Here we are again on the eve before a nerve-wracking Oregon vs. Arizona match-up with high stakes. For the Ducks, an almost definite Heisman Trophy for Marcus Mariota, a playoff berth and of course, redemption after being handed a loss by the Wildcats two seasons in a row. For the Wilcats, becoming the Pac-12 Champion for the fist time since 1993 and if things fall just right, a possible play off berth. Make no mistake, both teams will come out swinging.
After watching the Ducks’ rise to the top hindered by the Wildcats in their last two meetings, a little worry in Duck Territory is to be expected. Here’s the thing though, that worry may not be all that necessary. Not this time.
Sure, Arizona was successful on many fronts this past October, but in many ways the Ducks really hurt themselves. If we flashback to that dreadful October day, here are 5 problems that cost the Ducks the game and how they’ve been corrected:
Problem #1 Missed Tackles
First of all, the defense did all but lay out the red carpet for the ‘Cats offense. There were so many missed tackles, it was unbelievable- at least 32 to be exact. At times it appeared as if the Ducks’ defense was absolutely clueless. They were simply outplayed and seemed to lack any fire. Missing tackles allowed the Wildcats’ dynamic running back duo, Wilson and Grigsby, to move the chains, eat the clock and keep Mariota and Co. off the field. Sound familiar?
When the Ducks faced the Wildcats in October, they had played just 4 games with new defensive coordinator, Don Pellum and several young players. As Coach Pellum later discussed, the youthfulness of the defense meant much of the early season work centered around nailing down the fundamentals. Though not perfect, the Ducks’ defense has greatly improved and seems to be sharper and more disciplined. As an added bonus, defensive stand-out, Arik Armstead missed the second half of the game in October due to injury, which was undoubtedly a big factor. With him back in full speed, the Ducks’ defense gets a huge boost.
Problem #2 Offensive Line
In what was perhaps the most glaring issue the Ducks faced in October, the offensive line struggled to protect Oregon’s greatest asset- Marcus Mariota. With the majority of its starters sidelined with injuries, the Ducks were starting several inexperienced players on the line, which proved costly as Mariota was sacked a total of 5 times by the Arizona defense. This essentially killed momentum and ended many Oregon drives, putting the Arizona offense, particularly the run game, back on the field.
With the exception of lineman, Tyler Johnstone, and center, Hronis Grasu, likely still being out of commission for the Pac-12 Championship, several key players have returned to the line, including Jake Fisher who has essentially become a local hero. Since his return to the line, sacks have declined significantly, drawing obvious conclusions. The loss of Grasu is definitely tough, but the line has been able to protect Marcus well, albeit against less-challenging defenses (Oregon State and Colorado). Regardless of the current injuries, this o-line will certainly be hands down better than it was in October, especially considering the fact those fill-in guys have now gained valuable game-time experience.
Problem #3 Not Establishing the Run Game
Here’s something to chew on: Against Arizona in October, Oregon failed to score a rushing touchdown. Say what? Again, with that battered o-line, the Ducks struggled to really get their offense going. Add to that, the two main backs in that game- Royce Freeman and Thomas Tyner were still very inexperienced and essentially still learning how to really be effective in the Oregon system.
Since the loss to Arizona, Freeman has exploded and has become the first freshman in Oregon Football history to rush for 1,000 yards. The Ducks have found their stride in the run game and Mariota has become even more confident on his feet as the season has progressed. Look for him to be a difference maker tomorrow.
Problem #4 Penalties
Flags, flags everywhere! Against Arizona, the Ducks managed to pick up 10 penalties, including that infamous and controversial unsportsmanlike conduct call against linebacker, Tony Washington, after he bowed slightly at midfield, following a sack on Arizona quarterback, Anu Solomon. That ultimately allowed a Wildcat scoring drive to continue that otherwise would have likely been stopped.
Although the Ducks have continued to rack up quite a few penalties this year, they do seem to have cleaned things up a bit and are playing smarter, cleaner football. Those 10 penalties ultimately kept Arizona momentum going and proved costly. Don’t expect the Ducks to give that same gift to the ‘Cats tomorrow.
Problem #5 Sloppy Play and Uncharacteristic Mistakes
After watching that October game several times over, there is no other way to put it. The Ducks played some of their sloppiest football of the season. Credit should be given to Arizona for a solid game plan, but over all, the Ducks beat themselves with sloppy and uncharacteristic mistakes. Even Mariota, who is obviously pretty flawless and well-disciplined, fumbled the ball at least once and perhaps twice, depending on which side of the controversy you are on. Fortunately for the Ducks, one “possible fumble” was ruled a touchdown instead.
As already stated, the team is playing with more focus and more discipline. Tackling has been better and Mariota is playing at an all-time high. He has pushed through adversity, become a solid leader and grown tremendously. Look for him to have a solid game tomorrow on what could be his biggest stage yet.
Get ready for a fun ride Ducks fans. Of course, it’s never wise to count your chickens before they hatch, but if I’m betting, Oregon takes this one at just the right time and sends its first Heisman hopeful on his way to New York to take the prize he’s always dreamed about.