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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Cats to face Ducks’ leading pass defense

    Rain, wind and temperatures in the low 50s are expected at Autzen Stadium for Saturday’s game between the Arizona football team and Oregon, conditions that might suggest a third straight heavy workload for Wildcat running back Chris Henry.

    But if Arizona feels like getting tricky with quarterback Willie Tuitama and Co., it won’t come as much surprise to the Ducks.

    “”That’s been the story all year – everybody’s looking at our pass defense and wanting to attack it,”” said Oregon freshman cornerback Jairus Byrd. “”We just go out and do our job.””

    The Ducks’ secondary has taken such a straightforward mindset while leading the Pacific 10 Conference in pass defense for the second straight season.

    The unit has been even tougher on opposing quarterbacks than in 2005, with pass yards allowed per game (145.5) down 35 percent.

    Byrd said safeties Patrick Chung and J.D. Nelson have anchored the group with their leadership and used simple credos while mentoring four different starters at cornerback, including a converted wide receiver in freshman Derrick Jones.

    Despite not entering the starting lineup until the Ducks’ third game, Byrd ranks tied for second in the conference with four interceptions.

    Byrd said the duo’s biggest influence has been teaching him to discard just-finished plays, good or bad, from his mind.

    They’ve advised him to instead focus on just the next snap or – as has certainly been the case for Byrd – the next offensive possession.

    “”They’ve been very helpful in helping me along,”” Byrd said. “”Pat, I just look at what he did last year (91 tackles as a freshman). He came on with a bang.””

    Arizona head coach Mike Stoops said two notable facets of the Ducks’ secondary are the veteran stability provided by Chung and Nelson, a senior, and the group’s tendency to play physically against wide receivers.

    “”They always play an aggressive style of defense,”” Stoops said. “”They always play some man and some bump(-and-run coverages). They lost their cover guys from last year, but these new guys have come in and played well.””

    A secondary guru who tutored eight future NFL defensive backs while coaching at Oklahoma, Stoops said he has been impressed by what he’s seen from Byrd and his position mates on film.

    “”Corner’s not that hard a position to learn, but to play (there) is very difficult,”” he said. “”It’s one of the easier (positions) to learn, but you’re playing against some great athletes all the time. These guys have played really, really well.””

    If they so choose, the Wildcats should be better equipped to handle the Ducks through the air Saturday than in the previous few weeks.

    Tuitama has seemed to develop a rhythm again with receivers Syndric Steptoe and Mike Thomas in his two games back as a starter since missing action after suffering his second concussion of the season Oct. 7 against UCLA.

    Steptoe, a senior, made six catches in each contest, and both he and Thomas, who is a sophomore, had 68 receiving yards in Arizona’s 24-20 win Saturday over then-No. 8 California.

    Their production was made possible in part by Henry’s emergence as a workhorse.

    The junior has carried 60 times and scored four touchdowns in the last two weeks, helping the Wildcats diversify their tepid offense (14.8 points per game, 109th out of 119 NCAA Division I-A teams).

    Henry will go up against an Oregon run defense that has allowed the second-most yards per game (147.8) and yards per carry (4.3) in the Pac-10.

    “”We’re going to mix it up,”” Tuitama said. “”These last few games, we’ve ran the ball pretty good. Last week, we really ran the ball good in the second half and balanced things out a little bit. We’re going to run the ball if we can, of course, and that will open up play-actions and boot(legs).””

    Thomas doesn’t think Arizona will need to hold back offensively just because of the weather.

    He cited the Wildcats’ success in a 27-17 victory over then-No. 25 Washington State on Nov. 4, when 5- to 15-mph winds guided a consistent drizzle at Martin Stadium and the mercury fell to 60 degrees.

    Tuitama completed 10 of 17 passes that day, including a 78-yard strike to wideout Anthony Johnson on the game’s third play.

    “”Washington State was a little rugged, but we still threw the ball around a little bit,”” Thomas said. “”You get ready for it mentally, but at the same time you still got to go out and play ball.””

    Thomas also doesn’t intend on getting any surprises when Wildcat receivers line up against Byrd and the Ducks’ cornerbacks.

    “”They like to bite on quick moves and first moves,”” Thomas said. “”So we might take that into consideration.””

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