Wildcats soaring after win over USC

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.

Beaten up and worn down, the Wildcats recuperated during their

bye week and bounced back with resounding 52-17 win over

Washington, a team that had been ranked earlier in the season.

They followed it up with easily the biggest win so far under

Rodriguez, outlasting No. 10 Southern California 39-33 in an

offensive shootout last Saturday in Tucson.

The win improved Arizona to 5-3 overall, 2-3 in the Pac-12 and

moved them back into the rankings at No. 24. The Wildcats also

debuted in the BCS standings at No. 22 this week.

”I do think it makes us more relevant,” Rodriguez said of

beating USC. ”It should. It doesn’t make us a top 10 team – we’ve

lost three games – but it hopefully gives our guys confidence.

Hopefully, it makes recruits sit up and notice.”

It’s certainly been easy to notice what the Wildcats have done

on offense.

Snapping the ball almost as soon as the officials place it down,

Arizona has left opponents breathless, putting up more yards than

all but three teams in the country, averaging 553 per game.

Fifth-year senior Matt Scott, once brushed aside by predecessor

Nick Foles, has been dynamic in leading the Wildcats with his arm

and legs, ranking second nationally with 386 total yards per

game.

Arizona also has developed a solid run game behind hard-running

sophomore Ka’Deem Carey and its defense has done its best to fight

through a lack of depth a numerous positions.

The Wildcats also have confidence, particularly after beating

USC, and a schedule that gets a little easier after that brutal

stretch.

Arizona faces UCLA in Los Angeles on Saturday, then has

Colorado, Utah and rival Arizona State to close out the season. The

Wildcats should at least have a chance at winning all four of those

and, who knows, have a shot at winning the Pac-12 South to earn a

spot in the conference championship game.

”Our goal is to build the best program in America,” Rodriguez

said. ”We’ve got a long way to go, but the process has

started.”

And they’ve done it lot faster than anyone expected.