The prove-it part of Arizona’s schedule begins today at Washington.
The Wildcats’ drama-free 3-0 start filled expectations while providing few clues as to how the conference season will go.
Is the defense for real? Will the passing game come around?
Here are five things to watch for today’s game (4 p.m., FOX):
Speed, speed, speed
Washington coach Steve Sarkisian, admitting to taking a cue from Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, is using “the huddle is the biggest waste of time in football” approach. The Huskies are all-the-time up-tempo, in the shotgun.
“They’re going fast. They made the commitment in the spring to go to it,” Rodriguez said. “Nothing new to us. We see it every day.”
This should be a fast-paced game with lots of possessions, although Washington has the deeper roster of skill players — quarterback Keith Price, running back Bishop Sankey, receiver Kasen Williams and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins.
Washington is third nationally with 629.0 yards per game and has the kind of balance that Arizona currently lacks.
The forecast calls for heavy rain and wind. The Huskies might be used to this kind of thing, but the Wildcats are not.
On the other hand, the conditions favor Arizona in that it could take away Washington’s edge in the passing game, as both teams could be forced into more of a ground-based approach. Ball security figures to be an even bigger factor in the slick conditions.
“If it rains, it’s going to be exciting,” Arizona running back Ka’Deem Carey said. “Everybody wants to play in the rain as a little kid.”
Rodriguez seems like a coach unfazed by external forces beyond his control. Asked early this week about the loud, raucous environment of renovated Husky Stadium, he said:
“It’s not like the old Roman days,” he said. “They’re not going to eat us, are they?”
Bill Connelly of footballoutsiders.com had an interesting analysis of the Arizona-Washington game, so we’re stealing this section about field position, and then you can click on over the full game preview:
Against UNLV, the Wildcats’ average starting field position was their 44-yard line; UNLV’s was the 25. Against UTSA, it was 35 for Arizona, 23 for the Roadrunners. As I discuss in my book Study Hall, the hidden yardage value in field position is enormous. Not only did Arizona out gain UNLV by 196 yards and UTSA by 43, but they derived 400 yards’ worth of extra advantages in those two games based simply on where they and their opponents began their drives. UNLV and UTSA combined to begin one drive beyond their own 40-yard line. It’s hard to score consistently when you’re always facing a 60-, 70-, or 80-yard field.
As long as it’s not based solely on turnovers, a field position advantage is typically rather sustainable overall. Thus far, punter Drew Riggleman has yet to allow a return in nine punts, with three fair catches, five punts downed inside the 20, and just one touchback. Arizona’s offense is consistently generating at least a first down or two, and Riggleman is preventing opposing punt returners from getting any opportunities.
Meanwhile, 14 of Jake Smith’s 24 kickoffs have gone for touchbacks, and eight opponent returns have averaged just 19.0 yards. These stats probably aren’t maintainable to this degree, but they’re a sign of a strong special teams unit overall.
Arizona has given no opponent cause to worry about its passing game, either from quarterback B.J. Denker or a young group of receivers, which lacks a go-to guy.
If this game is like UA’s first three, the Cats will see plenty of man coverage from cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Greg Ducre as the Huskies devote safeties to stopping the run game.
While UA’s passing attack is ranked just 117th nationally, there wasn’t much need for a dynamic passing game through the non-conference season. Can Denker make the tough throws down the field? Can the receivers get separation and beat press coverage?
“The feedback has been pretty positive so far,” Denker said of the reception he gets around campus. “But we’ll see what happens after this week. It will be a little more intense, whether we win or lose.”
Arizona will lean on Carey as much as it can until a defense stops him.
He has rushed for more than 100 yards in 10 of his past 11 games. He has scored a rushing touchdown in each of his past 11 games.
His opposite jersey number today, Sankey, is one of the nation’s hottest backs, too. He led the nation in rushing through three games before being limited to four carries in a rout of Idaho State last week.
Carey ran 29 times for 172 yards vs. Washington last season. Sankey went for 87 yards on 19 carries against the Cats.
“I’m excited to see him play,” Carey said of Sankey. “I like to see great backs play in person, take some style from them if I need to.”