Arizona heads to the Farm this weekend with a 7-1 record, a 4-1 mark in conference play, and a top 15 ranking. Sound familiar? The Card boast the same numbers, and Saturday night’s game is clearly a matchup of the PAC-10’s second- and third-best teams. The victor will walk away with Rose Bowl dreams intact, and the loser will almost certainly be out of contention for a berth in a BCS bowl come season’s end.
But the Wildcats differ from the Cardinal in one pivotal aspect: defense. Arizona allows fewer than 15 points per game, which places them at 7th in the nation in scoring defense. Wildcats defensive ends Brooks Reed and Ricky Elmore have combined for 13.5 sacks so far this year, and Arizona ranks in the nation’s top ten in sacks per game with just under 3.5. Junior college transfer Paul Vassallo leads the Wildcats’ linebacking corps. The junior from Reno leads the team with 54 tackles in 2010, and has contributed 2 sacks. Senior safety Joseph Perkins leads the Arizona secondary with 34 tackles and 2 interceptions.
Like Stanford, Arizona has more troubles in the defensive secondary than along the front seven. Still, the Wildcat defense is the best in the PAC-10, and Jim Harbaugh claims it is the best that the Card will face this season. Even with Stanford’s strong offensive line, Arizona will get more pressure of Andrew Luck than any team has thus far in 2010, and perhaps in Luck’s young collegiate career. Don’t expect the comfortable pockets and seemingly infinite time Luck had to throw last week against Washington: Arizona is much too good for that.
Because the Wildcat front seven is so effective at getting into the backfield, Stanford will need Luck to have an effective game through the air. For the last several games, Stanford has relied upon its running backs to move the ball down the field and drive the offensive attack. That strategy will probably not work this week. Stanford will need to rely upon Luck to make quick, accurate throws to move the chains, and use the running game once Arizona takes defenders out of the box to help on covering receivers. Though Cardinal tailback Stepfan Taylor rattled off his fourth consecutive 100+ yard rushing game last week, don’t expect a fifth against Arizona. Not only will the Card need to go to the air more often, but they’ll likely need to use a diversity of looks in the running game to keep Arizona off-guard. That means that running backs Tyler Gaffney (who returned from injury last week) and Anthony Wilkerson will see a good number of carries.
Remember that when Stanford has the ball, statistical averages will necessarily prove worthless: Stanford scores over 42 points per game, and has not yet scored fewer than 31 points–more than double the average allowed by Arizona–in a game this year.
Looking ahead to how Arizona will move the ball gets difficult, primarily because we do not know how much star quarterback Nick Foles will play for the Wildcats. Foles went down with a knee injury against Washington State on October 16, and has not played since. Word on the street says that Foles is ready to start this week, but don’t be surprised if he doesn’t play the whole game or doesn’t play at all. Backup Matt Scott has done an excellent job of filling in for Arizona during Foles’s injury, and threw for 319 yards and rushed for 71 in the Wildcats’ victory at UCLA last Saturday. Scott brings an athletic skill set that Foles, a traditional uber-accurate pocket passer, does not have. Scott can get out of the pocket and run a spread option offense that could give the Stanford defense fits. (Remember the last time Stanford faced an effective spread option? That’s right: it was Oregon’s.)
Whichever quarterback plays behind center for Arizona, he’ll have versatile weapons with which to work. Running backs Keola Antolin and Nic Grigsby both have rushed for at least 420 yards and 6 touchdowns this year (Antolin has a slight edge with 443 yards, while Grigsby has 8 touchdowns). Antolin figures to be the bigger factor this week, after receiving the bulk of the team’s carries over the last month. Like Taylor, Antolin is looking to continue a streak of 100+ yard games. His run started two weeks ago against Washington, when he took only 14 carries for 114 yards and 2 touchdowns. That’s a superhuman 8.1 yards per carry for those of you keeping score at home. The 5′ 8″ junior from Las Vegas is on pace to have what will be by far his most productive season to date, and although the Stanford defense should contain him better than Washington’s did, he can cause a lot of damage carrying the ball.
More importantly, Arizona has one of the finest wide receivers in the nation. Junior Juron Criner, a 6′ 4″ junior also from Vegas, is averaging over 98 receiving yards per game. Even with his regular quarterback out, Criner has exploded for 127 and 108 yards in his last two games. Against a very suspect Stanford secondary–remember USC freshman Robert Woods’s 224 yards and 3 touchdowns against the Card–Criner will most likely have a big game. Check out an excellent analysis of Criner’s play, followed by tape of his game-winning touchdown catch against Cal earlier this season:
Regardless of the quarterback, Arizona will put up points on Saturday. And despite the Wildcats’ top-notch defense, Stanford will too. If Stanford plays up to its potential, it should be able to squeak out a win. With the home field advantage, and a potentially rusty Nick Foles, Stanford will narrowly pull this one out.