share of breaks this season; the return of a healthy Herbert would not qualify as one. It remains to be seen, of course, how sharp Herbert will be. He’s been practicing for a while but hasn’t taken any hits. It’s also impossible to simulate the speed and adrenaline of game day. Herbert’s presence will force the Wildcats to honor the pass and should make Royce Freeman even more effective. It’s no secret that the Wildcats have had trouble stopping the run; five of the past six opponents have rushed for at least 151 yards, with two (Colorado, USC) hitting 300. When Freeman and his fellow tailbacks run the ball, pay attention to how many white jerseys appear on the screen. If it isn’t three or more, the defense isn’t doing its job. And if that level of commitment leaves openings in the pass game, so be it. Slowing Freeman has to be the priority.
3. RECRUITING RANCOR
Taggart and Rich Rodriguez said all the right things about each other this week – at least publicly. But you know the exodus of UA commits to Oregon had to rankle Rodriguez. And you know it had to come up a time or two this week within the walls of the Lowell-Stevens Football Facility. The question is whether it will have any effect on the game. Several Wildcats seemed at least mildly irked when asked about the recruits who flipped to the Ducks. So there could be a little more trash-talking than usual. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. A game that means relatively little could use some sizzle. Even if Oregon loses, the Ducks can gain bowl eligibility by defeating Oregon State next week. Arizona is already bowl eligible, and it’s reasonable to assume the Territorial Cup carries more weight with the players than this game (which isn’t to say it’s unimportant; it’s just not as important). So the existence of a subplot isn’t the worst thing. And if two-time UA commit Braxton Burmeister should play, it’ll get heated in a hurry.
FINAL SCORE: Oregon 38, Arizona 35