Take heart, Arizona defense — LaMichael James is no more at Oregon.
After three years of shredding the Wildcats, James took his talents to the NFL. He had 70 carries in three games against Arizona, for 531 yards and four touchdowns, including a school-record 288 yards with two touchdowns last fall.
(The Oregon defense might feel similarly about departed UA receiver Juron Criner, he of 17 receptions for 298 yards and five touchdowns against the Ducks the last three years.)
James might be gone, but the Ducks continue to roll up the rushing yards. After 324 last week against Tennessee Tech, they're right where they always seem to be in the national rankings, nestled in the top five. Entering Saturday's 7:30 p.m. visit by Arizona to Autzen Stadium, Oregon is fourth nationally in rushing, with 329 yards per game.
So, what's to suggest the Ducks won't simply run up and down the field on the Wildcats again this week?
"Our confidence is extremely high — it doesn't matter who we play," UO senior running back Kenjon Barner said. "But what LaMichael did was last year. They have different guys on the field, they have different guys coaching them, so it will be completely different."
Rich Rodriguez and his read-option spread offense isn't the only new look in Tucson this fall. Also fresh is the defensive scheme of coordinator Jeff Casteel, who worked under Rodriguez at West Virginia. Casteel's base defense uses three down linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs, a "3-3 stack" alignment known for creating mismatches in the secondary because of speed and confusion at the line based on the odd front.
"Totally different, totally different," from the four-man front Arizona's previous staff employed, UO offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich said. "Couldn't really be (more) different from a schematic standpoint."
Because of that, using last season's success running the ball as a benchmark for what to expect from Oregon this week "doesn't help at all, unfortunately," Helfrich said.
This much seems certain — when the Ducks have the ball, it will be speed vs. speed. The Ducks obviously have it, thanks to Barner, all-purpose whirlwind De'Anthony Thomas and nifty quarterback Marcus Mariota, who has yet to really show what he can do with his legs. But Arizona has it too, with the extra defensive back on the field, and converted safety Marquis Flowers now starting at outside linebacker.
Following practice Monday, Oregon's coaches got down to the business of scheming how to best attack the Wildcats.
"Every team presents a different challenge," UO running backs coach Gary Campbell said. "This is another one for us, and we have to figure out a way to take advantage of what they give us."
Arizona hasn't given up a whole lot to anybody yet this season. The Wildcats are 55th nationally in rushing defense, a tick above the median, allowing 142 yards per game.
Ironically, it was the pass-heavy Oklahoma State offense that had the most rushing success against Arizona in the nonconference season, with the Cowboys running 32 times for 200 yards.
Oklahoma State complemented that with 436 yards through the air. Oregon, as usual, has been more run-focused, averaging 267.3 passing yards through three games, although against Tennessee Tech the Ducks threw for 328 and rushed for 324.
"We're going to go into it with the game plan that the coaches prepare for us, and whatever that is, we'll execute it," Mariota said. "If it asks us to throw it or run it, so be it."
While Arizona's defensive front will present some new wrinkles, the Ducks often use a three-man front, too, and they've seen it from a couple of their opponents already this season. But as Mariota continues to mature in his recognition of defenses and where pressure will come from, this could be his biggest test yet.
He can perhaps take comfort, at least, in the presence of Barner and Thomas behind him.
"I'd like to think we can do the same things we did last year, and I certainly hope so," Campbell said. "We've got a good crew of running backs."
In that, the UO assistant counts true freshman Byron Marshall, who led Oregon with 125 yards last week. That came after he sat out the Ducks' previous game, against Fresno State, because a closer-than-expected second half required it. Marshall was also digesting lessons he learned from his 24 carries in the opener, about running full speed ahead, and not always looking for cutback lanes.
In his 13 carries against Tennessee Tech, Marshall seemed to show he can help the Ducks in conference play.
"I think Byron is a guy that can do that right now," Campbell said. "He's got to get into a little better shape; he got a little winded on Saturday. But I think he's a guy that can go in and handle 10, 12 carries for us."
When James was running the ball, against Arizona defenses of the past few years, 10 or 12 carries might have easily resulted in close to 100 yards, perhaps even more. With new backs carrying the ball for Oregon, and a new scheme installed for the Wildcats, the Ducks will see if similar success is possible Saturday.