This will be a showdown of ants versus elephants. Arizona is tiny compared to Stanford, especially on defense. The Cardinal attack may be the biggest in the nation. Rodriguez, meanwhile, has implemented his 3-3-5 defensive scheme to highlight his team's athleticism.
The system features the standard cornerback and free safety slots in addition to two rover positions coined "Spur" and "Bandit." Tra'Mayne Bondurant and Jared Tevis man these two secondary positions but operate all over the football field. Bondurant, in fact, leads the Wildcats with 7.5 TFL, while Tevis' 42 tackles are good for second on the team.
These numbers verify that Arizona attacks the offense from unconventional angles to make up for its lack of size up front. This disadvantage is significant. Dominique Austin (285 pounds) is the squad's heaviest defensive lineman, a good 65 pounds lighter than the 340-pound Hawaiian behemoth Stanford had to deal with in Seattle last week. On average, Arizona's linebackers are just slightly heavier than Cardinal receiver Ty Montgomery.
"We have to play bigger than we are if we want a chance to win," Rodriguez said.
It'll be Josh Nunes' job to make sure that his offense doesn't allow that. The Stanford quarterback failed to put his team in position to exploit Washington's size disadvantage on the road last week, but he gets another shot at home this time around. The Wildcats are certainly vulnerable against the run (166.8 yards/game), and a well-balanced, physical Oregon State offense exposed their pass defense last week, too. The Beavers' Sean Mannion threw for 433 yards, complementing Storm Woods' 169 yards on 29 carries (5.6 average) in the 38-35 victory.
Oregon State passed 45 times, rushed 43 times, and racked up 613 total yards against Arizona in a perfectly executed offensive effort. If Stanford can manage to establish similar balance Saturday, the Wildcats won't have the horses to keep up. It'll be up to Nunes to set the table for the running game's dinner. A crisp completion percentage closer to 60 percent this time around should do just that.
Embrace The Speed Challenge
Though there are key differences, Rich Rodriguez's spread offensive attack has a lot in common with Chip Kelly's jet-engine Oregon system. Saturday, it will be up to the Stanford defense to stop the kind of speed-oriented offense that has long tormented it. The Cardinal are bigger and stronger on the defensive side of the football than they have ever been, so this should be an intriguing benchmark for the unit.
Arizona quarterback Matt Scott, who played through a hip injury earlier this year, looks to be back in his dangerous dual threat form. He has run for 291 yards to complement his throwing production to an insanely balanced receiving corps. Eight Arizona pass catchers are tied for the team lead with five grabs, while five more have at least three. There's truly no single threat to key on, so discipline will be paramount for the Cardinal, especially considering the fact that the Wildcats have also had success running with back Ka'Deem Carey.
Arizona's attack is predicated on the lateral and over-the-top assault in a more substantial way than Oregon's, which focuses on baiting safeties away from run defense by attacking the seams with the pass. This means that Stanford cornerbacks must be especially sure that they keep action in front of them. Linebackers will have to demonstrate the speed to suffocate the sidelines, a sometimes unpleasant challenge. Shayne Skov said that he'd rather face a straightforward smash-mouth football team instead of Arizona's lateral attack.
"As a linebacker in general, it gets a little annoying chasing guys sideline to sideline," he laughed. "It's like basketball on grass. I'd rather be hitting people than chasing them."
Of course, continued pressure from the defensive line will be paramount. Excessive blitzing against a team with such a balanced receiving corps is tantamount to suicide. Nose tackle Terrence Stephens says it'll be the ultimate endurance test, simply because the Wildcats run 88 plays per game. That's good for second in the nation.
"Playing a spread team is hard for me because I'm not the best at pass rushing," he said. "We're going to have groups of people going in and going out, making sure we're staying fresh. We don't lack the athletes. We don't lack the size. It's going to be all mental."
Force Field Goals: Win the Red Zone Battle
The Wildcats will inevitably move the ball, at least a bit. They did even at Oregon, but an unfathomably bad 0-for-6 red zone performance led to laying the goose egg at Autzen Stadium. Arizona kicker John Bonano is only 4-for-9 this season, and he's missed many shorter field goals. Rodriguez's squad is competent between the 20s, but their spread attack loses its effectiveness when it runs out of room in the end zone. Field goal struggles have compounded this shortcoming, so this is where Stanford can cash in on its physical defense.
David Lombardi covers Stanford sports for The Bootleg and FOX Sports NEXT. He was the Cardinal football KZSU play-by-play voice for several years. He can also be heard on San Francisco's 95.7 The Game. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com. Follow him on Twitter: @davidmlombardi.
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