Here are three things to watch in the Arizona Wildcats’ game against No. 6 Oregon in Eugene (Saturday, 8:30 p.m., ESPN), plus a score prediction and some pertinent preview links:
1. BEHIND CENTER
Grant Gunnell might start. He definitely will play again. Either way, it will be fascinating to watch the freshman quarterback operate in this environment against this opponent. Yes, Gunnell has played on the road a couple of times. But coming off the bench is different than starting when the score is 0-0. Additionally, he never has faced a defense this good in a stadium this loud. This isn’t NAU or UCLA at home. This isn’t garbage time against Washington or USC. The Ducks know Gunnell will have a role, they have plenty of film on him at this point and, like the Wildcats, they had an extra week to prepare for this game. Gunnell has positioned himself to be Arizona’ QB of the future. This game – under the lights, in the rain, on national TV, against the Pac-12’s second-ranked defense – will reveal how close he is to fulfilling that promise. One more note on the quarterback situation: No matter what happens with Gunnell, senior Khalil Tate is expected to play as well. He seems to be heading toward an anticlimactic conclusion to his thrilling UA career. It says here he has at least one more magical moment in him, whether it’s tonight or at some point in the final two weeks.
2. UP FRONT
You know things aren’t going great when one of the most exciting developments on the team is the ascent of an offensive lineman. But freshman Jordan Morgan sounds like the real deal, from all accounts. My intel says the Marana High School product is set to make his first career start, at left tackle of all places – which would mean having a freshman protecting another freshman’s blindside for at least a portion of the game. From what I’ve heard, Morgan is the fastest lineman on the team. He also already is among the strongest – despite not yet having a full offseason in the strength-and-conditioning program. Kevin Sumlin believes Morgan was the steal of the 2019 recruiting cycle. You could apply that same description to Donovan Laie in ’18, and it’s fair to wonder whether Morgan’s apparent promotion is any reflection on Laie. It’s not. He will start somewhere else along the line, possibly at guard. The goal is to get the best five guys out there, and Laie unquestionably is among Arizona’s best five. The bigger question for tonight is who else is available. And the question for next season is where to put Laie if you view Morgan as your left tackle. Right tackle, where Laie excelled as a freshman, makes the most sense.
3. ON DEFENSE
Remember Tristan Cooper’s massive hit on Oregon’s Dillon Mitchell last season? The Ducks sure do. Not that you ever want to knock an opponent out of a game, but wouldn’t it be nice if an Arizona defender did something noteworthy at Autzen Stadium? If it seems like forever since someone has, well, you’re not imagining things. The UA defense has forced only one turnover in the past five games. (The other takeaway came on a muffed punt.) The team that once led the nation in interceptions hasn’t picked off a pass since the UCLA game. You’d like to think interim defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil – who holds the Arizona career record with 21 interceptions – could coax a takeaway or two out his troops with a full two weeks to prep them. The traits Cecil was best known for – passion, energy, determination – are all any UA fan really wants to see out of this defense the rest of the way. I heard from many who found the performance against Oregon State off-putting. No one is expecting any Cooper-like hits or Scooby Wright-like heroics. But maximum effort can go a long way on the defensive side of the ball.
FINAL SCORE: Oregon 42, Arizona 27
UA-Oregon storylines: On defensive breakdowns, Myles Tapusoa going the distance and rugby memories
Contact sports reporter Michael Lev at 573-4148 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @michaeljlev