Friday’s Pac-12 Champoinship Game will have a familiar feel.
College football fans have already seen this movie before. The Arizona Wildcats faced the higher-ranked Oregon Ducks and emerged with the upset victory on Oct. 2. However, Mark Helfrich‘s squad hopes to rewrite recent history.
There are plenty of differences already entering the Pac-12 Championship Game, though.
First, the Wildcats are now ranked in the Top 25. Rich Rodriguez‘s program has risen to No. 7 overall. Its ascension began with the 31-24 victory in Eugene. Arizona is now the champion of the Pac-12 South. And they’ll face the Ducks on a neutral field during their second meeting.
Levi’s Stadium in San Francisco will host the Pac-12 Championship Game. It will be the first time a neutral site hosted the championship game since Pac-12 expanded its conference.
Despite losing in the previous meeting, the Ducks, who are ranked No. 2 overall, are still considered the favorite to win the second contest between these two teams.
If that were to happen, Oregon’s approach must vary significantly:
1. Keep Mariota clean
When the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy is leading your offense, the goal is to keep him upright and allow him to work his magic. This hasn’t been easy for Oregon this season. When these two teams previously met, the Wildcats sacked Mariota five times. Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright III, who is third in the nation with 14 sacks, got to Mariota once, and he’ll find ways into the Ducks’ backfield if given the chance. Unfortunately Oregon shuffled its offensive line multiple times this season due to injuries, and Friday will be no different. Senior leader and starting center Hroniss Grasu has been ruled out for the game due to a left leg injury.
2. Limit turnovers
The one team in the Pac-12 Conference to confound Mariota over his career is Arizona. The Wildcats run an exotic 3-3-5 defense which allows them to bring pressure from anywhere. It also puts more athletes on the field with an extra defensive back. And Mariota has struggled to deal with the speed and confusion the defense presents. Mariota can’t make the same mistakes Friday for the Ducks to win, but his history suggests the quarterback may continue to struggle to some degree:
Marcus Mariota has had as many games with more than 1 turnover against Arizona (3) as he has against all other Pac-12 opponents combined
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 3, 2014
3. Hold Arizona’s rushing game in check
The Wildcats ran for 208 yards during the initial meeting. Senior Terris Jones-Grigsby led the way with 120 yards on 27 carries. Arizona’s rushing attack has only gotten better in recent weeks with freshman Nick Wilson developing into the team’s workhorse. Over the past four contests, Wilson averaged 163.2 yards per game. If the Ducks can slow the Wildcats’ rushing attack, the offense will then be placed in the hands of freshman quarterback Anu Solomon, who was previously sacked four times by the Ducks.
While the Pac-12 Conference won’t admit publicly it has a rooting interest in either team, the league should be quietly supporting Oregon.
The Ducks are considered one of the nation’s elite teams. Mariota is on the precipice of winning this year’s Heisman Trophy. And a win by Arizona will likely lock the conference out of the inaugural College Football Playoff. A two-loss team is very unlikely to be named part of the final four.
Oregon is arguably the best team in the nation. The Ducks stumbled against the Wildcats earlier in the season. This is their opportunity to rectify the team’s only blemish.