Arizona defense will challenge Andrew Luck

As a strength-on-strength matchup, Stanford's offense versus Arizona's defense is about is good as it gets.

Arizona is No. 7 in the nation in scoring defense, No. 6 in rushing defense and No. 10 in total defense. Stanford is No. 5 in the nation in scoring offense, No. 10 in the nation in passing efficiency and No. 16 in the nation in total offense.

The Cardinal has the best quarterback in the Pac-10 in Andrew Luck, who might be the first overall pick in this spring's NFL draft. The Wildcats counter with the best tandem of defensive ends in the conference, in Ricky Elmore and Brooks Reed, who have combined for 13.5 sacks.

Just ask the players and coaches. No. 15 Arizona's visit to No. 13 Stanford on Saturday certainly has inspired a mutual admiration society on both teams.

"No question this is the best defense we've played. Or will play," Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh said. "These are the best defensive ends in the conference. You could probably say by far. Even their third defensive end [D'Aundre Reed] would start on any other Pac-10 team but Arizona."

Added Luck, "They are a tough bunch -- those numbers don't lie. They are extremely well-coached, extremely physical, they've got a great set of defensive ends. It's definitely going to be our toughest challenge so far."

Not to be outdone, Arizona coach Mike Stoops found plenty to like about Harbaugh's offense.

"The creativity of Jim is what makes his offense very unique -- the way they move and create formations is the biggest thing," Stoops said.

Of course, if you were to pick two coaches who are mostly likely to claw out the eyes of an opponent, Stoops and Harbaugh would probably be you first choices in the Pac-10. Both are fiery. Both love physical football. And both know that the winner of this game will remain in the Rose Bowl race and likely will land in a comfortable spot in the nation's top-10.

Last year, these teams put on a barn burner, and suffice it to say neither defense felt terribly good about itself. They combined for nearly 1,200 yards -- both Luck and Arizona's Nick Foles passed for more than 400 yards -- and the Wildcats rallied from a nine-point fourth-quarter deficit to win 43-38 in Tucson.

One of the reasons the Wildcats defense struggled was Brooks Reed only saw a couple of plays due to a high-ankle sprain that mostly killed his season. He watched most of the action helplessly from the sidelines.

"I remember us stopping their running game, which is surprising because they had Toby [Gerhart] back there," he said. "But then they threw all over us. They killed us in the air."

Gerhart rushed for 123 yards and two touchdowns, but that was well off his season average. Luck completed 21-of-35 for 423 yards with three touchdowns and an interception. Foles, who has missed the past two games with a dislocated knee cap but is expected to play Saturday, completed 40-of-51 for 415 yards with three touchdowns and no picks.

"We both really lit up the scoreboard," said Luck, who added he didn't expect the same point production on Saturday.

The Wildcats had almost no running game the entire night, but two long, fourth-quarter touchdown runs -- Greg Nwoko for 43 yards and Nic Grigsby for 57 yards on a third-and-12 play -- were the difference.

The first matchup is the ground game. Even without Gerhart, the Cardinal is averaging 223.8 yards rushing per game. Arizona is yielding just 88.4.

Reed said he expects Stanford to "come out heavy" and try to test the Wildcats interior defense with power running plays.

"They move so many guys around," Reed said. "They have all sorts of motions, where they try to get guys out of gaps. Once they do that you are screwed. They got some big old-linemen and they like those heavy sets. It will be a challenge to get everyone on the right page."

And, of course, once a defense is worried about the run, Luck goes over the top. Luck ranks 10th in the nation in passing efficiency, but he's probably the nation's most accurate downfield passer, which is why NFL scouts click their heels together while watching his game film.

"We've got to make sure we don't overreact to the run," Stoops said.

One more thing to worry about: Luck is an outstanding athlete who is a run threat himself, see his 51-yard touchdown run at Washington last weekend on a zone-read play. That athleticism and an outstanding line is why Stanford has surrendered just three sacks this year, which is tied for second fewest in the nation.

Meanwhile, Arizona ranks fifth in the country with 3.38 sacks per game. Something must give in that head-to-head. Reed admitted that Luck isn't easy to touch.

"When they pass, they like to max protect, and they like play action," he said. "So it's hard for D-linemen to get a pass rush."

The key for Arizona will be at least getting a stalemate at the line of scrimmage -- as it did last year -- while giving Luck a variety of looks and pressures, while still maintaining rush lanes and spying on Luck if he opts to take off.

That won't be easy.

On the other side of the ball, the Wildcats are pretty good on offense -- their 453.4 yards per game ranks 19th in the country -- and Stanford is vastly improved on defense, ranking third in the Pac-10 in total and scoring defense.

But the money matchup is Luck versus the Wildcats D.