Arizona figures to have a better season than ASU in all but the tailgating category.
After a brief hiatus, the Gekko File is getting pulled with a focus on this year's expected #4 finisher in the Pac 12 South: the Arizona Wildcats. Long known as a basketball school to the rest of the country, the Arizona Wildcats have established a recent history of putting high flying offenses onto the field that have featured aerial shows the likes of which the Pac 12 has not consistently seen. In fact, dating pack to 2007, the Wildcats have finished in the top 3 in Pac 12 passing offense, three times ranking as the #1 passing team in the conference. Over that period of time, no other Pac 12 team has come close to the total number of passes thrown as a team when normalized for games played. The air is thin in Tuscon, and they've taken advantage. But, there is a new regime in town. Rich Rodriguez assumes responsibility from Mike Stoops and brings with him a much different offensive philosophy - one that smells more like Chip Kelly than Mike Leach and, you know, that just stinks.
So, let's take a look at the file on the Arizona Wildcats, after the jump.
Before I rattle off all of the stats, it needs to be understood and acknowledged that the Arizona Wildcats are a team that finished 4-8 in the Pac 12 South in 2011. They played a season in which their head coach, Mike Stoops, was fired midway through the season after a string of five straight losses following their opening weekend win over Northern Arizona. It is important to note, however, that it is unlikely that Stoops lost his job because of those five straight losses. After all, the schedule during that time was brutal as it included teams that all finished the season highly ranked: Oklahoma St, Stanford, USC, Oregon. The only stinker in that five game stretch was Oregon State. In fact, by the time Arizona got around to losing their "winnable games", an interim head coach was already in place.
Despite the 4-8 record, Arizona led the Pac 12 in passing offense. In their scheme, the Wildcats use a lot of short passing routes and bubble screens as an extension of the running game in order to generate offense. And, generate offense they did. Nick Foles led the Pac 12 in total offense despite having negative rushing yards for the season. He passed for over 4300 yards and accounted for 28 TDs passing. Unfortunately, he also accounted for 14 interceptions and his 7 yards per play average, while good, was still less than other Pac 12 stalwarts including Andrew Luck, LaMichael James and, yes, Keith Price. This was a true dink-and-dunk offense that, when paired with an ineffectual defense, led to some pretty ugly games. The second game of the season was an eye opener for anyone who saw OKST disassemble them. The blowout versus Oregon was laughable. The loss to Oregon St was just about unforgivable and was the straw that broke the Stoops era back. The blowout loss to Colorado was unspeakable.
Obviously, offense wasn't the weakness of this team. Despite Mike Stoops' history as a defensive guy, Arizona put up one of the all time worst defensive efforts of any team in the modern Pac 12 era. Long gone are the days of the Desert Swarm. UA finished the season last in total defense and, amazingly, recorded just 10 sacks all season. Their red zone performance was better than only Colorado and they surrendered TDs on 70% of all trips inside the 20 yard line. Injuries were certainly a part of this story: Hall, LB Jake Fischer, DT Willie Mobley and DB Jonathon McKnight all missed considerable time. Still, this is a unit that was severely outgunned and was collectively the worst Defense in the Pac 12.
There were some good moments for the Wildcats in 2011 - moments that gave the season some meaning and set the stage for 2012. First and foremost, they preserved Matt Scott's redshirt - a remarkable accomplishment given the hotseat nature of Stoops' position. They also had some pretty interesting games. They took USC the distance in LA. They beat UCLA in the first game of the short Tim Kish era. They beat rival Arizona State in a Territory Cup thriller that saw backup QB Bryson Bierne throw a game winning 23 yard TD pass on his only attempt of the night. Finally, they ended the season with a new coaching hire and a sense of optimism going into 2012.
2011 Rewind: Arizona @ UW
In a lot of ways, Arizona's season looked like UW's. They played a tough non-conference schedule and they got beaten pretty big by the elite of the Pac 12. Where they differed was in their ability to win the games against the middle of the Pac. Where UW won them all, UA seemed to lose them all. Never was this as evident than on that October night where Chris Polk re-wrote the record books and led the Huskies to a 42-31 win over the Wildcats. In this game, War Daddy became the first UW player to ever record a 100 yards receiving and a 100 yards rushing in a single game while scoring five TDs. And, UW needed all of it. This game was a back and forth affair all night. It was a 1 point game at the half and a tie game going into the fourth quarter. Keith Price had an off night throwing for three picks versus one TD, but Polk's monster night was enough to offset 388 yards of Foles offense in the victory. The UW Defense also had a role in preserving this win. Despite the passing yardage surrendered, the bend don't break philosophy resulted in two first half UA field goals on drives that got deep penetration. The failure of UA to convert these scores into TDs was the difference in the game and effectively ended any hope Arizona had of putting together a run for bowl eligibility. In that way, UW also assured that Tim Kish would not get a chance at permanently earning the Head Coach position and opened the door for the Rich Rod era to begin.
