Wildcats try to match Ducks' breakneck pace

BY foxsports • September 22, 2012

Necessity might be the mother of invention, but when Rich Rodriguez arrived at Glenville State College in 1990, mom was downright desperate.

"They had been shut out something like eight times the year before," Rodriguez said. "The band didn't even know how to play the fight song because they never scored."

Some viewed the Pioneers' offensive impotence as a challenge. Rodriguez saw an opportunity.

"I had always been a defensive coach before that, so I thought about what type of offense always gave me the toughest time, and it was always the two-minute drill because it limited what you could do defensively, and it was always a hectic pace," Rodriguez said.

"I was 26. I still didn't know what I didn't know and we had nothing to lose, so we figured: ‘Let's put in something different. Let's run a two-minute drill the whole game.'"

When Rodriguez's No. 22 Arizona Wildcats line up against No. 3 Oregon on Saturday in Eugene, Ore., that's pretty much what fans will see from both teams. The results of that hectic pace are apparent in the numbers.

Entering each team's Pac-12 opener, Arizona ranks fourth nationally in total offense at 604.82 yards per game. Oregon ranks seventh at 596.33 yards. In scoring offense, Oregon is fifth at 54 points a game while Arizona is 12th at 46.33 points a game.

That sort of production is nothing new for the Ducks, who first adopted a version of the spread offense during Mike Bellotti's tenure. Oregon has averaged nearly 500 yards of offense yards over the past five seasons and hasn't finished worse than 12th nationally in scoring during that span. But for Arizona, the yards, the scoring and the pace have ramped up considerably since Rodriguez was hired to replace fired coach Mike Stoops in the offseason.

"It's a lot of fun every time I go out there on the field," said Arizona dual-threat quarterback, Matt Scott, who has completed 88 of 123 passes (71.5 percent) for 995 yards, seven touchdowns and one interception, while rushing 42 times for 190 yards and two more TDs. "Obviously, we knew what coach would bring to the table because his past has been great. So far, it's been everything we thought it would be."

Arizona's offensive explosion is part of a greater trend sweeping the Pac-12 this season.

Five of the conference's teams rank among the nation's top 43 in total offense. Aside from the Wildcats and Ducks, UCLA (No. 2 nationally) tops the league at 622 yards a game, Cal is 38th at 464.67 yards per game and Arizona State is 43rd at 453.33. The conference also boasts six of the nation's top 48 scoring offenses with ASU No. 17 at 42.67 points per game; UCLA 20th at 40.67; USC in a three-way tie for 40th at 35 points; and Cal in a five-way tie for 44th at 34 points.

"This conference has been known for its great offensive players for a lot of years, but you've also got a lot of good coaches in this conference who come from offensive backgrounds," said ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell, noting the additions of Rodriguez, ASU's Todd Graham and Washington State's Mike Leach in the offseason, as well as the move of offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone from ASU to UCLA.

"Week in, week out, it creates some great matchups," Norvell said. "It's great for the fans."

This week affords one of the best of all between two clubs cut from the same cloth.

In 1999, Kelly was searching for a one-back scheme that would better suit New Hampshire's personnel when he attended a camp at Clemson. Rodriguez was the Tigers offensive coordinator, running the no-huddle, shotgun spread offense that was predicated on the quarterback's zone read.

Kelly's success using that offense at New Hampshire helped him land the offensive coordinator job at Oregon in 2007 under Bellotti, where he implemented an attack similar to what Rodriguez was doing as West Virginia's head coach.

The spread has since spread throughout the college ranks and has even seeped into the NFL, where Rodriguez said he sees more three- and four-receiver sets with the quarterback in shotgun formation than he does traditional formations.

Kelly said there are a thousand variations of the offense at this point and numerous differences between the Ducks' and Wildcats offenses -- from each club's use and number of tight ends to the receiver sets they employ.

But Kelly cautioned against anyone taking credit for this offense in the current generation.

"This game was invented a long time ago," Kelly said, asserting that Texas Christian ran an empty-backfield set in the 1950s. "Unless you were in the room with Knute Rockne and the guys back in the day, you took (offensive ideas) from somebody.

"The shotgun offense became the rage again when Tom Landry was with the Dallas Cowboys, but they were running the shotgun offense (in 1924) with the Four Horsemen. The history of this game is very cyclical, and it gets turned over and over."

Even so, Kelly acknowledges that the current incarnations are different from their predecessors and that's the point. As the game evolves, offenses evolve. And as defenses adapt to them, the offenses evolve again.

The most notable evolution of this offense is the pace at which the Ducks, Wildcats, Sun Devils and others run it.

"The pace is something that's hard to try ramp up," Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota said. "We practice it, but in the games you don't have the coaches standing right behind you saying, ‘Go, go, go!'

"You always have to be so worried about tempo and protections and getting an overview of the defense really fast. And you have to be conditioned because you run a lot plays and you do it so fast."

Given the pace of play for both teams, the offensive talent on both sidelines and the less-than dominant stature of the defense, some wags have suggested that Saturday night's meeting might be a first-team-to-100-wins game. While that might be a stretch, the past four meetings -- pre-Rodriguez -- suggest that it might require half a hundred. Oregon has won all four: 56-31, 48-29, 44-41 and 55-45.

One recent gripe about the spread offense is that it lengthens game times because there are more stoppages in between possessions. Rodriguez admits he'd prefer shorter games, but he doesn't think the move to shorten them will take hold because that would mean lost ad time and revenue for television broadcasts.

"There's a lot of a TV time to sell concessions, too," he said, laughing. "I'd much rather be done in two hours so I can get home and get to bed, because I'm getting older. But at least I can take a bathroom break at halftime. Otherwise, it would get kind of dicey."

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