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BY JASON VONDERSMITH/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Arizona got to Oregon last year, but things have changed

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Oregon coach Mario Cristobal (right) and strength and conditioning coordinator Aaron Feld celebrate after the Ducks' win against Washington.Now riding high as a College Football Playoff contender, Oregon suffered through some growing pains in the past couple years as the Ducks tried to regain their national prominence.

The games included maybe the most unacceptable loss of them all last season against Arizona. Coming off a slow start and a loss at Washington State, the Ducks talked about renewed focus as they prepared to play the Wildcats in Tucson, Arizona.

Well, it was an awful game for the Ducks and the worst loss in Mario Cristobal's two years as coach. The Ducks looked unprepared, couldn't execute or make adjustments and fell victim to quarterback Khalil Tate, running back J.J. Taylor and coach Kevin Sumlin and lost 44-15. Taylor had 212 yards rushing and two TDs, Tate threw three touchdown passes and the Ducks managed only 270 yards offense. If not for UO's defense rising up somewhat to force field-goal attempts, the score could have been even worse.

It was Sumlin's first season, and the Wildcats, at 5-7, failed to make a bowl game.

Fast forward to 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Autzen Stadium, and the Wildcats (4-5, 2-4 Pac-12) are reeling with four consecutive losses, despite the return of Tate and Taylor, and the Ducks (8-1, 6-0) are playing for national glory and ready to host Arizona on their home field.

It's probably not lost on the Ducks that they played poorly at Tucson last season, but it's simply the next opponent on their schedule now as Oregon tries to navigate an easy November and enter the Pac-12 title game with only one loss.

The Wildcats, like Oregon, had a bye week to improve — and they need to settle their offense, as oft-injured and inconsistent Tate and freshman Grant Gunnell have shared QB duties. Tate averages 204.6 yards and has 12 touchdowns — and eight interceptions. Gunnell averages 176.9 yards with nine TDs and only one pick. Combined, they have been sacked 25 times. They have shared time recently. Seven receivers have at least two touchdown receptions.

Taylor has 566 yards on 107 carries (5.3 per) and five TDs. Tate has added 312 yards and three scores — remember, he rushed for more than 300 yards in a game two years ago.

The UA defense has given up 51, 41, 41 and 56 points in the past four games — the 56 by an offensively capable Oregon State. So, the Ducks are not going to be entering Saturday's game with much fear of the Wildcats, who, per game, give up 38.3 points and 481.2 yards — both ranking last in the Pac-12 — and 312.3 passing yards (11th). The 'Cats have a league-low 10 sacks. It's no wonder Sumlin purged his defensive coaching staff.

Does anybody doubt the Ducks will win Saturday? Not me, but it'll be interesting to see how ready Sumlin has the Wildcats in the start of a three-game push to become bowl eligible. (The Wildcats next play host to Utah, then are at Arizona State).

As for the Ducks, they want to avoid injuries and continue to execute. Running back CJ Verdell is among the players nursing injuries.

For a team bent on running the ball, the Ducks have been improving with the ground game, picking up contributions from Verdell, Travis Dye, Cyrus Habibi-Likio and even Darrian Felix. They average 184.4 yards rushing, third behind Utah and Arizona in the Pac-12.

But, QB Justin Herbert and his receivers have been great moving the ball through the air. Herbert's 258.8 yards per game and 24 TDs trail only WSU's Anthony Gordon among Pac-12 QBs, and he's completing a career-high 69.4% of passes with only two interceptions.

Jaylon Redd has 39 receptions for 352 yards and nine total TDs. Johnny Johnson III has 31 receptions for 396 yards and two touchdowns. Juwan Johnson has emerged as a difference-maker in the past couple games, and Mycah Pittman also has made big-time plays. For a suspect unit entering the season, the Oregon wide receivers have really been good. The Ducks are probably looking at a big passing game against Arizona.

While Arizona State still could be a close game Nov. 23, and the Civil War against Oregon State could be competitive Nov. 30, I don't expect Arizona to put up much of a fuss against the Ducks. If the Wildcats keep it within three touchdowns, I'll be surprised.

The pick: Oregon 52, Arizona 27


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