TUCSON, Ariz. — Quarterback Nick Foles left Arizona to become a Philadelphia Eagle. Wide receiver Juron Criner and running back Keola Antolin have also moved on.
But now in Tucson are Rich Rodriguez and his potent spread offense.
Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said multiple times heading into the season that the 2012 Cowboys have the best defense he's had since becoming the program's head coach. And Saturday night's contest against Arizona in Tucson should provide an early gauge to see just how reliable the No. 18 Cowboys (1-0) can be on that side of the ball.
“They're smart, and they'll do what you allow them to do,” OSU acting defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer said. “If you try to take something away, they're going to get out of it, they're going to get in the right play.
“The high tempo allows them to get in the right play every snap, so that's a challenge on us to try to disguise and try to counterbalance that.”
Let's revisit the curious case of the 2011 OSU defense. Though the Cowboys led the nation with 44 takeaways, they also ranked 107th in the nation in total defense.
Now following a tune-up game — and that's putting it kindly — against Savannah State last week, the Cowboys' first real test of 2012 will come against a Wildcat offense that rolled up 624 yards against Toledo. Arizona (1-0) needed overtime to win 24-17, but the Wildcats had two touchdowns called back because of penalties and two missed chip-shot field goals, including the potential game-winner at the end of regulation.
The Wildcat offense centers around quarterback Matt Scott, a fifth-year senior who Gundy compared to Robert Griffin III during his early years at Baylor, Missouri's James Franklin or even former OSU quarterback Zac Robinson.
And Scott seems to be the perfect fit in Rodriguez's system, which became wildly successful during the coach's tenure at West Virginia with Pat White running the show. Scott has the athleticism to run the read-option. And he's got a better arm than Rodriguez expected, which was on display with Scott's 46 passes thrown against Toledo.
“He's got as good an arm as any quarterback I've ever coached,” Rodriguez said. “He's been really good in allowing us to open up our playbook from a passing standpoint.”
In facing an offense with a dual-threat quarterback, this week OSU players threw out jargon like “assignment football” and “containing” Scott. They'll also attempt to slow down sophomore running back Ka'Deem Carey, who tallied 147 yards and touchdown against Toledo, and receives Dan Buckner and Austin Hill, who both went over 100 yards.
The OSU defense held strong against Arizona the past two seasons, allowing 24 total points over two games.
But that was a different scheme, a different coaching staff and a largely different set of playmakers. And linebacker Caleb Lavey looks at Saturday's game as an opportunity to prove this defense was worthy of the preseason hype and expectations.
“We really want to show we're a good defense,” Lavey said. “We want to get some big stops.”
New Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez has installed his signature no-huddle spread offense in his first season in Tucson. And many of the Wildcats' biggest playmakers are different from the ones OSU has seen the past two seasons. Here's a look at the Wildcats' new playmakers and, perhaps, the Cowboys biggest tests:
Matt Scott, quarterback
A fifth-year senior who waited his turn behind Nick Foles, Scott has the versatile skill set to run Rodriguez's offense that needs an athletic quarterback that can run zone-read plays as well as throw. He tallied 387 passing yards and two touchdowns and 74 rushing yards on 14 carries against Toledo.
Ka'Deem Carey, running back
A highly touted local product and now the Wildcats' featured back, Carey rushed for 147 yards against Toledo. One of those was a 73-yard touchdown burst up the middle.
Dan Buckner, wide receiver
Buckner was Scott's favorite target on Saturday night, tallying 10 catches for 116 yards.
Austin Hill, wide receiver
Hill provided a highlight play against Toledo when he hauled in a 34-yard diving touchdown catch in the first half. He finished with seven catches for 139 yards.