JASON SAYS: Great opportunity, but also a great challenge for Ducks
The great unknown swirls around the Oregon Ducks this week, as in:
Can the defense stop Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate?
Will Justin Herbert play? If so, how well does he play?
And, can the Ducks outscore the Wildcats?
Oregon (5-5, 2-5 Pac-12), one win away from bowl eligibility, could get Herbert back from injury. That would open up the field for the running game and the likes of Royce Freeman and Oregon's speed backs.
Herbert has been out since Sept. 30, and the passing game and true freshman quarterback Braxton Burmeister have struggled to stretch the field.
Coach Willie Taggart was non-commital about Herbert early in the week, saying an X-ray in the days before Saturday's 4 p.m. game at Autzen Stadium would likely determine the young quarterback's playing status.
"He's getting close, he's getting really close," Taggart says. "Hopefully, he's completely healed and ready to roll. Timeline, I'd say 3:59 on Saturday."
Taggart and players says good things about Burmeister; the coach says players have to play better around him for the Ducks to be successful. If Burmeister has to play again this season, the coach expects him to be further ahead in development, after a bye week allowed everybody to refresh.
"It's just unfortunate that he was thrown in, in that situation, but I think in the long run it's going to help him tremendously getting that experience in games as he continues to grow and continues to get better," Taggart says. "He's going to be fine."
If Herbert plays, the Ducks might find some offensive balance in what appears to be a shootout in the making.
The other quarterback ... wow, what a handful Tate has become, running the spread option to the tune of more than 200 yards per game rushing in the past six starts and 161.6 per game overall (second to Stanford's Bryce Love).
Tate also has some talented backs in J.J. Taylor and Nick Wilson, a veteran offensive line, a decent arm to keep defense off-balance and a coach (Rich Rodriguez) who knows how to pile up yards and points when he has the right talent on offense.
The Wildcats lead the Pac-12 in scoring (44.4 points per game), total offense (516.5 yards) and rushing offense (347.7).
The Ducks have a simple solution to stopping Tate: "Pray," Taggart says.
"No one has stopped him yet this year," the coach adds, although USC slowed Tate in the first half of the Trojans' win, UA's only loss with Tate at QB. "He's a heck of a talent. Big-time football player and is really good with the ball in his hand. Defensively we have to be disciplined and make sure we do a good job of wrapping up and guys got to run to the ball. Probably the most important thing, we've got to get lined up. You see a lot of the big plays they make, defenses aren't aligned right, part of it because of the tempo and not getting set up. I don't think you can complicate things trying to defend him."
If Herbert plays, I think it'll be a close game. Who wins? Basically, pick 'em. Weather could be a factor, especially with Herbert slinging the ball, coming off a 5 1/2-game absence. The Wildcats are 7-3 and 5-2 in Pac-12 and are playing well, so I'll go with them. The Ducks have only played well in two wins in the past six games, being outscored 151-34 in the four losses.
If Burmeister has to play again, I'm not sure the Ducks can generate enough offense to keep up with Arizona.
The Ducks are playing for something, and it's something the program used to take for granted: a bowl game. And, they are playing hard for the seniors, who have only two games left (not counting a possible bowl).
"Great opportunity, great challenge ahead of us," Taggart says.
THE PICK: Arizona 45, Oregon 41