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Arizona-Stanford: Five things to watch

Stepfan Taylor

Running back Stepfan Taylor and the Stanford offense will be coming right at Arizona. Taylor ran for 153 yards vs. the Wildcats last season. Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Stopping the powerful Stanford offense won’t be a picnic for Arizona’s ‘ants.’

“We might be like a bunch of fire ants or something, jumping all over those guys,” Wildcats coach Rich Rodriguez said.

The Cardinal is big, the Cats are small … and that’s the major narrative when Stanford has the ball. From its multiple tight end power sets, the Cardinal will persistently push and prod against an Arizona front that must “play with great pad level and great technique,” Rodriguez said, if it hopes to compensate for its lack of size.

And the Cats have to do all that while overcoming injuries. But more on that later.

This matchup has always looked difficult for Arizona. The 3-3-5 scheme of coordinator Jeff Casteel is, in theory, better suited to handle the increasing proliferation of spread offenses than Stanford’s sledgehammer approach, a traditional philosophy becoming rarer in today’s college football.

“Running a true power set makes you a bit different and unique,” Rodriguez said.

When I talked to Pac-12 Network analyst Rich Neuheisel before the season, he said this about the 3-3-5:

“Well, I can’t wait for the Stanford-Arizona game. That’s when we’re going to find out how that 3-3-5 works. Stanford, as they try to develop a brand-new quarterback, is going to run the power. And they are going to run the power until your nose bleeds. We’re going to find how that 3-3-5 lines up against a power offense.”

So, this is key matchup. The No. 1 thing to watch. Here are four others:

2. Kick returns

Rodriguez has called this unit “awful” a few times in the past week, but that’s what happens when walk-ons and freshmen are trying to throw blocks to spring the returner. Arizona hasn’t had a return longer than 20 yards in 11 attempts.

Running back Daniel Jenkins has been the primary kick returner, back there with running back Kylan Butler.

The other members of the kick return team last week included true freshman linebackers Anthony Lopez, Dakota Conwell and Cody Ippolito (in his first playing time, according to the participation charts), walk-on receiver Trevor Ermisch, walk-on safety Blake Brady, and redshirt freshman tight end Michael Cooper.

How many of those guys have you heard of?

UA hopes it doesn’t have to field too many kicks today, but when it does, a little field position would be nice.

3. Josh Nunes

The Stanford junior quarterback beat out Brett Nottingham in fall camp but hasn’t walked very far in Andrew Luck’s shoes. Nunes has completed only 65 of 125 passes (52 percent) for 785 yards, with six touchdowns and four interceptions.

His passing efficiency rating of 114.2 doesn’t put him among the nation’s top 100 quarterbacks.

If only Arizona can stop the run, shifting the onus of the offense to Nunes …

“They haven’t opened up the playbook as much as they did, obviously, with Luck,” said Arizona linebacker Jake Fischer.

“Luck … the guy was incredible. He checked to everything, and that is why they were so good offensively. They’re kind of being a little conservative, but they have the personnel to just run over you.”

Stanford coach David Shaw gave Nunes a vote of confidence this week amid calls to see what Nottingham could do.

4. Arizona cornerbacks

Washington shut down the Stanford running game last week in a 17-13 victory by mostly transforming into a 4-4 front, sometimes with a ninth defender in the box.

The Huskies, who held the Cardinal to 68 yards on the ground, were confident their cornerbacks could handle man coverage on Stanford’s receivers. Arizona’s course of action probably includes the same kind of faith in Jonathan McKnight and Shaquille Richardson.

Nunes will have to prove he can go over the top and hit big passing plays, but he doesn’t have a lot of help. Stanford receiver Ty Montgomery, athletically blessed, has been known more for his dropped passes than his game-breaking plays.

Stopping the Stanford tight ends — Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo — is a different matter. But if McKnight and Richardson are fine man-to-man on the outside, then Casteel can scheme in different ways against the run.

5. Injuries

Sophomore safety Jared Tevis, listed as questionable earlier this week, tweeted Friday night that he isn’t going to play because of an ankle injury. Redshirt freshman Patrick Onwuasor and true freshman Wayne Capers Jr. will see more time.

And if senior center Kyle Quinn — who has started 18 consecutive games — can’t play because of an ankle injury, senior Addison Bachman will make his first career start, lined up against 305-pound Terrence Stephens.

The Cats need all the experience and strength it can get in the trenches.

Stanford’s 3-4 front is big and one of the best in the conference. Each of the four starting linebackers, which include senior standouts Shayne Skov and Chase Thomas, weigh at least 242 pounds.

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