In year two under head coach Rich Rodriguez, Arizona is off to a 3-0 start, and seems to be building on top of the strong foundation that the team established last year when they finished the season with an 8-5 record and a hard-fought victory against the Nevada Wolf Pack in the New Mexico Bowl. Their offense in 2013 appears to be among the most potent in college football, ranking No. 15 in scoring (43.7 points per game) and No. 5 in rushing offense (322.33 yards per game). The elephant in the room, of course, is that those stats have been accumulated against Northern Arizona, Nevada-Las Vegas and Texas-San Antonio (i.e., college football's Moe, Larry and Curly). In short, Arizona spent the non-conference season beating up on the Little Sisters of the Poor, and we have no idea how they'll fare against greater competition. Saturday's game will be a great chance for the ‘Cats to prove against their stiffest competition to date that their performances thus far have been no mirage, just as it will afford Washington the chance to avenge one of their worst losses from 2012, a 52-17 beat down in Tucson that wasn't as close as the final score indicates. Make no mistake, neither side will be lacking for motivation in this nationally televised broadcast.
Rodriguez is known as the innovator of the spread option, run-first offense that so many teams across America have adopted to varying degrees of success. Through three games this year, he's shown no sign of changing that philosophy, having ran the ball on 150 of Arizona's 205 offensive snaps (that's 73 percent of Arizona's plays). Of course, it's a no-brainer to pound the rock when you're handing it to one of the most gashing tailbacks in all of college football in Ka'Deem Carey. (Do you know who he is? He's an All American.) Carey has apparently put his rocky offseason behind him, averaging 6.95 yards per carry on 43 touches for 299 yards four touchdowns in two games this year (he sat out the season's first game against Northern Arizona as punishment for his aforementioned off-field troubles), and figures to again be in the conversation for the Doak Walker Award. In Carey's absence, Arizona hasn't had much of a drop-off in production in funneling carries to Daniel Jenkins, who has benefited enormously from RichRod's assumption of the program's helm. This year, he's averaged 6.91 yards on 35 carries for 242 yards and a score.
Arizona's other potent rusher is quarterback B.J. Denker, whose touchdown total (five) actually currently exceeds Carey's (four). Denker is a dangerous player to get into space, having already accumulated nine rushes for more than 30 yards. While he's much more dangerous on the ground than he is through the air, don't let his stats fool you: Denker's 5.9 yards per attempt is easy to scoff at, until you realize that those kind of dink-and-dunk passes are precisely what Rodriguez dials up for whomever is playing as his quarterback. His primary target on those rare passing occasions is Garic Wharton, whose seven catches on the season leads the team(!).
Come Saturday, this game will be a test of Washington's defense and Justin Wilcox upon which the success of the 2013 season could hang. As all UW fans know, the road to the Pac-12 title game goes directly through the Oregon Ducks, whose up-tempo spread attack has given the Dawgs fits for the last decade. Washington very visibly made adjustments to its defensive personnel during the previous offseason precisely to stop the spread attacks that it struggled with so mightily in 2012, and the Arizona game will be the first indication of whether or not that experiment will be a success.
As always, thanks to College Football Statistics, ESPN and USA Today's College Football Injury Report for the relevant data that went into this article. You can follow me on Twitter by clicking below.