TUCSON, Ariz. — If Saturday night’s game was a test for Arizona, it was one the Wildcats passed with flying colors.
The 38-13 victory over Texas-San Antonio — a team that at least briefly made things interesting last week in a loss to No. 12 Oklahoma State — was referred to afterward by coach Rich Rodriguez as a “businesslike” win, one that was never in doubt.
The Cats did it with:
— Quarterback B.J. Denker running for 90 yards and two touchdowns on an efficient and productive 10 carries.
— Denker passing for 158 passing yards and a touchdown.
— The defense coming to life after UTSA drove the field for a field goal on the game’s first possession.
— The running game racking up 264 yards, with Ka’Deem Carey getting 128 of those and two touchdowns.
Of course, it was all of the above that allowed the Wildcats to pull away — again. Arizona has now outscored its opponents 131-26 in three games this season.
“We didn’t execute well all of the time, but I thought we played well enough in spurts to get a nice win,” Rodriguez said.
The level of competition will ramp up significantly in two weeks, when Arizona comes off a bye to visit Washington in its first Pac-12 game of the season. But until then, the Cats can spend a week basking in their second consecutive 3-0 start under Rodriguez.
While there might not be much to take away from wins over Northern Arizona, UNLV and UTSA, “it is what it is,” Rodriguez said. The relatively forgiving early stretch of schedule was certainly good for Arizona’s mostly young team to establish an identity and answer some of its questions prior to the start of Pac-12 play.
And, as Rodriguez pointed out, wins are wins.
“You gotta play, and everyone saw the scores the last couple of weeks … the lines are blurred between major and mid-major and blurred between FBS and FCS,” Rodriguez said. “… You have to get guys ready to play.”
The Wildcats were, and they’ve now won 11 of Rodriguez’s 16 games as coach.
UTSA looked like it might make a game of it early, moving down the field with relative ease on its first possession for a 34-yard field goal.
Arizona took over from there, scoring on a 13-yard touchdown pass from Denker to freshman Samajie Grant with 6:14 left in the first quarter. After a quick stop, the Cats scored again, and then again — they put it in the end zone on their first three possessions and four of their first five. From there, the
rout was on.
So what did Arizona learn in this one?
Rodriguez said he kept the starters in for an extra series to try to sharpen some things; he used the words “clean up” more than once.
“There were times when we were whiffing and missing blocks up front,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve got some things to clean up on the offensive line. … Our identity, or whatever you want to call it, is pretty much established. Now we just have to get better at executing and know we have pretty good challenges coming up.”
Coming out of the bye week, four of Arizona next five games are on the road. But have the Cats really established an identity? They always play fast, of course, and the defense is improved. The running game will be the crutch on offense. But as for just how much the defense has improved and how much the passing game will contribute, those are questions that remain unanswered.
One thing that is certain, though, is that after being suspended for the season opener, Carey has quickly found his stride.
“We are out there balling,” Carey said. “I mean, B.J. is getting quick and we are making plays, and our defense is out there stopping and playing football and getting turnovers. I’m starting to get it rolling. I’m getting the cobwebs off of me.”
Same for Denker, who has progressed noticeably each week. He’s come a long way since the beginning of August, when there was much uncertainty as to who would be the Cats’ starting quarterback.
“We’re getting more confidence in him,” Rodriguez said. “I see it as much in practice … the execution has gotten better in practice, and the challenge will be getting better in games.”
How does Denker feel he’s progressing?
“I feel like I’m doing most of the things right, (but) 3-0, and that’s the biggest thing for me,” Denker said. “That’s the most important.”
While Denker deferred to the team’s success, it all started Saturday night with Denker’s quick passes, smart reads and impressive runs. The senior had a 35-yard touchdown run in the first quarter to make it 14-3 and went on to have a career night.
There’s little doubt who is running the offense now.
“I’ve always felt this was my team, whether I was the starter or not,” said Denker. “That’s the mindset you have to have as the quarterback — you have to be the leader of the team. It comes with the position. I’m not playing the game every game to see if I’m going to stay the starter.
“Obviously my play is getting better, and that has happened every game in the season. This bye week is going to be huge for me and huge (for everyone). We’re going to exploit some of the matchups.”