At first glance, Stanford and Arizona seem to be programs trending in opposite directions.
The Cardinal’s offense is finally hitting a groove, and Arizona just got blown out by UCLA. Stanford is on the mend, while Arizona just lost its stud linebacker and might have to play its backup quarterback on Saturday.
But despite how things may seem and Stanford entering the game as an 18-point favorite, the No. 18 Cardinal (3-1, 2-0 Pac-12) will be the first to tell you that they’re not ready to overlook any of the remaining opponents on their schedule, especially the talented Arizona Wildcats (3-1, 0-1), who will be playing with fire after a tough loss to the Bruins last week.
“If anything, we’ve learned from the Northwestern game,” said senior running back Barry Sanders. “We’ve got to go into each week with the same intensity. We can’t afford to have any more mistakes. That’s not even in our mindset, looking over these guys.”
The Wildcats were certainly hyped up for their matchup last week against UCLA, with both teams sporting top-20 ranks and College Gameday visiting Tucson for the clash of Pac-12 South powers. But Arizona certainly came out of it worse for the wear, with Scooby Wright re-injuring himself and quarterback Anu Solomon departing the game with concussion symptoms en route to a costly defeat.
That being said, Arizona still has lots of talent on its roster that could make a big impact on the game when it visits The Farm on Saturday, and it all starts on the ground with running back Nick Wilson, who ran for 1,375 yards in a breakout season last year and has averaged 142.5 yards per game this season.
Arizona’s opponents are always guaranteed to see a healthy dose of Wilson, but that might be even more the case this week with Solomon questionable to play at quarterback and an unproven arm in Jerrard Randall set to play in his stead.
Although Randall has been an absolute terror on the ground, having carried the ball 22 times for 337 yards and 4 touchdowns so far this season, his passing leaves much to be desired: The senior is just 6-of-19 for 58 yards through the air this season. That stands in stark contrast to Solomon, who has passed for 833 yards, 11 touchdowns and 0 interceptions in 2015.
But no matter how badly the odds are stacked against him, Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez always seems to find a way to score points.
“People ask about which quarterback is starting and all that stuff, but Rich Rodriguez is one of the best offensive minds in football, and he’s hard to contain schematically,” said head coach David Shaw. “It’s a big time preparation for us defensively.”
Luckily for the Cardinal, their defensive situation is looking much more optimistic than it did at the end of the Oregon State game, with both Aziz Shittu and Brennan Scarlett expected to be back in action against Arizona after what appeared to be serious injuries suffered in Corvallis.
Although Nate Lohn and Kevin Anderson will not be available on Saturday, the potential loss of Solomon would be an even bigger loss for the Arizona offense, and if the dynamic quarterback can’t play, the Stanford defense will need to be wary of a similar, read-option based game plan to the one it faced last week.
“Whoever plays quarterback is an athletic quarterback that you have to account for, which puts you in so many run-pass conflicts,” Shaw said. “I’m sure if Anu doesn’t play, they’ll cater the offense to whoever does start at quarterback. For us, it’s about making sure we’re getting ready for the scheme and making sure our rules are sound.”
Speaking of injured quarterbacks, although fifth-year senior quarterback Kevin Hogan didn’t practice for the first half of the week again, his sprained ankle is nearly healed and Hogan should be a full go for the Cardinal on Saturday.
Stanford certainly saw its fair share of unorthodox defensive fronts last week, and it will continue to do so against Arizona and its rare 3-3-5 base defense on Saturday. However, that will likely make life a lot easier for Stanford’s offensive line and sophomore running back Christian McCaffrey, who face a schematic advantage in such a look.
McCaffrey, who is coming off of a record-setting 206-yard performance against Oregon State, will be seeking his third consecutive 100-yard game on Saturday. Given the injury to tackling machine Scooby Wright, McCaffrey certainly has a good shot to eclipse the century mark again, particularly with senior left tackle Kyle Murphy set to return from injury.
However, Shaw is still approaching the Wildcats’ defense with respect and caution to make sure that his players still aren’t caught off-guard by the new scheme.
“[Wright’s injury] doesn’t change our preparation at all,” Shaw said. “They have good players and it’s a funky scheme. We haven’t seen it in a couple of years. Running and pass protection, it’s about making sure our guys have good rules and making sure our guys know what they’re supposed to do.”
The extra defensive back in the base defensive scheme will mean that Hogan will need to complement Stanford’s running game with accurate, efficient passing — something he has shown over the last few games.
Because of Wilson’s ability to run the ball for the Wildcats, Hogan and Stanford’s offense will need to make sure to keep moving the chains to make sure its defense doesn’t get worn down; the last thing Stanford wants right now is to get into another barn-burner a la the 2012 meeting between the two teams, which Stanford won 54-48 in overtime.
“We’ve still got to be able to run the ball, and we’ve still got to be efficient in the passing game, because you don’t want to get into a shootout with a team like that,” Shaw said.
Although Stanford already won a shootout this year against USC, Shaw and the coaching staff would prefer for games to not turn out that way in order to cater to the strengths of this Cardinal team.
But as we saw in the 2012 meeting between these two teams and in the first third of Stanford’s 2015 season, it’s usually safe to expect the unexpected, especially in the Pac-12, the nation’s “Wild West.”
Stanford and Arizona will face off at 7:30 p.m. at Stanford Stadium, with the game being carried by the Pac-12 Networks.
Contact Do-Hyoung Park at dhpark ‘at’ stanford.edu.