Here are three things to watch in the Arizona Wildcats’ game vs. Oregon at Arizona Stadium (Saturday, 7:30 p.m., ESPN), plus a score prediction and some pertinent preview links:
1. THE RETURN OF TATE
First of all, we don’t know if this is going to happen for sure. If it does, it can be interpreted in two ways. The first is in the literal sense: Khalil Tate returning to the lineup after sitting out last week and most of the previous week because of an ankle injury. But even if Tate is back, it doesn’t mean he’s back. You’d like to think the time off will do him some good, that his ankle will feel better, that he’ll be determined to finish the season on an uptick. But would you bet on that happening based on what we’ve seen so far? I heard from a source that when Tate returned to practice Monday, he had a different demeanor; he was more serious than he’d been at any previous point this season. That’s a good sign. But doing it in a game — with live tackling — is a different story. This is an important juncture in Tate’s UA career. This coaching staff hasn’t seen the 2017 version of Tate. Whatever equity he had built up is all but gone. If he gets hurt again and/or doesn’t play well down the stretch, will he be Arizona’s quarterback in 2019? It’s a legit question.
2. KEEP ON RUNNING
This isn’t the first time I’ve stressed this point: The Wildcats must find a way to run the ball effectively. It happened in the second half last week at UCLA; Arizona gained 190 of its 289 rushing yards after halftime. There’s a caveat, though: The Bruins aren’t very good at stopping the run. Utah steamrolled them for 325 yards Friday night. Oregon represents a much tougher test. The Ducks rank second in the Pac-12 in run defense, allowing 116.3 yards per game and 3.2 yards per attempt. Only two teams have rushed the ball effectively against Oregon: Cal (41 carries, 241 yards) and Washington (45-194). Bear in mind, however, that more than half the Golden Bears’ yards came courtesy of quarterback Brandon McIlwain. Tate is capable of such a performance, but we haven’t seen anything like that from him this year. If Arizona does run the ball well, it’s more likely to be a conventional approach. J.J. Taylor and Gary Brightwell are more than capable, and the offensive line — even without Layth Friekh — showed promising signs last week. The effects would be obvious: keeping the dangerous Oregon offense off the field and its dinged-up defense on it. Washington State possessed the ball for 33 minutes, 25 seconds last week.
3. UPSET WATCH?
If Arizona unexpectedly upsets Oregon, it wouldn’t be unprecedented. It happened in back-to-back years not that long ago. In 2013, the Wildcats blasted the fifth-ranked Ducks 42-16. Ka’Deem Carey rushed for 206 yards and four touchdowns — on 48 carries! — and B.J. Denker was nearly perfect, completing 19 of 22 passes for 178 yards with two touchdowns and no picks. Less than a year later, Arizona upended second-ranked Oregon 31-24 in Eugene. Scooby Wright famously clinched the game with a strip-sack of Marcus Mariota. If you think this UA team is incapable of something like that, consider this: In ’13, the Wildcats were 18.5-point underdogs; in ’14, they were 21.5-point ’dogs. The spread tonight is 9.5. It’s not impossible. It’ll take something unusual, to be sure. Turnovers. A big special-teams play. A fast start by Arizona. The Wildcats should be inspired. The 1998 team will be in the house for homecoming. That team thumped Oregon 38-3.
FINAL SCORE: Oregon 35, Arizona 21