What a difference a year makes. At this point last season, the Bruins were on their way to Tucson. Coach Neuheisel's Bruins were 3-3 and looking to contend in the Pac-12 South, while Arizona was 1-5 and were coached by interim head coach Tim Kish as the Wildcats had fired Mike Stoops the week before. Of course, we all know what happened. Arizona destroyed UCLA 48-12 in a game that wasn't even that close, which really marked the beginning of Coach Neuheisel's exit. Arizona went 2-3 the rest of the way to finish a 4-8 season. Fast forward a year and both programs are hardly recognizable.
Arizona made a big offseason splash by hiring Rich Rodriguez, but even pundits would tell you that they didn't expect Arizona's offense to perform so well this early. At 5-3, Arizona has a shot at the Pac-12 South title. Arizona is scoring over 39 ppg and has the #4 offense in the country. They gain nearly 200 ypg on the ground and over 350 ypg through the air.
Of course, RichRod's offense has never been his downfall. The Wildcat defense simply hasn't been good. They give up over 31 ppg, allowing about 167 ypg on the ground and 316 ypg through the air. As bad as those numbers are, they would be worse but for Arizona's games against FCS South Carolina St., where the Wildcats only gave up 154 total yards, and Toledo, where the defense only gave up 358. The defense has allowed over 600 yards on four occasions this year.
A few years ago, Rich Rodriguez was one of the hottest coaching names on the planet. In his seven seasons at West Virginia, he turned around a dormant program and led the Mountaineers to at 60-26 record, including 4 Big East titles and two BCS bowls. The innovative coach is credited with creating the spread option, and was lauded as somewhat of an offensive genius. Everything went south after he took the Michigan job. In three seasons he struggled to a 15-22 record, managed only 1 bowl berth, never beat Ohio St., and he lost his reputation as a great coach.
Thankfully for the Wildcats, Rodriguez didn't forget how to coach while at Michigan. He went to a situation in Ann Arbor that he probably did not understand, and he left his defensive coordinator in West Virginia. Now that Rodriguez in more relaxed Tucson, he has trusted defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel on his side. The offense is still vintage RichRod spread, but the Wildcats are passing more than RichRod usually does.
Casteel has more than 25 years of coaching experience and had great success at West Virginia. He runs a 3-3-5 defense which is particularly suited to stopping spread offenses with an emphasis on getting faster defensive backs on the field. If anyone witnessed the Oregon game, they saw Arizona hold strong for the first half before wearing down against a dominant team. As noted above, the results thus far haven't been pretty, but the defense will improve with more time in the system. Whether the light will turn on this year or not is yet to be seen, but Arizona's defense will get much better.
That concludes Part 1 of the Arizona Wildcat preview. Feel free to fire away with any additional thoughts and comments, and be sure to check back in tomorrow for Part 2 of the preview.