There is optimism in Tuscon. Rich Rodriguez, despite his failures at Michigan, is a high quality, innovative football coach. He has a mastery in X's and O's that will help his hide some talent deficiencies and he has access to quality coaching across his staff. He also has the luxury of bringing in an experienced multi-threat Senior QB in Matt Scott. Husky fans are very familiar with the damage that Scott can wield having experienced it first-hand in 2010. There are also 12 returning starters including a man-child WR in SR Dan Buckner. Also on that list is dynamic true sophomore RB Ka'Deem Carey who figures to flourish in the RichRod system as a feature back.
Despite this optimism, there are still a lot of questions. The offense that RIchRod is bringing in is completely different than the spread run by the previous regime. It will rely much more heavily on a rushing attack that will be without the now departed Keola Atolin. Also gone are three rotational wide receivers including all-conference Juron Kriner. On the Defensive side of the ball, DC Jeff Casteel will have to adjust to very foreign Pac 12 offenses while implementing a brand new 3-3-5 defensive scheme. He has to do so without the services of defensive leader Adam Hall who suffered a second ACL injury and is out for 2012. In the end, there are far too many questions to answer and, I fear, that they will all be answered the hard way as Arizona looks to hit the reset button on the direction of their program.
- By the ASU game, their second to last game in a non-bowl eligible season, QB Nick Foles had already broken UA records for single season pass completions, pass attempts and pass yardage - records all held by his predecessor, Willie Tuitama.
- As a team, Arizona rushed for just over 1100 total yards. This is over 800 yards fewer than rushing yards surrendered - a difference of about 40%
- Despite a horrible defensive squad, UA did put a player on the Pac 12 second team defense. Senior CB Trevin Wade had a great season with 52 tackles, 2 interceptions and 13 passes defensed
- The Wildcats return all five starting offensive linemen in 2012
- While Matt Scott is a clear #1, the back up QB situation is far from settled in Tuscon. Nick Foles and Bryson Bierne both graduated and the two other QBs on the roster from last season, freshman Daxx Garman and junior Tom Savage, both transferred after RichRod was hired. The current backup, Richard Morrison, is primarily a receiver
- The Wildcats had three players drafted: Nick Foles (3rd Round, Eagles), Juron Criner (5th Round, Raiders) and Trevin Wade (7th Round, Browns). Other players signed as UDFA include WR David Douglas, WR Gino Crump, S Robert Golden and, my favorite, LB Paul Vassallo
- JR FB Taimi Tutogi is the brother of Husky LB Thomas Tutogi - he scored 4 TDs last season primarily as a goal line specialist
- For those of you that were wondering what happened to Tim Kish, he ended up at Oklahoma as a LB Coach working for Mike Stoops
Despite my doom and gloom, Arizona has some good opportunities in 2012. I'm a fan of Matt Scott and I think he's going to do some damage for Rich Rod. Who wouldn't want a senior QB with experience and the tools to run a specialized offense? Rich Rod and Scott, by themselves, are enough to pull out two wins that might not otherwise be there. In addition, the Wildcat schedule works is heavy with home games, despite the presence of some tough out of conference competition. Their three non-conference games are Toledo, OK State, and South Carolina State all at home. Their Pac 12 schedule gives them home field advantage in games that they figure they'll have a chance at including Washington, Arizona State, Colorado and Oregon State. Their key road games are trips to Oregon, Stanford and UCLA. On the down side, they figure to miss a couple of winnable teams in Cal and WSU (too bad we'll miss Leach vs Rich Rod).
The UW game is on October 20th in Tuscon. I worry about this game because it is on the road and it comes just as UW finishes a significant gauntlet of competition. On the plus side for UW, I like the fact that we'll be battle tested with some significant road games and we will have a significant advantage in overall experience on the field. On the down side, there is a higher chance that we'll be more beat up than UA and, let's face it, Matt Scott is very confident in going up against the purple and gold. I see this game as a bit of a toss-up, not unlike our previous matchups against UA but I'm going to call it for UW for no other reason than we'll likely have to have it for our post-season aspirations to stay alive.