2014 Pac-12 Football Championship Game preview: Key players and matchups
The last time Oregon and Arizona met on the football field, the two teams provided us with a #Pac12AfterDark classic.
Scooby Wright’s sack-fumble recovery on Marcus Mariota in the final moments helped the Wildcats walk out of Eugene with a 31-24 victory, one that’s been monumental for the rise of the Arizona football program under coach Rich Rodriguez. A lot has changed since that meeting on Oct. 2 under the lights at Autzen, but it still stands as Oregon’s lone loss of the year.
Arizona (10-2, 7-2 Pac-12) and Oregon (11-1, 8-1 Pac-12) will meet once again on the prime time stage Friday (6 p.m. PT, FOX) at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, in the 2014 Pac-12 Football Championship Game.
While the Ducks locked up their bid to the Finale in the Valley by winning the Pac-12 North weeks ago, the Wildcats punched their ticket to Santa Clara in style, holding off rival Arizona State in a wild Territorial Cup matchup on Friday to clinch the Pac-12 South.
So what to expect this time around? Here’s a closer look at some key players, matchups and stats entering the Finale in the Valley.
Outlook: Don’t forget about defense
When looking at this matchup, it’s easy to be enamored with offense.
Both teams are led by talented Hawaiian-born quarterbacks and tough true freshman running backs that thrive in spread-style systems. Even Rodriguez can’t help but notice some common themes between his high-octane team and Oregon.
“Philosophically, they look very, very similar,” Rodriguez said during Monday’s conference call with reporters. “Not only the tempo which they go at, but also with how they want to attack the field from a vertical and horizontal standpoint.”
But Arizona’s defense stole the show the last time the Wildcats faced Oregon, holding the Ducks to season-lows of 24 points and 446 yards of offense. In fact, Oregon has scored just 40 points combined in its last two contests against Arizona, including last year’s 42-16 loss in Tucson. That’s nearly a full touchdown less than the Ducks’ 45.9 points-per-game average this season.
[Related video: Arizona football shocks Oregon for second straight year]
With as much attention as Oregon’s offense gets, it’s easy to forget about other side of the ball. But under first-year defensive coordinator Don Pellum (he’s the nation’s best-dressed coach, by the way), the Ducks quietly rank second in the Pac-12 in scoring defense, giving up 23.3 points per game.
“He’s doing a great job,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said of Pellum. “Guys want to play for him. Players' coach type of mentality. It’s not because it’s easy, it’s because they know he cares about them and they know how hard he’s working for them.”
Both of these teams are used to running up the score, but don’t be surprised if the game is decided by which defense makes more plays.
[Related: Arizona FCG stats and notes]
ARIZONA PLAYERS TO WATCH
QB Anu Solomon (3,424 passing yards, 27 TDs, seven INTs)
Arizona football fans have to be excited for the future with Anu Solomon under center. The redshirt freshman was something of a question mark entering the season but he’s taken firm control of the offense, which ranks fourth in Pac-12 at 36.7 points per game.
Listed at 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, Solomon doesn’t have the same size or speed as Mariota, but he still has 282 rushing yards this year. Solomon has cooled down in his last three outings, though, averaging just 203 passing yards per game, while collecting two touchdowns and two interceptions in that span.
“Anu’s not quite as big or as fast (as Mariota),” Rodriguez said. “But I think from a competitive standpoint, from a quiet leadership standpoint and feel for the game, he’s got some of Marcus’ traits.”
RB Nick Wilson (1,263 rushing yards, 15 rushing TDs)
Nick Wilson and Terris Jones-Grigsby teamed up for 336 yards from scrimmage and four total touchdowns the last time these two teams met. While Jones-Grigsby has been battling an ankle injury for most of the second half of the season, Wilson has had no problems putting the team on his back lately.
“He plays like a veteran,” Rodriguez said of the true freshman.
The 5-foot-10, 199-pounder made his presence felt against Oregon with 92 yards and two rushing scores before lowering his shoulder on an impressive catch-and-run touchdown in the second half. Look for the Wildcats to lean on Wilson to get the chains moving on the ground and keep Mariota on the sidelines.
LB Scooby Wright III (139 tackles, 14 sacks, 27 tackles-for-loss, six forced fumbles)
As a lightly recruited player out of high school, Scooby Wright III has identified himself as an underdog. After all, his Twitter handle is @TwoStarScoob. But he’s been nothing short of spectacular since stepping foot on campus, as he currently leads the conference in tackles, tackles-for-loss and forced fumbles.
The Ducks need no reminder of what happened the last time they faced Wright. Whether it be stuffing the run or trying to contain Mariota, Wright will be at the forefront of Arizona’s defensive efforts on Friday.
[Related: Oregon FCG stats and notes]
OREGON PLAYERS TO WATCH
QB Marcus Mariota (3,470 passing yards, 36 passing TDs, two INTs, 636 rushing yards, 11 rushing TDs)
It’s just a matter of time before Mariota receives his invitation to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony, where he has to be considered a heavy favorite to bring home the hardware. The redshirt junior quarterback is a touchdown machine and he does it with grace (see his Heisman-esque leap against Oregon State last week) while taking good care of the ball.
