Oregon needs to solve 'Arizona problem' to chase playoff dreams
CORVALLIS, Ore. -- Steve Greatwood didn’t see any reason to spout clichés, so the Oregon offensive line coached copped to it right away: Yes, he had watched some Oregon-Arizona film Saturday morning, the same day the Ducks met in-state rival Oregon State for the Civil War.
“I wanted to get a head start,” Greatwood said with a shrug of his shoulders, a welcome moment of honesty in a profession where “one game at a time” is almost always the company line.
In the visitor’s hallway at Oregon State, where Oregon had just dispatched the Beavers 47-19 in the 118th Civil War, running back-turned-slot receiver Byron Marshall could be overheard doing a phone interview, telling listeners on the other end that he spent Friday rooting for Arizona to beat Arizona State because he wanted a rematch.
He got his wish. No. 2 Oregon will meet the No. 7 Wildcats on Friday at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., (9 p.m. ET, FOX) with the Pac-12 championship, and likely a College Football Playoff berth, on the line. It is, said cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, “only right” that it comes down to Oregon and Arizona. “You want to play the team that beat you. You have to beat the team that beat you to get to the next level.”
It’s been three years since the Ducks won a Pac-12 championship. That’s a short gap, but it’s what disappeared along with the conference titles -- a shot at the national title game -- that nags at coaches and players. Though Stanford can claim some of that responsibility, a new obstacle has surfaced in the Ducks’ quest for their first national title. His name is Rich Rodriguez.
Last season’s face plant in Tucson -- a 42-16 loss to Arizona that knocked Oregon from BCS championship contention -- was dismissed as a fluke of sorts, with young, first-year head coach Mark Helfrich not mentally preparing his team. Unranked Oklahoma State beat then-No. 3 Baylor earlier that day, which opened the door for Oregon to move up in the rankings before the Wildcats added to Week 13’s upset tally. In an effort to rub salt in the wound, the official Arizona football twitter account posted #WonTheDay, a play on Oregon’s motto, “Win the Day,” installed by former coach Chip Kelly.
This year, when unranked Arizona rolled into Autzen Stadium in Eugene to face the No. 2 Ducks in a Thursday night game, the matchup looked like a mismatch. Instead, as Ekpre-Olomu remembers it, Oregon dominated the first, second and fourth quarters, and wilted in the third, when Arizona scored three touchdowns. The Wildcats won 31-24, temporarily spoiling Oregon’s playoff hopes.
In 2013, Oregon averaged 565 yards of offense per game, with 273.5 of those coming on the ground. This season, those numbers are 539.5 total yards per game, bolstered by 232 rushing yards. Yet in both years, Arizona has beaten Oregon at its own game, gaining big yardage on the ground (308 yards in 2013, 208 yards in 2014) on its way to wins. The Wildcats have also held Oregon’s runners in check, as the Ducks totaled just 198 rushing yards in 2013, and 144 in 2014.
So do the Ducks, who finally solved their “Stanford problem” this season with a 45-16 thumping of the Cardinal on Nov. 1, now have an “Arizona problem”?
Greatwood doesn’t think it’s that simple.
“I’m sure there is (that talk),” Greatwood said. “I view Arizona as a good football team. They have a unique defensive scheme. That 3-3-5 can lend some confusion as far as who you’re going to end up blocking.”
That was certainly an issue in this season’s loss, when the Ducks gave up five sacks. At the time, Oregon was missing left tackle Jake Fisher, though Greatwood says Fisher’s absence gets a little too much publicity. (Fisher will be in uniform this time around, though the status of All-America center Hroniss Grasu is still up in the air.)
|Pts||Pts against||YDs||YDs against||Rush Yds||Rush Yds AGAINST|
|Vs. Arizona in '13, '14||20||36.5||476||488.5||171||256|
|Avg. in '13, '14||45.7||21.8||552.8||398.64||253.6||161.8|
It helps that Arizona is not intimidated or caught off guard by Oregon’s offensive plan or tempo because Rodriquez is the one who developed the zone read concept almost 25 years ago.
“We talk about it in practice all the time: We’re comfortable being uncomfortable,” Rodriguez said. “For us, particularly our staff, isn’t not something new or different. Our first spring here we said we’re going to play faster than everybody in the country.”
Many nights, the Wildcats do just that. But there have been other keys to their victories over Oregon. Rodriguez says the 2013 win is “the cleanest game we’ve had since I’ve been here,” pointing to zero turnovers and only two negative yardage plays. For Arizona, the magic number Friday night might be 29: That’s how many first downs the Wildcats have totaled in each win over the Ducks.
Rodriguez is up front about the Wildcats’ talent level. “This is an interesting group,” he said. “We’re not good enough to dominate, but we’re good enough to play with anyone when we execute.
“Our guys are not the most impressive getting off the bus. They’re more impressive getting on the bus after we’ve won.”
Looking just at offensive scheme and ignoring personnel, Rodriquez says, “Philosophically, we’re very similar. Our tempo and how we attack the field, you’d think, ‘These coaches look like they’re related.’” Helfrich says calling the Wildcats and Ducks “cousins” is accurate, because it implies familiarity, not exact replication. He notes that route structure and quarterback role is different in the two offenses, but their goal -- execute a run-based spread with the ability to throw the ball and to mix those two things up -- is the same.
“I’m sure it’s an advantage,” says Greatwood of the similarities. “It lends to them getting aligned and assigned quicker because they do it in practice, too. But we can still execute better.”
The trick in a second meeting of the season, Rodriguez said, is to balance what you do well with what you want to do differently and make sure you don’t “trick yourself.” Both staffs have studied film from the Oct. 2 meeting, and both will make adjustments accordingly. “But you better not confuse your guys,” Rodriguez says.
In the immediate aftermath of the Ducks’ Civil War win, Helfrich said he didn’t bring up Arizona in the locker room. He didn’t need to.
“Certainly our guys know about the coulda, woulda, shoulda of that night,” Helfrich said. “And a lot of that night is Arizona is really good.”
But Oregon, led by Heisman favorite Marcus Mariota, has been every bit as good, if not better. Since losing to Arizona the Ducks have beaten seven conference opponents by an average of 24 points. Greatwood, now in his 28th year at Oregon, has noticed the focus.
“They realize what they let slip away last year,” he said. “And let’s face it: Since Week 5, it’s kind of been ‘win or be forgotten.’ They’re used to dealing with that.”
As both teams eye a playoff berth with a victory Friday, it’s win or be left out that matters.