For nine seasons, the University of Arizona football team has ached to take part in a relevant, nationally televised game with championship implications. The Wildcats will get their wish tonight, with a catch.
At best, the Wildcats will serve as window dressing in a showcase game for No. 2 Oregon and quarterback Dennis Dixon, a Heisman Trophy favorite.
It’s a Faustian plot line worthy of the musical “Damn Yankees,” but UA coach Mike Stoops will take it.
Arizona (4-6 overall, 3-4 Pac-10) has not played a nationally televised game on ESPN since 2005; “The Worldwide Leader in Sports” hasn’t called a game from Arizona Stadium since the 1997 Insight.com Bowl.
“Playing Oregon, just because of where they’re at, gives you a big stage,” Stoops said. “They’re pushing for a championship, (but) I think it gives us a chance to show what we’re about, too.”
The Wildcats may have a rare psychological edge. Last season Arizona put together one of its best showings in recent history on the way to a 37-10 win in Eugene, Ore. UA forced six turnovers and left town bowl-eligible for the first time since 1998.
Dixon said that loss still stings, in part because of the way he played.
Dixon was intercepted three times and failed to score a touchdown before he was lifted for backup Brady Leaf. The Ducks, reeling, finished their season by losing four in a row.
“I made a lot of mistakes, but I can’t blame it all on myself,”
Dixon said. “It’s a total team effort. We just have to be better as far as ball security. We just have to be patient and just take care of ourselves.”
Oregon (8-1, 5-1) has done a much better job of treasuring the ball this season. The Ducks have forced 21 takeaways while committing just 14 turnovers — three interceptions and 11 fumbles. Their turnover margin of plus-7 is tops in the Pac-10 and among the nation’s best.
In part because of it, Oregon’s offense is perhaps unparalleled in college football.
The Ducks’ dynamic spread attack is averaging 510.6 yards per game. Dixon is the team’s slippery ringleader.
Stoops said the Wildcats must limit Dixon to have a chance at the upset. They may catch a break tonight — Dixon is recovering from a sprained knee.
“Anytime a quarterback’s got his hands on the ball, he’s tough to account for,” Stoops said. “He neutralizes numbers in a lot of ways when he pulls the ball down and scrambles.”
Which means Arizona must force Dixon to stay in the pocket and throw.
But even that won’t be easy: Dixon has thrown 20 touchdowns this season, and has been intercepted just three times.
No major college quarterback has a better mark.
Dixon’s numbers are enough to make him a Heisman favorite heading into the final few weeks of the season.
His standing is precarious, however; while a solid performance and a win might lock up the award, anything else could harm his chances.
No. 2 Oregon at Arizona
When: 7 p.m. today
Where: Arizona Stadium, Tucson
Records: Oregon 8-1, 5-1 Pac-10; Arizona 4-6, 3-4