The Arizona football team is better than it should be, not as good as it could be.
The Wildcats — part encouraging, part frustrating, rarely boring — suffered their third consecutive loss last Saturday, leaving them at 3-3 overall at the midway point of the regular season.
Which is basically on par with preseason expectations.
Are you a glass-half-full fan?
Rich Rodriguez took over a 4-8 team that lost four NFL players, including quarterback Nick Foles, upset No. 18 Oklahoma State and, amid an injury crisis, came within a play or two of beating ranked Oregon State and Stanford. With a smile from the football gods, the Cats would be 5-1.
Or are you a glass-half-empty fan?
The Wildcats are disappointing because they haven’t made a play in crunch time in the past two weeks, a leaky defense has little chance of getting better in the second half of the season, and Arizona will run out of gas before getting to bowl eligibility. Wait till next season. Or maybe 2014.
As the Wildcats sit out this weekend before resuming play against Washington on Oct. 20, let’s take stock at the season’s halftime.
QB Matt Scott — He’s been Foles-like, passing for 2,099 yards and coming off a game in which he set Pac-12 records with 45 completions and 69 pass attempts. Yeah, he’s missed some big throws, too, but he’s led a fast-paced attack that leads the Pac-12 with 553.8 yards per game. That’s possible because Arizona has a talented, senior quarterback.
Scott, who has completed 186 of 289 passes, with 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions, could end up breaking some of Foles’ school season records in the major passing categories.
S Jared Tevis — Linebacker Jake Fischer could fit here (maybe safety Tra’Mayne Bondurant, too), but Rodriguez said recently that Tevis could have been the defense’s top player in each of the first four games, so who are we to argue?
The former walk-on has missed the past game-and-a-half because of an ankle injury, but Tevis has been the kind of the savvy, chip-on-his-shoulder playmaker the coaches need to clone.
The sophomore has two interceptions, three forced fumbles and seven pass break-ups.
10 — Number of rushing touchdowns by Ka’Deem Carey. He should threaten Arizona’s 58-year-old record of 21 rushing scores, set by Art Luppino.
10.5 — Tackles for loss for Bondurant, the Spur safety. If he matches that total in the second half of the season, he’ll have the most stops behind the line of scrimmage at Arizona since defensive end Tedy Bruschi made 27.5 in the Desert Swarm defense of 1993.
21-4 — The combined record of Arizona’s five FBS opponents.
32.17 — First downs per game for Arizona, which leads the nation.
68.0 — Percentage of scores in red-zone opportunities (21 touchdowns and six field goals in 40 chances), which ranks tied for 105th nationally.
98.0 — Penalty yards per game of UA’s opponents, the most in the country.
494 — Defensive snaps played by the Wildcats, another mark that is first nationally.
TOP PLAY (OFFENSE)
We’ll call this a tie.
A couple of players this week, including Scott, picked the overtime touchdown pass to Terrence Miller against Toledo. Scott, on third-and-goal from the 10, was chased to the right sideline, nearly out of bounds, and had defensive lineman Danny Farr tugging on his jersey. Scott had just enough time, strength and moxie to fire to Miller at the goal line for the score.
That play gets additional high marks because of the circumstances, but as for dazzling, nothing beats Austin Hill’s diving 30-yard catch in the end zone against Toledo. Not a bad way to make the first score of the Rodriguez era.
TOP PLAY (DEFENSE)
No debate on this one. Jonathan McKnight’s 48-yard interception return for a touchdown with 10:24 left against Oklahoma State gave Arizona a 45-31 lead after the two-point conversion. McKnight, anticipating an early throw from Wes Lunt because of a blitz, jumped in front of a sideline pass and raced untouched into the end zone.
WHAT’S GONE RIGHT?
–Scott has been better than advertised as a passer, with Hill and Carey emerging as offensive stars.
–Arizona’s win over Oklahoma State snapped a six-game losing streak to ranked teams and put the Wildcats in the Top 25 for a couple of weeks, temporarily, at least, relevant nationally.
–Fischer and McKnight returned successfully from last year’s ACL injuries to be among the team’s best defenders.
–Rodriguez has, as he always said he would, adapted his read-option offense to suit the skills of his quarterback. The coach who typically runs the ball two-thirds of the time has an offense that is ranked fourth nationally in passing (370.8 yards per game).
Before finding success with running quarterbacks, his early version of the spread at Glenville State tilted toward the pass.
“We have a quarterback who can throw it around, and we have some receiver who can run and catch, so I’m not surprised,” said co-offensive coordinator Calvin Magee. “It’s just proof that this offense is flexible.”
WHAT’S GONE WRONG?
–Arizona lost at least nine potential starters/key contributors from spring through the first month of the season: DB Cortez Johnson (transferred to Oklahoma), S Adam Hall (torn ACL in the spring game, not expected to return to the program), LB Brian Wagner (left team), LB David Lopez (left team), LB Rob Hankins (quit football because of concussion problems), LB Greg Nwoko (hip), OL Jacob Arzouman (torn ACL), OL Jack Baucus (knee), OL Lene Maiava (torn ACL in the fourth game).
–The in-season injuries have been significant. Arizona was down five starters vs. Stanford last week: Tevis, center Kyle Quinn, guard Trace Biskin, and defensive ends Dominique Austin and Reggie Gilbert. Rodriguez said about 20 guys didn’t practice Wednesday while nursing injuries.
–Nothing has helped the pass rush. Even with the move of fullback Taimi Tutogi to a third-down pass-rushing defensive end, and more blitzing than the Mike Stoops-coached teams, Arizona is averaging a mere one sack per game.
–PK John Bonano, solid after taking over the job at midseason a year ago, has missed from 24, 25, 25, 31 and 41 yards. A dropped hold scuttled a 22-yard field goal attempt. Special teams woes have not abated after a couple of disastrous seasons.
–Arizona started no seniors on defense against Stanford, which is likely to be the case if Austin (foot) remains out with a foot injury. The Cats’ defense started five sophomores and two freshmen vs. the Cardinal.
This isn’t a 3-3-5 scheme problem. It’s a personnel problem.
The Cats are giving up 480.5 yards per game — 20 yards per game more than last season — but are giving less per play (5.8 to 6.6).
With no pass rush, little depth and injury worries, don’t expect defensive miracles from this unit in the second half of the season.
“We knew coming in, our depth issues, our lack of experience issues, our size issues, our speed issues … we knew what we had,” Rodriguez said.
“But we can play better than what we’re playing defensively. So there is some level of frustration there. … The problems that we have are fixable, but I don’t know how soon. I know we can fix it over time, but we’re trying to fix it as soon as we can.”
Rodriguez doesn’t have many personnel buttons to push, but look for walk-on receiver Johnny Jackson to get more time on offense. On defense, lineman Justin Washington returned last week after missing the first five games because of suspension and should stay in the rotation, Rodriguez said.
It might take industrial-size rolls of duct tape to hold the Cats together in the second half of the season, but if the figurative bleeding stops, Arizona has the offense to find itself competing late into games with almost everyone on the schedule.
Maybe not USC, but who knows?
The other five games are some kind of winnable. Some more, some less. Washington, Colorado and Arizona State at home. UCLA and Utah on the road.
Are there three victories among those five games that would make UA bowl eligible?
Maybe. Is the glass half full?