Inside Slant

The Sports Xchange

October 23, 2018 at 8:05 pm.

Oregon stays on the road for challenging game against Arizona

Entering the 2018 season, there were some similarities between No. 19 Oregon and Arizona.

Both teams, for different reasons, had a new head coach. They each had a star at quarterback — Oregon’s Justin Herbert and Arizona’s Khalil Tate were both considered Heisman contenders to begin the season.

The teams had rebuilding defenses that were taking steps in the right direction, and each squad was considered a dark-horse candidate in their respective Pac-12 divisions.

But in late October, the narratives couldn’t be more different.

The Ducks are one of the better teams in the nation, rising from the ashes of the past two years to reassert themselves as a Pac-12 contender in head coach Mario Cristobal’s first year.

Oregon (5-2, 2-2 Pac-12) went a combined 11-14 in the past two seasons, but so far under Cristobal, the Ducks are a fast and physical hybrid, beating teams in the trenches with power and on the outside with speed. He is Oregon’s third head coach in as many years, and it appears he has the Ducks on the track back to national relevancy.

Meanwhile, the Wildcats (3-5, 2-3 Pac-12) are floundering under first-year head coach Kevin Sumlin, looking nothing like the South division sleeper many were expecting them to be. Arizona went 17-23 in the final three seasons of the Rich Rodriguez era.

The teams meet Saturday night at Arizona Stadium, with the kickoff set for 7:30 p.m. in Tucson.

“I know the types of problems that he poses for opponents and he has a great feel for the game,” Cristobal said of Sumlin. “He creates mismatches. He creates air and space for athletes to make plays and they certainly have a lot of athletes.”

Said Sumlin of Oregon: “We’re trying to beat the next opponent and the next opponent is very, very talented. 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.”

Oregon suffered a setback last week when it fell behind 27-0 at the half to Washington State before a furious second-half rally came up short in the 34-20 loss.

“The positive is that there was a response and a strong one, one that put us in a situation where it became a one-score game after fighting our way back into that thing at 27-20,” Cristobal said of the loss. “In college football, momentum is the biggest animal there is … we have to train for that response to come much sooner, to not let it snowball.”

Arizona’s 31-30 loss to UCLA hurt because, despite the poor overall record, it had a chance to be in a tie for first place in the South division with a win. Now the Wildcats enter Saturday in fifth place in the division, and in desperate need of a victory. They have to win three of their final four games to become bowl eligible.