By Arlie Rahn
Arizona Daily Wildcat
To say this will be the game of the year would be an understatement.
When the Arizona football team faces Oregon tomorrow afternoon, it will not only be the final home contest for a group of seniors UA head coach Dick Tomey called "the most successful in the Pac-10," but it will also decide if the Wildcats will have any future in the postseason.
In this weekend's Homecoming matchup, Arizona (5-4 overall, 3-3 in Pacific 10 Conference) will face the 17th-ranked Ducks (7-2, 4-2), the defending Pac-10 champions. A loss to would make the Wildcats 0-4 against ranked opponents and probably take them out of bowl contention.
Kickoff is at 1:34 p.m. tomorrow. The game was changed from its original 7:07 p.m. start to accommodate television coverage. It will be televised on ABC (channel 9 in Tucson) and broadcasted live on KNST radio (AM 790).
"This is a big game for us," Tomey said. "The seniors' last home game is always very emotional. Many times these guys will say that they don't feel that emotional before the game, but when the game is over and they have time to reflect on it, that's when it hits them.
"These seniors have won more games in the Pac-10 than any other group, so it would be nice for them to have a strong finish to their collegiate careers."
Leading the class of 1996 are defensive end Tedy Bruschi, quarterback Dan White and strong safety Brandon Sanders. Bruschi, a Lombardi Award finalist for the second straight year, has continued to dominate the Wildcats' defensive front. He leads the Pac-10 with 12 sacks for minus-79 yards this season and is tied for third with 15 tackles for losses, a net loss of 91 yards. Bruschi, the all-time Pac-10 leader with 49.5 career sacks, sits currently at third place on the NCAA chart and is only three sacks away from passing former Alabama sack specialist Derrick Thomas (1985-88) as the most prolific pass rusher in college football history.
Sanders, last week's Pac-10 player of the week, has been on a tear of late with two interceptions and a fumble recovery over the last two weeks. He currently leads the Arizona secondary in interceptions (2), tackles (40) and tackles for losses (five for minus-51 yards), and has been the vocal leader of the defensive backfield all season long.
"Right now we're just trying to finish off on a good note," Sanders said. "We can't worry about trying to stop a certain player. We just have to worry about making the plays we need to as a defense to win the game."
One player on the defense that has been left out of the limelight for most of the season is senior inside linebacker Charlie Camp, who has quietly led the team with 70 tackles and has recovered one fumble. He has been a solid player all season long and has helped Arizona become the number one defense in the conference.
"Arizona has a solid group of all-star caliber players on defense that love to be on the field," Oregon head coach Mike Bellotti said. "I expect this to be a hard-fought physical football game."
Facing this experienced defense will be a dominating Oregon offense ranked first in the Pac-10 in scoring with 32.3 points a game and second in yards per game with 419.2.
The success of this offense is due to its balance attack, keyed by Duck quarterback Tony Graziani and all-purpose back Ricky Whittle. Graziani has been the main reason Oregon is leading the Pac-10 in passing offense. He is first in the conference with 2,158 yards in only eight games and has failed to throw for a touchdown only once.
Whittle has been a jack-of-all-trades for the Ducks this season. In addition to averaging 90.4 rushing yards a game, he has been invaluable as a receiver and kick-off returner and is currently second in the conference in all-purpose yards with 1,496 yards (166.2 a game). In fact, Whittle has been able to find the endzone in eight of nine games and has 12 touchdowns to show for it.
"I love Ricky Whittle," Bellotti said. "He is the epitome of what a football player should be. He is a guy I recruited and I feel he is a major reason for our success in the last couple of years."
The final links in this impressive offensive chain are the Ducks' receivers, led by flanker Cristin McLemore and tight end Josh Wilcox. McLemore holds all of Oregon's career records for pass catching with 150 career receptions for 2,367 yards. This season he is second in the conference, behind Southern Cal's Keyshawn Johnson with 52 catches for 905 yards. Wilcox has been an asset in both blocking and receiving this season. He has 29 catches for 398 yards and has been a big reason for Whittle's success running the ball.
"Cristin is the best receiver ever to play for Oregon," Bellotti said. "He has the ability to beat double-coverage and make the big play."
Like its "Desert Swarm" predecessor, the Ducks' "Gang-Green" defense is again among the conference leaders. Ranked first against the run, this defense, like Arizona's, is based on team pursuit. And no one is better in that aspect than senior inside linebacker Jeremy Asher, who is among the top 10 in the conference with 85 tackles and has nine tackles for losses. But just his presence in the middle is enough to worry most offenses in the Pac-10.
"Jeremy is playing excellent football right now and I feel he is one of the best linebackers in the conference and maybe in the nation," Bellotti said.
Another reason for Oregon's success on defense has been the play of cornerbacks Kenny Wheaton and Alex Molden. Wheaton is leading the conference with four interceptions, returning one for a touchdown. Molden has only two interceptions but is considered one of the top coverage corners in the nation.
"Oregon can be such a tough team to run on because they play a lot of man-to-man in the secondary," Tomey said. "And one reason they can do that is the ability of Molden, who is one of the top corners in the league."
Facing this dominating defense will be an Arizona offense that had only 156 yards of total offense last week against Oregon State. While the Wildcats' offense has had a tendency to sputter, one positive might be the play of White. Although White had only 103 yards passing, he did have two touchdowns and made the plays Arizona needed to win the game.
The same goes for wide receivers Jeff Nadeau and senior Cary Taylor. Nadeau only had two catches for 22 yards but one was a key 9-yard touchdown reception. Taylor also had two catches for 39 yards, with a 22-yard grab marking the top gainer of the game.
"Arizona has a very opportunistic offense that seems to get things done," Bellotti said. "They can hurt you if you don't stay focused."
While the Wildcats are focused on winning the game at hand, they may be looking ahead to Arizona State on Nov. 24 and the spin a win against Oregon would put on that contest.
"If we have a solid performance against Oregon," Tomey said, "we could maybe get a chance to play Arizona State for more than just the emotional rivalry."
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