TUCSON, Ariz. — Fifty to zero.
Left guard Shane Lemieux said that could have been the score if the 2017 Ducks faced a 27-0 halftime deficit in the ESPN "College GameDay" road environment last week.
Oregon refused to give up the ship to the Pirate of the Palouse, scoring 20 unanswered points after intermission before ultimately falling 34-20 to what is shaping up to be Mike Leach’s best Washington State team.
Having a healthy Justin Herbert, who has thought more than two seconds about leading the team, has helped first-year coach Mario Cristobal instill some toughness to go along with the talent on the roster.
“I tried to just focus on body language and being upbeat,” Herbert said of his halftime message. “Talking to guys and trying to keep them motivated and keep everyone focused on the game.”
No. 19 Oregon will be focused on a fast start against Arizona on Saturday at Arizona Stadium (7:30 p.m., ESPN).
The Ducks (5-3, 2-2), after splitting four consecutive games against ranked opponents, are 9 1/2-point road favorites over the disappointing Wildcats (3-5, 2-3).
“Guys are upbeat,” Herbert said. “We realize we played a pretty bad half of football and we were still in it. …
“We battled. Even though we were down a lot in that first half, guys didn’t quit, and the defense and offense both showed a lot of heart.”
Statistically, Herbert has been solid during his career in Pac-12 road games, with 17 touchdown passes and just one interception.
But Oregon is only 2-6 in those games.
The junior quarterback should be able to lean on the running game and an opportunistic defense to fly home from the desert victorious.
CJ Verdell is expected to play through a hip flexor injury and re-balance the offense against Arizona, which allows an average of 195.9 rushing yards (103rd nationally).
Cristobal said Travis Dye and Tony Brooks-James will also get carries after Oregon abandoned the ground game for the most part against the Cougars.
“My relationship with Tony hasn’t changed at all, that’s my brother,” Verdell said of establishing himself as the No. 1 running back while Brooks-James has been limited to the kickoff return role in recent weeks. “All the running backs are my brothers. We’re all rooting for each other, we all want each other to succeed and do well.”
Two of Arizona’s top defensive players have siblings on the Oregon roster.
PJ Johnson, the Wildcats’ 6-foot-4, 335-pound nose tackle, is the brother of Oregon defensive lineman/outside linebacker D.J. Johnson, who is sitting out this season after transferring from Miami.
“He is a large human being,” Cristobal said of PJ Johnson. “He’s a really good football player and he’s made a lot of plays for them. We’re going to have to do a good job at the line of scrimmage.”
Oregon wide receiver Brenden Schooler will be competing against his younger brother, Arizona linebacker Colin Schooler, for the second consecutive season.
“It’s just weird not being with him,” Brenden said of Colin, who leads the Wildcats with 81 tackles, including 14.5 for loss. “But he’s been doing well, he’s been killing it, and I’m sure he’s going to go out and make plays.”
Defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt prepared Oregon for two quarterbacks. Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin did not disclose publicly whether Khalil Tate would be returning from an ankle injury or if Rhett Rodriguez would be making his second consecutive start.
The Ducks lead the Pac-12 with 11 interceptions and are optimistic about creating some turnovers against Arizona.
“Coach Leavitt tells us every game that we need to get at least three turnovers to win the ballgame,” said cornerback Deommodore Lenoir, who intercepted Washington State’s Gardner Minshew twice. “It’s hard to win a ballgame without turnovers. That was a big step of us getting to our goal.”
Kaulana Apelu was held out of practice Tuesday and Wednesday after a bruising 14-tackle performance in Pullman. The senior inside linebacker plans to be in the lineup next to Troy Dye, who added 12 tackles against the Air Raid offense.
The Wildcats are second in the Pac-12 in rushing (196.5 yards per game), and running back JJ Taylor is averaging 6.0 yards per carry and 102.1 yards per game.
Leavitt’s crew is only giving up 3.23 yards per rushing attempt, which ranks 14th nationally.
“The most underrated players in the conference,” Cristobal said of Arizona’s running back rotation. “And the offensive line is blocking really well, young guys that have become a cohesive unit. A lot of credit goes to them they way they are running the football.”
The Ducks will have the best player on the field in Herbert, the potential No. 1 overall NFL draft pick. The former Sheldon High standout said this week he hasn’t thought “three seconds” about what his decision will be when asked about a CBS Sports report that he was leaning toward returning to school.
“At that position you’ve got to be the toughest guy mentally on the field, and I think that’s the thing he’s matured into,” offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo said. “I thought he showed great steps last week at coming out and leading.”