Arizona’s midseason report: Mostly highs in a wild ride
TUCSON, Ariz. — Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez says he prefers not to have a bye week after a loss. He wants to get right back out there. Everybody else might welcome a break.
With a lot of good, some bad and hardly a dull moment, Arizona reached the midpoint of the regular season with a 5-1 record and a No. 16 ranking in the AP poll.
Take a breath.
"There is so much stuff that’s happened," senior wide receiver Austin Hill said. "It’s crazy that only half the season is done. We have been so crazy, stressed-out, excited and sad … we’ve gone through the emotions of a whole season and it’s half a season."
Arizona followed up the Hill Mary — arguably the greatest finish in school history — with one of its biggest wins ever (at No. 2 Oregon) and then a last-minute rally to get in position to beat USC, only to miss a 36-yard field goal.
After a 58-13 walkover in the season-opener against UNLV, the next five games were all in doubt in the final minute, decided by a touchdown or less.
"I don’t think Coach Rod likes that," Hill said. "We don’t want to give him a heart attack any time soon. I think a couple more of these games and we might lose a couple of staff members."
Here’s a look at what’s gone right, what’s gone wrong and what still might happen:
The redshirt freshman quarterback has been as good as anyone could have realistically hoped after he won a four-way battle for the job in fall camp. Solomon has completed 174 of 278 passes (62.6 percent) for 2,136 yards, with 15 touchdowns and four interceptions.
At that pace, and with a bowl game, he’ll break Nick Foles’ school record of 4,334 passing yards in a season.
"After the first game, I knew Anu was going to start clicking," Hill said. "Really, our major concern was the quarterback, and after that I knew we were going to mature very quickly, and we have. We’ve shown it."
Solomon doesn’t have the running skill of predecessors B.J. Denker and Matt Scott, but he’s capable. His accuracy should show natural improvement; overthrows have been an issue.
"At times, he’s been a little inaccurate," Rodriguez said. "But for the most part, he’s been pretty accurate, even on some of the tougher throws."
Whether it’s because of scheme or execution, Arizona and its spread offense is having trouble getting into the end zone.
It’s not as if the Wildcats lack tall targets or a veteran offensive line, but they are one of two teams in the league that fail to score a touchdown at least 50 percent of the time on red-zone trips. Stanford is the other.
Arizona has 14 touchdowns and 10 field goals in 30 red-zone trips.
And that doesn’t count the two-point conversion failure from a 2-yard line against USC. The Trojans stuffed the potential game-tying run up the middle, and Rodriguez said Solomon’s better option would have been to keep the ball with a run-pass option. In any case, another missed opportunity near the goal line.
The Wildcats tied for 86th in red-zone efficiency in Rodriguez’s first season, tied for 62nd last season and are tied for 87th this year.
Rodriguez said last year that then-freshman Scooby Wright had the look of a future all-conference linebacker. He did not say anything about Wright being so good, so quickly as to be a Sports Illustrated midseason All-American as a sophomore.
Wright picked up that honor Wednesday with a half-season of defense that ranks among the finest in school history (which is saying something). Wright has 70 tackles, including 11 for loss and six sacks … plus the "Scooby Strip" of Oregon’s Marcus Mariota that shot down the Ducks’ final drive.
Coaches don’t recruit junior college players to sit around and develop. Those prospects need to come in and contribute right away.
Arizona signed six junior college prospects in February, but is getting significant help from only one.
Cornerback Patrick Glover and linebacker Antonio Smothers, both from Scottsdale Community College, have not been able to break into the rotation, despite ample opportunity for playing time. Offensive lineman Kaige Lawrence has not been heard from on a depth-challenged unit. Quarterback Jerrard Randall showed tantalizing athletic ability in camp, but finished no better than third in the competition.
Defensive lineman Jerod Cody, from Glendale Community College, had to give up football because of concussion issues.
Nose guard Jeff Worthy started the first game but has been in and out of the lineup because of injuries. He’ll be a key player in the second half of the season if he can stay on the field.
With the team’s depth in need of a boost, this junior college class hasn’t delivered.
How to replace All-American Ka’Deem Carey? With a combination of two guys who had never had a college carry before this season — senior former walk-on Terris Jones-Grigsby and true freshman Nick Wilson.
They have combined for 147 carries for 873 yards and nine touchdowns in six games.
That looks a lot like Carey’s first six games of last season when he was basically a one-man crew: 156 carries for 920 yards and 10 TDs.
Jones-Grigsby and Wilson haven’t been healthy together all that much — and both were out in the second half against USC — but the running back position has been just fine, thank you very much.
Arizona has been outscored 84-80 in the first half but has a 145-77 edge in the second half.
"We never really have played a full game well," Hill said. "We have not shown we can put teams away."
The Wildcats scored 36 points in the fourth quarter against Cal (a school record for a quarter) and outscored USC 13-0 last Saturday (although it needed to be 15-0 or 16-0). They credit their conditioning, which they like to say is the best in the country — which makes the phrase "60 minutes of Arizona" a real thing.
"That’s the major thing we’ve gotten across to everybody," Hill said. "No matter how bad we play, if you don’t play against us for 60 minutes, we’re going to be in it at the end."
Ex-Texas Longhorn Cayleb Jones, a sophomore, has emerged as the team’s leading receiver, with 39 catches for 592 yards and six touchdowns.
Notre Dame sophomore transfer DaVonte’ Neal, slowed by injuries, hasn’t made the huge impact many expected, but he’s coming off his best game — seven catches for 65 yards and a 43-yard punt return. That portends a big second half of the season.
"It was great to get more involved in the game," Neal said after Tuesday’s practice. "That’s what I came here to do, to be a playmaker. It just felt great to be a part of the action again."
Missed tackles on Javorius Allen, red-zone squanders, an interception that wasn’t made, three missed field goals, including the 36-yarder with 17 seconds left.
"At the same time, there are positives," Hill said. "We can see how horrible we played after watching that film — how many mistakes we made and how many missed opportunities we had. And even after all that, we had a chance to kick a field goal to win the game.
Whether the league is able to produce a survivor to advance to the inaugural four-team College Football Playoff remains to be seen, with the highest hopes pinned on Oregon. But good luck finding an easy win because there isn’t one.
The Wildcats have six games left. Their first three conference games ended up being toss-ups. Let’s assume the final six are, too — at Washington State, at UCLA, vs. Colorado, vs. Washington, at Utah, vs. Arizona State.
Arizona is good enough to beat anybody on its schedule. It’s shaky enough — with a defense that ranks 88th nationally in yards allowed and an offense that doesn’t cash in at an acceptable rate — to lose to anybody.
The Cats don’t make it easy for those in the prediction business.
We’re going to split the difference. Six more toss-ups. Three wins, three losses. Arizona finishes 8-4 in the regular season. Based on what we’ve seen, more thrill rides await.