Each week, I’ll check in with the beat writer who covers Oklahoma State’s opponent to get some perspective on the game from the other side.
Anthony Gimino covers Arizona for the Tucson Citizen. Here’s our exchange:
Gina Mizell: How much has the start of the Rich Rodriguez era revitalized this Arizona fan base?
Anthony Gimino: Rich Rodriguez is a different kind of cat than former coach Mike Stoops, at ease in all the offseason functions and press-the-flesh opportunities. Rodriguez can really work a room with his storytelling ability and, as he might say himself, his hillbilly charm. So, in that sense, he is connecting with fans and stirring up enthusiasm in ways Stoops didn’t.
Rodriguez has been slow-playing expectations, though, and he has a far more-patient fan base here than he did at Michigan. While there is optimism that the longer-term future at Arizona looks bright, as Rodriguez builds off Stoops’ foundation, initial excitement is somewhat tempered by the realization that there are no shortcuts when putting in new schemes on both sides of the ball and giving the roster an overhaul.
GM: It seems like Matt Scott is the perfect guy to run this offense. What makes him so effective as a dual-threat quarterback? What about the playmakers around him? Keola Antolin and Juron Criner are gone, but it seems like Ka’Deem Carey and Austin Hill and Dan Buckner are ready to take a step forward.
AG: Rodriguez’s read-option offense is a perfect fit for Scott, who ran a version of this attack in high school and has allowed Arizona to move quickly along the learning curve, something that didn’t happen in Rodriguez’s first year at Michigan because he didn’t have the right quarterbacks. Having been trained in a passing spread for the past four years, Scott is a better passer than the typical Rodriguez quarterback. Rodriguez, through his stops at West Virginia and Michigan, ran the ball two-thirds of the time. The split at Arizona will be more 50-50, and it actually skewed toward the pass in the opener.
There are several good skill players on offense, including sophomore RB Ka’Deem Carey, a local kid who was the gem of Stoops’ 2011 recruiting class. He’s a tough runner who is definitely fast enough. Backup Daniel Jenkins is shifty and a potential big-play back, too. The receiving corps has been remade from what Oklahoma State has seen in the past couple of seasons, with Dan Buckner and Terrence Miller each providing 6-4 targets on the outside. Austin Hill is the guy who had a big game vs. the Cowboys last season in Juron Criner’s absence, and he opened with 139 receiving yards this season in an expanded role. Slot receiver Richard Morrison will be trying to shake off a rough game in which he dropped a touchdown pass and lost a fumble.
GM: How can the Wildcats’ 3-3-5 defense attack OSU’s up-tempo spread? I know it’s a different coaching staff/scheme, but does it help at all that some of these players were used to facing a similar system with Nick Foles running the offense the past couple seasons?
AG: The 3-3-5 of coordinator Jeff Casteel is more of an attacking scheme than what Stoops used at Arizona. The hallmark of this defense is being able to blitz from all angles and positions, giving the offense that split second of pause in their blocking assignments. Problem is, the Cats probably need to blitz to have any chance of getting pressure on Wes Lunt and potentially rattling the true freshman. Arizona doesn’t have a dynamic pass rusher in its three-man front and is using fullback Taimi Tutogi as a third-down end off the edge. That’s a great story of a legit two-way player, but it also says volumes about the team’s lack of a pass rush.
Casteel turned up the heat on Toledo in the second half, holding the Rockets to three points after halftime in the overtime win. The defense held up well despite being on the field for 94 plays against Toledo’s no-huddle. With a smallish defense featuring a lot of “hybrid” athletes, Arizona matches up well schematically against spread teams. Stopping power runs could be a different story.
GM: What’s the matchup to watch in this game, in your mind? And what will be the biggest key for Arizona to pull off the upset?
AG: It’s probably a crutch to fall back on quarterback play, but Arizona’s best chance for an upset is to press its advantage at that position. Matt Scott, who didn’t play in the previous two meetings against Oklahoma State, passed for 387 yards last week and left maybe another 100 yards on the field by missing wide-open receivers down field. Mostly, though, he made good run-pass decisions in the read-option offense, and that has to continue against OSU’s turnover-creating defense. If UA turns the ball over three times as it did last week, Arizona will have little chance … unless it can hound Wes Lunt into as many, or more, mistakes. How will Lunt respond if he gets smacked early by a blitz? Does anyone really know?
GM: The Wildcats have come up several huge home victories over highly ranked opponents over the past 7-8 years. Granted, those were all with Mike Stoops as the coach, but what makes the road environment at Arizona tough?
AG: Arizona Stadium can rock, thanks to the 10,000 students right behind the UA bench. Problem is, about half of them often leave at halftime to pursue over Saturday night activities — which is what happened last weekend against Toledo. Playing a ranked opponent could lead to a different story, but the Wildcats have to give the students reason to stay, and that means not falling behind early as they did in the previous two meetings against the Cowboys. If Arizona is hanging around in the second half, the 50,000 or so at the stadium will get very, very loud — another potential difficulty for Lunt.