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Arizona-Toledo: Five things to watch

Rich Rodriguez

Rich Rodriguez can wear his coaching hat tonight, unlike when he was introduced to the crowd at last year’s home finale. Photo by Chris Morrison-US PRESSWIRE

Welcome to the Rich Rodriguez era.

Excitement intersects with uncertainty tonight when the Arizona Wildcats play Toledo at Arizona Stadium (7:30 p.m.).

What are the Cats going to look like with a new head coach, new schemes on both sides of the ball, and little depth throughout the roster? When Arizona wins this season, it likely will be by shootout — and that’s exactly what we could have here tonight.

Toledo went 9-4 last season and averaged 42.2 points per game. The Rockets return both quarterbacks (see below), but they have to replace playmaking receiver/returner Eric Page, who left early for the NFL.

So, here we go …

Here are five things to watch tonight:

1. Play fast. This is the foundation of everything Rodriguez wants to do. No huddle. When the ball is spotted for the offense, he wants it snapped again within four or five seconds. “Unfortunately, we’re probably slower in the beginning than we are at the end of the season because of the familiarity of the tempo and the games and all that,” Rodriguez said. “When we’re going our fastest, we’re going as fast as the referee will let us.” As soon as one play is over, quarterback Matt Scott looks for center Kyle Quinn. “I get my depth from him,” Scott said. “I get my signal, call it to the O-line, and we’re going.” Will the Wildcats have communication issues getting the plays in as fast as they would like? Are they in the right physical condition to hold up in the fourth quarter?

2. The 3-3-5 defense. At some point later in the season, I’m sure we’ll have a more detailed breakdown about the schematics of Arizona’s new base defense. In (very) simple terms, the clearest change from the Mike Stoops-styled defense is that this will be a more aggressive, attacking unit. There is a lot of “disguise” built into the 3-3-5, especially with its two hybrid safeties being X-factors, usually playing close to the line of scrimmage, able to rush the passer, fill a gap against the run or drop into coverage. Watch for more blitzes than you have seen from Arizona lately. Coordinator Jeff Casteel will, at some point, send just about everybody during a game (except for the cornerback to the wide-side of the field).

3. Toledo’s quarterbacks. The Rockets have two talented quarterbacks — senior Austin Dantin and junior Terrance Owens — who will each see time. Dantin won a coin flip — yes, a coin flip — to win the starting nod. Look for Owens to come in for the second drive. As a team, Toledo completed 68.5 percent of its passes last season, with 34 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Said Rodriguez: “(Owens) is probably a little more dangerous, running it and doing some of those things. Dantin is probably a little more dangerous in the pocket.”

4. Ka’Deem Carey. Arizona’s sophomore running back seems to be on the verge of stardom, taking over the starting role in a read-option offense that emphasizes the run. “Ka’Deem’s been great,” Rodriguez said earlier this week. “He’s pretty sharp in what we’re doing offensively. He’s ready to go.” Carey has the ability and opportunity to be only the second 1,000-yard rusher at Arizona since 2001 (Nic Grigsby had 1,153 in 2008).

5. The Run-pass mix. The prediction here is that Rodriguez will pass the ball more this season than he ever did as the head coach at West Virginia or Michigan. In that 10-year span, he ran the ball 66.5 percent of the time. Never — never — did he pass more than he ran in any season. The lowest run percentage was 57.1 in his first season with the Mountaineers. Not only is Scott a better passer than the usual Rodriguez quarterback, but the coach wants to limit his exposure in the running game in an attempt to keep him healthy for a full season. I’m thinking a 50-50 mix between the run and pass this season, which could still be startling to fans, as the Cats attempted to pass nearly two-thirds of the time last season.

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