TUCSON, Ariz. — It took seven games last year, but Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez got what he called “probably the most complete game we played” from the Wildcats in an impressive rout of Washington a season ago.
Now, can he get a repeat performance?
Technically, Arizona would need 500-plus yards in total offense, a defensive performance that would turn out to be its best of the season, three-plus turnovers and, in general, complete domination. Last year’s game, a 52-17 blowout in Tucson, featured Arizona’s largest margin of victory over Washington in series history.
“It’s a different year and a different team, (but) we’re not going up there to play close,” Rodriguez said. “We’re trying to win a game.”
A win would put Arizona at 4-0 for the first time since 2010. But first things first.
In order to beat Washington, Arizona must contain Washington, and to do that, the Wildcats must get to Huskies senior quarterback Keith Price and stop running back Bishop Stankey.
Last year, UA held Stankey to 87 yards on 19 carries and intercepted Price twice, with one of those — by defensive back Tra’Mayne Bondurant — coming early in the game when Arizona led just 10-3. Washington finished with three total turnovers.
“They caused us to get out of sync a little bit,” said coach Steve Sarkisian, whose 16th-ranked Huskies are now 3-0. “They did a good job to get the lead.”
Arizona not only got the lead early but held it for the rest of the game, going into halftime with a 31-17 advantage before pulling away.
Doing that again would help a lot Saturday afternoon at raucous Husky Stadium. But as linebacker Sir Thomas Jackson said, the Wildcats also must unnerve Price enough so that he’s not comfortable in his backfield.
He’s the head of this Washington offense; stop him and you have a good chance.
“We need to get him rattled in the pocket and get him to scramble so we can force him to turn over the ball,” said Jackson. “SWAT helps out the defense a lot.”
Easier said than done. Rodriguez said he’s not sure Price can really be rattled now that he’s a seasoned veteran. For the Arizona defense on Saturday, it’ll be as much about not losing patience as about making plays.
“Keith Price will make plays on schedule, but he will make the unscheduled ones, too,” Rodriguez said, adding, “You have to limit the big plays.”
That’s where the SWAT defense comes in. SWAT is the term the Wildcats use for their third-down defensive packages. So far, it’s drawn raves from the coaching staff for the job it’s done getting opposing offenses off the field, and it’ll have to continue that trend against the Huskies, who are ranked third nationally in third-down efficiency. Rodriguez said one of the keys for Arizona in this game will be getting Washington into third-and-long situations, making it easier to “dictate the personnel instead of them dictating the personnel to us.”
How does Arizona’s more athletic SWAT team match up against Washington’s improved up-tempo offense?
“We will find out,” Rodriguez said. “We’re still kind of a work in progress. It’s been good at times and not as good at times. We’re getting more athletic bodies on the field when we need it, particularly third-and-long stuff.”
While the Wildcats played a nearly perfect game against the Huskies last year, it appears that Arizona is better equipped to handle Washington’s speed and personnel on offense this year. A defense that was deemed feeble and vulnerable for much of last season has, at the very least, been able and willing so far this year. The unit has been more active, aggressive and confident, Rodriguez said.
“We’ve come a long way, but at the same time, we have a long way to go,” said senior linebacker Jake Fischer, Arizona’s defensive leader. “Another year in the system has been huge because we know what to expect.
“Their offense has gotten a lot better, but our unit has gotten a lot better, too. Last year they had trouble protecting their quarterback, but this year they have a ton of experience and an explosive running game.”
Stopping both will be a challenge unlike what Arizona has faced in three relatively easy wins this season. But the Wildcats did it last year, and if they can do it again — albeit in a much tougher atmosphere — a 4-0 start beckons. Follow Steve Rivera on Twitter