STANFORD, Calif. - Asked to explain Stanford's bruising offense, Arizona Wildcats coach Mike Stoops thought for a second - then made up a word.
"They try to get you mis-formationed," he said.
Of all the words thrown the 10th-ranked Cardinal's way heading into tonight's showdown with No. 13 Arizona, "mis-formationed" fits perfectly.
No team in America runs fewer plays more different ways, and nobody's better at it. Stanford will shift and switch its way through dozens of offensive formations in tonight's nationally televised game at Stanford Stadium, looking for an edge.
It's up to Arizona (7-1, 4-1) to figure out the Cardinal - and its whack-a-mole strategy. The stakes have rarely been higher.
The Wildcats can continue their charmed season tonight by upsetting the Pac-10's most physical team; the loser will be almost surely eliminated from Rose Bowl contention.
"They're very smart when it comes to their game plan," defensive end Ricky Elmore said. "They'll make you think they're doing something else, something different, and then they'll run the same plays. We need to not let it get to us. Once we start freaking out and get out of position, they'll make a big play."
Lately, Arizona's defense - particularly its secondary - has been flawed. The Wildcats allowed UCLA's Richard Brehaut to throw touchdown passes of 68 and 41 yards in last week's 29-21 win over the Bruins; both times, UA safeties were out of position. It took Washington quarterback Jake Locker just 1 minute 34 seconds to go 62 yards when the teams met Oct. 23.
Andrew Luck puts both Brehaut and Locker to shame. Stanford's 6-foot-4-inch, 235-pound quarterback has thrown for 1,920 yards and 20 touchdowns this season. His passing efficiency of 162.51 is 10th best in the country.
But it's Luck's skill set - and smarts - that have NFL scouts drooling. Many believe the strong-armed sophomore will be a top-10 pick whenever he decides to go pro.
Luck, a native Texan, is the perfect embodiment of Stanford's team: cerebral, powerful and process-oriented. Luck frequently changes plays depending on the defensive formation. The Cardinal (7-1, 4-1) will shift from one side of the line to the other to create favorable matchups; the gambles rarely fail.
"They don't make dumb penalties," Elmore said. "They don't make dumb decisions."
The Cats will counter with a dangerous quarterback of their own. Nick Foles is expected to return tonight, three weeks after suffering a dislocated kneecap in a win over Washington State. Matt Scott, who guided UA past Washington and UCLA, could see time as a change of pace or if Foles struggles.
Arizona's offense almost surely will change with Foles. The run-heavy attack that Arizona ran to perfection the last two weeks will be replaced with a downfield passing game that is Foles' forte.
Defensively, the Wildcats must outthink the conference's most cerebral team. They must dis-formation the mis-formationers.
"It's a numbers game," Stoops said. "(Stanford) knows how to count. They know when they're outnumbered. They know how to gain an advantage. … We're going to be physical enough. Now, are we going to be smart enough? That's the whole key."
On StarNet: Catch quarter-by-quarter updates from the Arizona-Stanford game in California and read the game story after it ends at: azstarnet.com
• What: Arizona (7-1, 4-1) at Stanford (7-1, 4-1)
• When: 5 p.m.
• TV: Channel 9
• Radio: 1290-AM, 107.5-FM
MORE THAN A LITTLE LUCK
Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, below, has turned himself into a top-flight college quarterback in his sophomore season with the Cardinal:
Luck's passing efficiency rating, 10th best in the NCAA
Completion percentage, 14th best in the NCAA among passers with at least 100 completions
Passing yards, 34th best in the NCAA
Passing touchdowns, tied for ninth best in the NCAA