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Arizona Wildcats football: Passing game needs big plays to provide balance

Not quite: B.J. Denker overthrew freshman slot receiver Nate Phillips near the goal line at UNLV. Photo by Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Not quite: B.J. Denker overthrew freshman slot receiver Nate Phillips near the goal line at UNLV. Photo by Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Arizona Wildcats coach Rich Rodriguez wants a better passing game. That’s not the same thing as balance.

You hear a lot about that. Balance. Which is fine, as long as you’re not looking for the running and passing attempts to approximate each other. It’s OK to talk about if you’re not looking for the rushing and passing yards to be in the same neighborhood.

“Balance means you’re doing whatever it takes to score points,” said Arizona quarterbacks coach Rod Smith.

“If that means throwing it 70 times, you throw it 70 times. That’s balance. Balance equals scoring. It doesn’t mean 35 runs, 35 passes. Being effective at whatever you’ve got to do, that’s balance.”

The passing game is Arizona’s primary concern through a 2-0 start in which the Wildcats have failed to throw for 100 yards in either game. UA is second-to-last nationally with 84.0 passing yards per game, ahead of only triple-option Navy.

Arizona, heading into Saturday night’s game against Texas-San Antonio, has attempted 34 passes while running 74 times.

“Our strength is our run game because of our running backs and our veteran offensive line,” said quarterback B.J. Denker. “It’s easier to hand the ball off than throw it down the field.”

So, Arizona is running the ball 68.5 percent of the time.

Should that number be a concern?

Absolutely not.

It was easy to get spoiled last year when Arizona had Matt Scott at quarterback and the most “balanced” offense Rodriguez has ever had as a head coach (see chart below), but his best teams at West Virginia weren’t what you would call evenly split between the run and the pass.

–His 2007 Mountaineers, who finished 11-2 and sixth in the final AP poll, were third nationally in rushing and 114th in passing, running the ball 70.3 percent of the time.

–His 2006 team, which was 11-2 and 10th in the country, was second in the nation in rushing and 100th in passing, running on 71.7 percent of its plays.

“Everybody talks about you want to be 50-50,” Smith said.

B.J. Denker has been more effective as a runner than a passer so far. Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

B.J. Denker has been more effective as a runner than a passer so far. Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

“Nobody sits up there (in the coaches box) and says, ‘We ran it 12 times, we better throw it three more times to catch up.’”

Arizona will throw it more moving forward, if only because it doesn’t figure to be sitting on big second-half leads and merely running the ball to get to the end of the game. Opportunities could be abundant. Defenses will scheme to stop the run (if they can). When they do, that’s when the passing game needs to hit the big play.

Rodriguez talks about how when he was the offensive coordinator at Tulane in the late 1990s, quarterback Shaun King was perfect on hitting the home-run throw as the team went 12-0 in 1998.

“I don’t remember him ever, one, missing an open receiver and, two, missing a single touchdown play — where the guy is wide open and if you connect with him, it’s going to be a touchdown,” Rodriguez said.

“Shaun was 100 percent on those. And that’s very rare. Even the best of quarterbacks rarely have that kind of year. Matt was close to that last year. That is what we’ve missed in the last couple of games. We’ve had a couple touchdown throws or plays and didn’t quite connect.”

Denker, who overthrew several deep passes last week at UNLV, is the flashpoint of criticism. Fair enough. He’s the quarterback. But it’s not like he was Austin Hill (injured), David Richards (injured), Dan Buckner (graduated) or even Tyler Slavin (left team) to catch his passes.

It’s the entire passing game, with its mostly young receivers, that is out of sync, not just Denker. He’s not always getting the biggest of targets to hit.

“One time, they might run the wrong route and maybe the very next play it’s me,” Denker said. “We all have to be on the same page and have 11 guys do the right job.”

Just a few throws a game — not dozens of more passes — will make the air attack look a lot better. In other words, it will make the offense look balanced. Run until they stop it, make them pay dearly when they dare you to pass.

“When we have those big-play opportunities, we have to connect,” Rodriguez said.

* * *

Arizona’s current run-pass split is more in line with Rich Rodriguez’s totals at West Virginia. Here is a look at each of his years as a head coach, which shows how good the Cats’ attack was last season:

Year Team Plays Pass Run Run% First downs Games
2012 Arizona 1,082 538 544 50.3 381 13
2010 Michigan 941 385 556 59.0 299 13
2009 Michigan 823 329 494 60.0 235 12
2008 Michigan 791 338 453 57.3 186 12
2007 West Virginia 893 265 628 70.3 279 13
2006 West Virginia 823 233 590 71.7 273 13
2005 West Virginia 818 193 625 76.4 225 12
2004 West Virginia 849 259 590 69.5 243 12
2003 West Virginia 852 252 600 70.4 219 12
2002 West Virginia 993 279 714 71.9 281 13
2001 West Virginia 832 357 475 57.1 218 11
    9,697 3428 6269 64.6 2839 136
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