The Oregon Ducks have a chance to finally "do something" of substance this season when they host Arizona on Saturday.
Oregon (5-5, 2-5 Pac-12) not only needs a win in the worst way, but the Ducks could use a victory against a strong opponent in order to validate this uneven season in some capacity. To date, coach Willie Taggart's first year at UO has seen a hot start fueled by taking down weak opponents morph into a hot mess after sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert - expected back this week - went down with a collarbone injury.
Oregon's best victories this season have come against Utah (5-5, 2-5), California (5-5, 2-5) and Nebraska (4-6, 3-4 BigTen). That's hardly a lot to brag about having defeated. Following the Wildcats (7-3, 5-2) on the schedule will be Oregon State (1-9, 0-7) in the Civil War then, assuming UO qualifies for the postseason, a likely inferior bowl game opponent awaits in December.
A bowl victory would certainly be sweet for Taggart, who has yet to win a bowl game. But the signature victory of the season would still ben a win over the Wildcats, who have won five of their last six games since sophomore quarterback Khalil Tate became the starter.
The trajectories of both teams have been vastly different since Tate replaced injured starter Brandon Dawkins against Colorado on Oct. 7 and Herbert went down with his injury during a win over Cal the following week.
While Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez discovered that he could have a future Heisman Trophy candidate on his hands, Taggart discovered that his freshman backup, Braxton Burmeister, wasn't close to being ready for Pac-12 play. Consequently, not only did the Ducks go 1-4 in Herbert's absence, but aside from a 41-20 win over the Utes, the Ducks scored just 34 points in four defeats.
Young quarterback, or not, generating just 8.5 points per game in four losses is a poor reflection on the offensive coaching staff armed with a strong offensive line and a stable of good to great running backs led by Royce Freeman. They couldn't average at least 17 points per game despite poor quarterback play? Oregon still would have still lost all four games but at least the Ducks would have shown a pulse.
With Herbert expected back this week - Taggart said x-rays later in the week would determine his quarterback's availability - Oregon has a chance to erase the madness of the season by closing strongly with three consecutive wins, highlighted by a victory over Arizona.
Ironically, Taggart swiped Burmeister from Arizona where he had originally committed. Taggart also flipped freshman receiver Darrian McNeal, who has two receptions for 10 yards. So far, that hasn't worked out so well for UO.
But Taggart and the Ducks can make everything right with a win on Saturday. It is likely to be a shootout. Taggart said the Ducks would have to "pray" in order to defend against Tat. Taggart isn't lying. Oregon has zero chance of "stopping" Tate. But, the Ducks' defense could be good enough prevent Tate from eclipsing the volume of offense Oregon should generate with Herbert back in the pocket.
He will return to find a better team than the one he left. Senior receiver Charles Nelson hasn't caught a pass from Herbert since the first half of the team's win at Wyoming in game 3. When Nelson returned to action at UCLA, Herbert was already down and out. Now they will be reunited in the passing game that will only be helped by a running game that maintained a high level of production despite the lack of a passing threat to keep defenses honest.
By any measure, this has been somewhat of a disappointing season for Oregon when one considers what might have been had Herbert remained healthy. Now the focus must be to go 3-0 the rest of the way and ride into the offseason with a win over Arizona, a bowl victory and an 8-5 record.
Oregon vs. Arizona
When: 4 p.m., Saturday, Autzen Stadium, Eugene.
T.V.: Pac-12 Networks.
Betting line: Off
Records: Ducks (5-5, 2-5 Pac-12), Arizona (7-3, 5-2).
Last week: Arizona won 49-28 vs. Oregon State. The Ducks were off.
Coaches: Ducks' Willie Taggart (45-50, 5-5 at Oregon); Arizona's Rich Rodriguez (163-116-2, 43-32 at Arizona.
Fear factor (five-point scale): 5. Rodriguez is the inventor of the zone read play that he made famous during his days at West Virginia. Now he has an even better running quarterback in Tate than Pat White, who became a dominant force for the Mountaineers 10 years ago under Rodriguez. Tate is doing things from a rushing standpoint that had never been done before in the Pac-12. Tate is so good as a runner that he makes former Oregon quarterbacks; Marcus Mariota and Dennis Dixon look ordinary.
Arizona leads the Pac-12 with 347.7 yards rushing per game. Of that, 161.6 has come from Tate. He is the first Pac-12 quarterback to ever rush for 1,000 yards in a season (1,293 on 11.3 yards per carry).
Arizona doesn't throw much but when it does, Tate is more than capable of producing big plays, but he has thrown six interceptions.
Where Arizona is weak is on defense. It ranks 10th in the Pac-12 in total defense. For that reason, it's a good bet that Oregon's more balanced offense, matched against a vastly inferior defense, will prove to be too much for Tate to overcome.
Game prediction: Oregon 47, Arizona 40.