There have been a lot of great moments of the Rich Rodriguez era since he took over as the head coach of the Arizona Wildcats. Wins the last two seasons over Oregon as well as the great come-from-behind bowl win over Nevada stand out just to name a few.
But there have been a few low moments as well which will come when playing in the Pac-12. One of those which stand out is the let down that Arizona had at home against Washington State last season.
The Wildcats were coming off of a tough home loss to UCLA with sights on a showdown with Oregon the following week quite possibly in the back of their minds. Before that game with the Ducks, Washington State came to town riding a three game losing streak. All three of which had been blowout losses.
The Wildcats started slow being down two scores in the first quarter and after taking a lead into halftime, would be outscored 14-3 in the second half and take a head scratching loss.
“We obviously got beat and there were times we did not play well,” said Rich Rodriguez about their loss to the Cougars last season. “We had an opportunity at the end and we did not tackle particularly well, but they out executed us and clearly were better than us on that day. I was a little disappointed in how we played, but I could say that about every game that we have lost. They clearly deserved to win that game.”
Fast forward to today, it’s a similar scenario where the Wildcats are coming off a close home loss to an LA school and Washington State comes into the game struggling with a 2-5 record on the season. Though the record may not reflect it, the Cougars have a very high-powered offense which has seen them score more than 30 points in four of their seven games making them second in the conference in total offense behind the Wildcats.
“They will run it just enough to keep you honest and they did against us last year,” explained Rodriguez. “They will throw the ball to any one of the guys on any part of the field; they will throw it deep, short, back or on whatever down it is. They do a really good job of running after the catch, and sometimes their throws are screens so it is just an extended run play on the perimeter. Even though it is a pass play, it is really just a run play and they do a lot of screens. If you leave your guys one-on-one in soft coverage or even in press coverage, they will throw a screen, get a good block and sometimes take it a long way.”
“Anytime we face a passing school it’s exciting to have those opportunities to get interceptions,” mentioned Arizona safety Jared Tevis. “I look at everything as an opportunity, and with a team like Washington State who throws 60 to 70 times a game, it’s just another opportunity for us to make plays and get interceptions. They’re a good squad especially since their quarterback has really improved, which is saying a lot because he had a great season last year.”
“We just have to execute our blitzes and make some more plays while helping out our secondary,” added Arizona linebacker Jake Matthews.
One of the main reasons behind the success of the Cougars offense this season comes from their quarterback Connor Halliday. He comes into the game this weekend leading the conference in passing yards (3,344), completions (292) and touchdowns (28).
“He is obviously a very talented guy and can make a lot of throws, but their wide receiver crew is really good and they know what they are doing,” stated Rodriguez. “All of the guys are valuable options whether it is four or five wide outs because the ball may go to any of them at any time. The ability to stay on the field and get rid of the ball so quickly is going to translate to the next level. That is what the NFL has become. It has become a shotgun, get rid of the ball quickly; spread you from side line to side line kind of league.”
Being teams known for offenses that move fast and run variations of the spread under Rodriguez and Mike Leach, the two are compared to one another quite often. Rodriguez makes note of the similarities but also notes some differences as well.
“There are some similarities, but the biggest difference is how we approach the run game,” states Rodriguez. “Our runs are similar, but some are different from that standpoint. Whereas they will throw the ball to set up a run and we will run the ball to set up a throw. As we’ve shown, we can throw it 70 times in a game and I’m not sure they’ve ran it 70 times in a game, but they have run it in certain games a lot more. We are different defensively and they can play us differently than anybody they have played this year.”
As mentioned, the Wildcats come into the game as the number one offense in the conference coming off their first loss of the season which came in crushing fashion to the Trojans. But a bye week last week allowed them to get a head start on the Cougars and give them a great opportunity to refocus before the first of two big road games back-to-back as they travel to the Rose Bowl on November 1st.
Though Rodriguez spent most of his time talking about the Cougars offense in his weekly press conference, their defense is still something that the Wildcats are not taking lightly seeing as they struggled to move the ball at home against them last season and also having a redshirt freshman quarterback on the road.
“They do a lot of movements, different blitzes and looks that we haven’t seen so far this year,” Rodriguez said. “It is important that we are prepared for that.”
The Cougars have the third worst passing defense in the conference to this point so Anu Solomon will look to get his great receivers involved early. The depth at that position for Arizona before the season was said to be the deepest and most talented position on their team. That has remained the case through the season and it was a big part of the of Wildcats comeback against USC in their last game as the depth and talent has worn on defensive secondaries over the course of games.
“You can definitely see it in the second half, especially in the Cal game and USC games in the fourth quarter,” said Arizona wide receiver Trey Griffey. “It was crazy for us, but it was great having guys come in with fresh legs giving other guys a breather. It helps us and the quarterback as well.”
Wildcats look to bounce back after their first loss of the year against the Cougars which will kick-off from Pullman at 3pm.