No. 19 Oregon wary of upset-minded Wildcats

Oregon's Justin Herbert has thrown 18 touchdown passes against five interceptions this season.Photo Credit: James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

No. 19 Oregon, after two emotional games, will have to guard against a letdown when it travels to play Arizona Saturday.

The Ducks defeated rival and No. 15 Washington 30-27 in overtime Oct. 13 but then ran into a fired-up Washington State team last Saturday. With College GameDay on the Pullman campus for the first time, the No. 14 Cougars rode a big first half to a 34-20 victory.

“You have two choices; you can get on your feet and get up or lay down in bed,” said Oregon linebacker Kaulana Apelu. “Knowing this team, knowing myself, we’ll get up (and) get ready to go.”

Oregon (5-2, 2-2 Pac-12) will have to get up to take on an Arizona team that has lost two in a row, including 31-30 at UCLA on Saturday. The Wildcats (3-5, 2-3) could be without starting quarterback Khalil Tate for a second consecutive game because of a injured left ankle that has bothered him since the second game of the season.

Arizona first-year coach Kevin Sumlin said he likely would make decision on Tate on Tuesday, although the coach didn’t have scheduled media availability after Monday night, so the quarterback position might remain a mystery.

Although Tate’s junior season has fizzled, Oregon junior quarterback Justin Herbert has shown enough to be considered a top pick in the 2019 NFL Draft should he leave school early. Herbert has completed 61.8 percent of his 212 passes for 1,883 yards, with 18 touchdowns and five interceptions.

“At that position, you’ve got to be the toughest guy mentally,” Oregon offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo said.

“I think that’s the thing he’s matured into. The ability to work through the ebbs and flows of a college football game — good, bad or indifferent. … He’s done a little more each week of doing some things that may not show up in your stat line.”

Herbert’s primary weapon is receiver Dillon Mitchell, who has 36 receptions for 510 yards and two touchdowns in the past four games. Running back CJ Verdell (team-high 586 rushing yards, four TDs) suffered a hip flexor injury last week against Washington State but is expected to play against Arizona.

“We’re trying to beat the next opponent and the next opponent is very, very talented,” Sumlin said. “Their quarterback is extremely talented, a lot of special players around him. … They have a secondary that’s probably as good as there is around — just a very talented team.”

If Tate can’t play, or is limited, Arizona will again turn to sophomore Rhett Rodriguez, who went the whole way against UCLA.

Rodriguez, the son of former Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez (who was fired after last season), completed 15 of 34 passes for 231 yards, with two touchdowns and two interceptions, in his first start. He seemed to play better than the numbers indicated, however, as his decision-making and touch on the deep ball helped the Wildcats amass 520 yards.

He doesn’t have the athleticism or arm strength of Tate, but Rodriguez has a high football IQ and knows where to go with the ball.

“You can say that his play really gave us the opportunity at the end of the game to have a chance,” Sumlin said. “That’s what you want when you have a backup quarterback playing a conference game on the road at night. It’s a tough situation for a guy who has not played a lot.”

Arizona has struggled against physical teams (such as BYU and Utah), and physical is something that now applies to Oregon under first-year coach Mario Cristobal.

Arizona averages 196.5 rushing yards per game — JJ Taylor is at 102.1 yards per game and 6.0 yards per carry — but Oregon gives up only 3.23 yards per carry, the 14th-best mark in the nation. Nose tackle Jordon Scott, a 329-pound behemoth is the anchor. Jalen Jelks and Justin Hollins are the edge-setters, and linebackers Troy Dye and Apelu are the team’s leading tacklers.

Arizona is led defensively by inside linebacker Colin Schooler (81 tackles, 14.5 for loss). His older brother, Brenden, is an Oregon receiver who has 10 catches.

Another family rivalry is Arizona defensive lineman PJ Johnson, who is the older brother of Oregon outside linebacker D.J. Johnson.

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