TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — The Rich Rodriguez desert project, by most accounts, is ahead of schedule.
Despite a thin roster and a brutal schedule, Rodriguez has led Arizona to five wins, the most recent over a top-10 opponent, putting the program on the cusp of bowl eligibility in its first season under the new coach.
The Wildcats weren't supposed to be this good this soon, but Rodriguez had an inkling they might have some resiliency when he and the coaching staff pushed them during spring practice.
"We had a new coaching staff and were teaching a new system, and just tested them a little bit mentally to see whether they would respond or go in a shell," Rodriguez said. "We were hard on them about all the things you're supposed to teach and develop and to see how they react. I saw that early in the spring that these guys do want to get better and they're trying to take to the coaching and system. I saw that in the spring and see that now in the fall."
This first season under Rodriguez was supposed to be a foundation-setter with a sharp learning curve.
The transition to a new coach often takes time and it figured to take a little longer with Rodriguez's non-stop, no-huddle offense and 3-3-5 defense, schemes that were drastically different from what the Wildcats had been running.
Arizona's players weren't in the best of shape when Rodriguez took over, either, so the coaches had to spend extra time working on conditioning to keep up with the go-all-the-time style.
From the start of his tenure in the desert, Rodriguez tried to temper expectations, particularly when he looked at the lack of depth on his roster. Sure, he wanted to win right away, like all coaches would, but building a program takes time, sometimes a few years.
The Wildcats decided not to wait for the building process.
Charging ahead with a nearly unstoppable offense and a scrappy defense, Arizona opened the season with three straight wins to return to the AP Top 25 for the first time since November 2010.
The Wildcats faced a gauntlet of ranked team to open the Pac-12 season, losing to Oregon, Oregon State and Stanford. Arizona had a chance to win two of those, though, losing to the Beavers by three and the Cardinal in overtime.