The Arizona Wildcats (3-2, 0-2 Pac 12) started the season strong with three impressive wins to raise expectations for the inaugural season under Rich Rodriguez. However, back-to-back conference losses have brought the Cats back down to earth and they’re desperate to avoid three straight losses to open conference play.
The Stanford Cardinal (3-1, 1-1) have quarterback questions after a bumbling performance against the Washington Huskies undercut all of the momentum they built up following their win over the USC Trojans. They will be out for blood as they try and atone for their embarrassing performance by taking care of business at home against the visiting Wildcats.
Keys for Arizona:
For the Wildcats, the offense hasn’t been the problem for the most part. They’re averaging 538 yards per game, good for 10th in the country, and scoring nearly 35 points a game. The problem has been the defense. Rodriguez has never fielded a top notch defense in his career, but the Cats have surrendered 87 points in their last two games against the Oregon Ducks and Oregon State Beavers.
The deck is stacked against the Cats’ defense, however, as they’ve suffered injuries to their depth and Rodriguez is trying to fit players into his system as best he can. He doesn’t have the recruits in just yet who fill the 3-3-5 defense the way he wants it, and running thin on depth isn’t helping matters.
Keys for Stanford:
The Cardinal are facing some quarterback questions after the loss to Washington, and deservedly so. Josh Nunes wasn’t expected to be Andrew Luck, but David Shaw needs him to manage the game much better than he has. In four games, Nunes is completing just 52 percent of his passes (65-for-125) for 785 yards (196 yards per game) with six touchdown passes and four interceptions. In short, he hasn’t been great.
To help Nunes, the Cardinal must get their power-running game going again. Averaging just 128 yards per game on the ground, and coming off a measly 68 yards rushing against the Huskies, Stanford must get back to the physical grind-it-out style they used to upset the Trojans. Stepfan Taylor has to be the focal point of this offense moving forward in order to give the Cardinal offense some rhythm and open up the passing game with play-action for Nunes.
The difference-maker: Stanford’s power running game against Arizona’s soft defensive front.
The 3-3-5 defense always presents lots of wrinkles for offenses to try and figure out. It’s good at bringing pressure from unexpected places and confusing many blocking schemes. However, its biggest weakness is when teams run right at it. The defense is based on speed, athleticism, and deception, which is all well and good, but doesn’t do much when a team is punching you right in the mouth.
Stanford’s offensive line needs to be the aggressor in this contest and the running game has to be the driving force if the Cardinal hope to avoid the upset. Expect Rodriguez and the Cats to score a few points and make it interesting for a while, but the physical advantage of the Stanford running game should prove to be too much for Arizona to handle.
Stanford has won seven of the last nine games in this series, including the last two by blowout. Don’t expect this contest to get out of hand, but look for Stanford to continue their dominance over Arizona. Stanford 31, Arizona 21.