It’s time for our weekly look at UW’s opponent, asking five questions — and getting five answers — from a beat writer who covers the other team.
So here we go, with my questions and Gimino’s answers on the Wildcats:
Question 1: What is the general perception of Arizona’s season so far after three wins and a top 25 ranking and now three losses to begin Pac-12 play?
Answer 1: Arizona is playing better than it should be, but its record isn’t as good as it could be, which has led to some mixed emotions. Certainly, a 3-3 record at the halfway point of the season is about what anyone could have reasonably expected. The week 2 win over Oklahoma State launched the Wildcats into national relevance for a couple of weeks, but the early conference schedule has been too arduous — at Oregon, Oregon State, at Stanford. A lot of Pac-12 teams would be 0-3 against that slate. That the Wildcats competed well against all three (even Oregon, despite the 49-0 final) is only a small comfort, though, because of squandered chances to beat the Beavers and Cardinals late in the game. That probably created a bit of a glass-half-empty feeling about the 3-3 record, but that’s really where Arizona should be, given its modest overall talent level, lack of depth and increasing injury woes.
Q2: What are some of the biggest changes Rich Rodriguez has made to the program and how has he been received?
A2: What hasn’t he changed? He’s changed the offensive scheme, the defensive scheme, the way the team works out in the weight room, the way they practice … everything. The most fundamental change is tempo. Everything is fast, from practice to games. RichRod does not like standing still, ever. He loves to tell the story of the first practice of spring, when players were too tired at the halfway point of the drills to walk to the sidelines to get popsicles as a reward. The translation to games is that UA’s no-huddle offense is running 90.5 plays per game, second most in the nation. Judging by how the team has played, the players have bought in to the changes, and Rodriguez, while bemoaning lack of size, speed and depth, has rarely seriously challenged his team’s effort this fall. As for as the public reception, I think fans recognize Rodriguez as an upgrade at coach, although this is mostly a wait-and-see town when it comes to attendance.
Q3: Has the play of quarterback Matt Scott (in an Associated Press picture above) been a surprise, and what have been some other keys to the success of Arizona’s offense so far?
A3: It’s not a surprise that Scott is a really good quarterback with multiple skills, but no one could have predicted Arizona’s emphasis on the pass. Rodriguez ran the ball two-thirds of the time as the head coach at West Virginia and Michigan, but he always said his read-option offense is adaptable to whatever he needs. He’s proving that this season, passing 57 percent of the time. It’s not that Scott can’t handle the quarterback-run game, but he’s been a bit banged up and coaches came into the season wanting to limit the amount of hits he took. There haven’t been enough big plays down the field, but Arizona churns out more first downs per game (32.2) than anyone in the nation, using running back Ka’Deem Carey and a deep receiving corps to pick its way down field.
Q4: What have been the major issues with the defense?
A4: The No. 1 thing likely is a lack of a pass rush. This was a huge problem last season and it has carried over through the switch to coordinator Jeff Casteel’s 3-3-5 scheme. That Arizona is using fullback Taimi Tutogi as a third-down pass-rushing end tells you about the team’s lack of ability to pressure the passer. This unit is more apt to blitz than the defenses of Mike Stoops, but the blitzes haven’t been terribly effective either. Arizona, which averages just one sack per game, even gave Stanford quarterback Josh Nunes all the time he needed to become Pac-12 Player of the Week. Look for Spur safety Tra’Mayne Bondurant and outside linebacker Marquis Flowers; they are put in position to make plays in the backfield. Overall, this is just a small, thin unit that has tended to get gassed late in games.
Q5: Arizona had a bye last week. Will that help much in returning any injured or banged-up players?
A5: It looks like it will help with a couple of guys, but maybe not as much as Rodriguez would have hoped. He said 13 starters missed practice last week. Arizona will release its official injury report Thursday afternoon (read that here), and expect a lot of “questionables.” We might not get really good answers to the injury questions until pregame warm-ups, if then.