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Arizona-Oklahoma State: Five things to watch

Joseph Randle

Joseph Randle had a big day running and receiving against Arizona last season. Photo by Richard Rowe-US PRESSWIRE

Rich Rodriguez didn’t have a breakthrough victory in his first season at West Virginia in 2001, when the Mountaineers went 3-8.

He has a chance to accelerate the pace at Arizona.

Opportunity is knocking in RichRod’s second game with the Wildcats, who take on 18th-ranked Oklahoma State at Arizona Stadium on Saturday night (7:30 p.m., Pac-12 Networks).

“I told our team there’s not a lot of people who talk about Arizona football in certain circles, and if you want to become more relevant, the best way to do it is to beat a ranked team,” Rodriguez said.

“It’s a great challenge but also a great opportunity.”

Former coach Mike Stoops was usually good for at least one upset a year, as his Cats defeated a ranked team in each of his first seven seasons. But the program lost its competitive edge late in his tenure. He ended on a 10-game losing streak against FBS opponents, including six ranked teams.

The combined score in UA’s six-game losing streak to ranked teams: 256-111.

Oklahoma State played its part in that skid, beating Arizona 36-10 in the 2010 Alamo Bowl and 37-14 last season in Stillwater.

Can the Cats turn the tables?

Here are five things to watch:

1. Turnovers
OK, we kind of covered this topic here with Arizona co-offensive coordinator Rod Smith talking about the Cowboys’ pressure and relentlessness. Oklahoma State led the nation last season with 44 takeaways. The Cowboys lead the nation in turnovers over a two-year span (78). And a three-year span (108).

That’s what we would call a trend.

Oklahoma State has many of the same good defenders back from last season’s ball-hawking team.

The secondary is one of the best in college, led by cornerbacks Brodrick Brown and Justin Gilbert, and free safety Daytawion Lowe. All of the 2011 starting linebackers are back — Alex Elkins, Caleb Lavey and Shaun Lewis.

The defensive line is deep and big, bolstered by junior college transfer defensive tackle Calvin Barnett.

Arizona’s myriad of mistakes on offense last week included three turnovers against Toledo. The Cats survived in overtime. There will no such margin of error this week.

2. Oklahoma State QB Wes Lunt
How will the true freshman react in his first road game? How tough is he going to be if Arizona gets a good lick on him early? Will he bounce back from mistakes? Lunt wasn’t tested in any way that matters last week, when he completed all 11 of his passes against Savannah State before getting an early curtain in the 84-0 rout.

“It looked easy for him, but that’s what you want from a quarterback, for them to look composed and make it look simple,” Rodriguez said. “He’s a starting quarterback for a reason.”

Lunt enrolled early and beat out junior Clint Chelf and redshirt freshman J.W. Walsh in the spring.

Said OSU coordinator Todd Monken on what to expect in Lunt’s first road game:

“I have no idea. … That is something that until you go and do it, you don’t know. You prepare and try to convince him it will be the same thing. You don’t have the crowd to pick you up. Your preparation is different. Where you stay is different. Hopefully he will be fine.”

3. Keeping it close
Oklahoma State scored on its first three drives against Arizona last season and led 21-0 early in the second quarter. In the 2010 Alamo Bowl, the Wildcats committed three first-half turnovers — including an interception that was returned for a touchdown — and fell behind 23-7.

There was very little drama in the second half of either game.

It would be interesting to see how both teams would react if forced to compete for more than 30 minutes. If this is a close game into the second half, the Zona Zoo is going to stick around and Arizona Stadium will get very, very loud.

4. “Hang in” on defense
That’s what the Wildcats did against Toledo, bending early in the game but tightening on third down after halftime. Arizona also tackled well against the Rockets; doing so against OSU is a different story.

Quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon are gone, but star running back Joseph Randle is back. The shifty junior ran for 121 yards against Arizona last season and had nine catches for 99 yards.

“We’re going to be have to surer tacklers because of the quality of their skill players, their running backs, especially,” Rodriguez said.

But that’s hardly the only concern against an OSU offense that has scored at least 31 points in 26 of the past 27 games. If the Cowboys want to take a break from their spread offense, they can use power against Arizona’s undersized 3-3-5 defense.

OSU’s offensive line averages about 310 pounds.

“They’re very big up front, so I’m sure they will come out and try to punch us, too,” Rodriguez said.

5. Kicking ‘em straight
It’s like a needle in the eye whenever Arizona misses a short kick, and John Bonano missed two last week — from 24 and 25 yards. Nobody wants to be reminded of the struggles of Alex Zendejas and Jaime Salazar in the past couple of years.

Bonano was solid last season when taking over the placekicking duties at midseason. He’s been fine in practice, Rodriguez said. No need for an intervention … yet.

“I’ve never been one to sit down and have a Dr. Phil moment with any of the players, kickers or otherwise,” Rodriguez said. “Just go work on it.”

We’ll assume the misses aren’t in Bonano’s head just yet. But he’ll need something good early to make sure he doesn’t dial up the Dr. Phil hotline at halftime.

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