1. Make The Wildcat Offense One-Dimensional
Much is made about Arizona senior quarterback Nick Foles and the Wildcats’ passing attack, and rightfully so. Through three games this season, Foles has averaged nearly 350 yards passing per game (349.7) with seven touchdown passes spread across six different receivers. Successfully moving the ball through the air is, without a doubt, the cornerstone of Arizona’s offensive philosophy. With that said however, nullifying the Wildcat rushing attack will be paramount for the Oregon defense if the Ducks are to achieve victory Saturday night. While Arizona’s ground game is far from formidable, senior running back Keola Antolin can burn a defense if it fails to account for him. The Ducks should know, as Antolin has scored four career touchdowns against Oregon, though it should be noted that all four of those scores came in the Wildcats’ 55-45 loss to the Ducks at Autzen in 2008. Stemming the tide on the ground will allow Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti to dedicate more defensive personnel to stopping the Wildcats through the air, meaning the Ducks can take the fight to the Arizona offense by blitzing and sitting back in coverage as opposed to playing on their heels and having Foles dictate the action to them. “We’re gonna have to have good coverage by our underneath linebackers and we’re gonna have to have a pass rush also,” said Aliotti, to successfully defend against the Wildcats. “There’s three phases to making good coverage. If you can pressure them with three or four (rushers) and put pressure on and drop guys and have more guys in coverage, (you can have success) ... It will be tough. Is it insurmountable, no. But it will be tough ... our secondary will be tested.”
2. Keep Everything In Front
Arizona has relied on the steady contributions of approximately eight receivers (including Antolin the running back) this season, meaning they’re deep and unafraid to spray the ball around to a number of viable targets. The marquee name in the Wildcat receiving corp is senior wide receiver Juron Criner, who has five touchdowns on eight career receptions against the Ducks, which is the most of any active player in the Oregon-Arizona series. Knowing where No. 82 for Arizona is lined up at all times is job one for any opposing defense, but especially for Oregon in this case. Under former offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes, Arizona used a number of screens and short passes to create short yardage situations for their offense. New offensive coordinator Seth Littrell has continued to adopt many of these principles, though the Wildcats have shown a greater willingness to challenge opposing secondaries downfield this season. With that, an enormous challenge awaits Aliotti and the back seven of his defense, who will be charged with the tall task of keeping the air attack in check. As was mentioned, Aliotti admits that a greater responsibility falls on the shoulders of all three levels of the defense against Arizona, more so than it would against your typical, run-of-the-mill Pac-12 opponent. Coverage is certainly important, but after that, making one-on-one tackles and not allowing explosion plays is a major key to preventing the Arizona offense from gaining momentum and avalanching your defense.
3. Stay Composed
Under head coach Chip Kelly, the Ducks have frequently found themselves in hostile games on the road, performing their best, often times, when thrown in to a charged environment. After enduring the virtual LSU home game in Arlington to open the season, Oregon is already battle-tested when it comes to dealing with noise and a frenzied crowd. In Tucson this weekend, the Ducks can expect a similar scene to the one in 2009, when Oregon and Arizona faced off in an overtime thriller that saw the Ducks come out on the winning end, gaining the inside track to the Rose Bowl that season. With quarterback Darron Thomas at the helm, Oregon is undefeated in true road games, which undoubtedly speaks to the junior’s poise and command of his team with the chips stacked against them. Maintaining that composure, and in turn, channeling his proven leadership qualities in to elevating the confidence and production of the players around him, makes Thomas a central figure for the Ducks in Saturday’s game.
Follow Chris Courtney on Twitter at eDuckCCourtney