“I grade him pretty darn highly,” Helfrich said. “I don’t know what scale he would have to be on to not get an ‘A.’ But the neat thing about him is his unquenchable desire to be better.”
Listed at 6-foot-4, 219 pounds with speed, an accurate arm and smarts, Mariota does it all. He even caught a 26-yard touchdown pass against Arizona in that early October meeting. Then again, the Wildcats forced two Mariota fumbles in that game and limited him to just one rushing yard on nine attempts.
RB Royce Freeman (1,185 rushing yards, 16 rushing TDs)
Royce Freeman doesn’t look like a true freshman and he doesn’t play like one, either. The 6-foot, 229-pound bruiser can be tough to bring down and he’s established himself as the latest workhorse in Oregon’s running back-rich tradition.
Freeman’s ability to run between the tackles will be paramount for the offense, as the Ducks were bottled up the last time these two teams faced each other. While Freeman had 85 yards on 19 carries, Arizona held Oregon to a season-low 144 yards rushing (3.51 yards per carry) and didn’t break off any huge plays.
WR Byron Marshall (56 catches, 791 yards, five receiving TDs, 352 rushing yards, one rushing TD)
Not many people would accept a position change to receiver after posting a 1,000-yard rushing season, but Byron Marshall hasn’t let that slow him down in 2014. The San Jose, California, native has emerged as Oregon’s No. 1 threat in a balanced passing attack. Five different Ducks receivers have at least five touchdown catches this year, but Marshall leads the team in receptions and yards.
Quick, sure, but Marshall also has a lot of physicality packed into his 5-foot-10, 205-pound frame that allows him to pick up yards after the catch, like he showed last week against Oregon State. It will be up to Marshall to help lead the Oregon receiving corps against an Arizona pass defense that ranks ninth in the Pac-12, giving up 275.2 yards per game.
Oregon O-line vs. Arizona D-line
Oregon’s offensive line has been hampered by injuries all season and this week is no different. All eyes are on starting center Hroniss Grasu, who has been supporting his left leg with a scooter after suffering an injury on Nov. 8.
“He’s preparing like heck to get ready as fast as he possibly can,” Helfrich said, “We’ll see where that takes us.”
[Related: Pac-12 Football Championship Game notes]
The fifth-year senior is the unquestioned leader of the banged-up unit and has formed a tight bond with Mariota over the past three years. Even if he’s not 100 percent, Grasu’s presence would provide a big boost against an Arizona defensive front that dictated the first meeting and kept Oregon’s offense in check.
“There’s a bunch of factors that went into that,” Helfrich said. “The overarching factor is that they’re really good.”
The Wildcats did a great job of dialing up pressure on third downs to hurry Mariota, but also received a strong push using just three rushers a majority of the time. Be sure to keep an eye on Arizona nose tackle Parker Zellers, a former walk-on who has carved out a role in the middle of the trenches despite being listed at 6-foot-1, 247 pounds.
Arizona wideouts vs. Oregon secondary
Cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Ofomu could have left Oregon as a possible first-round NFL draft pick last season, but his senior year has the chance to be special. Ekpre-Ofomu usually lines up on the right side of the Ducks’ defense, and it’s become common for opposing offenses to avoid his side of the field altogether.
“He’s a first-team All-American for a reason,” Rodriguez said. “He can really take anybody that he’s seen one-on-one and play him, and let the rest of the defense take care of everybody else. He’s that dominant of a player.”
As such, fellow Oregon cornerback Troy Hill better be ready for another busy day, as Solomon often tried to attack his side the last time these two teams met. Arizona has a trio of productive receivers in Cayleb Jones (63 catches, 831 yards, eight TDs), Samajie Grant (40 catches, 645 yards, five TDs) and Austin Hill (42 catches, 586 yards, four TDs). Hill hasn’t been as prolific as he was before an ACL injury wiped out his 2013 season, but the 6-foot-3, 212-pound target still has Oregon’s attention.
[Related: Complete 2014 Pac-12 football statistics]
“They’re extremely talented,” Helfrich said of Arizona’s wideouts. “Austin is very rare. On our team we don’t have anyone that big, that fast and that physical.”
The Pac-12’s leading interception man, Oregon safety Erick Dargan (five INTs) will also have to be on high alert against this talented Arizona group. Given Solomon’s struggles lately, a big day by the Ducks secondary could go a long way in making the Wildcats one-dimensional.
STATS TO KNOW
- 82.6 – Oregon (45.9 points per game) and Arizona (36.7) have combined to average 82.6 points per game this year, the highest total for any of the four conference football championships taking place this weekend.
- 23.3 – Oregon’s defense ranks second in the Pac-12 and tied for 32nd nationally with its 23.3 points allowed per game.
- 110 – Between his 17 made field goals, 53 extra points and memorable touchdown run, Arizona kicker Casey Skowron accounted for 110 points during the regular season, the most for any player in the Pac-12.
- 51.3 – The Ducks lead the Pac-12 with a 51.3 conversion rate on third downs, but were held to just 4-of-14 (28.5 percent) the last time they faced Arizona.
- 27 – Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright has made 27 tackles-for-loss this season to lead the Pac-12.
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