Arizona Wildcats Football: 5 Most Important Takeaways from September
Like eight other teams this week of college football, Arizona fell from the ranks of the unbeaten. And like most of those previously perfect squads, the fall was hard and painful.
The Wildcats were handily beaten 31-13 at Washington on Saturday, exposing weaknesses in their game that weren't completely evident in a trio of cupcake nonconference matchups.
Arizona (3-1) now heads into October looking at its second bye in three weeks, a scheduling quirk that leaves the team with a lot of time for introspection and retooling before its next contest, Oct. 10 at USC.
Here's a look at some of the most notable things that can be taken from Arizona's first month of play.
The nonconference schedule was wildly unhelpful
Hindsight being 20-20 and all, Arizona would have been better served facing a tougher nonconference schedule to better determine if it could handle the rigors of the Pac-12 schedule.
But the light preseason offerings aren't likely to change anytime soon, according to Arizona Daily Star columnist Greg Hansen:
The UA’s nonconference home opponents through 2017 are UTEP, Grambling, Nevada, UNLV, UTSA and Houston. (Arizona athletic director Greg) Byrne, who inherited part of future nonconference home schedules, said he is in the process of adding more appeal.
Arizona is required by its state Board of Regents to play Northern Arizona every other year, as it did to open this season. It's second game, a trip to UNLV, was part of a home-and-home series agreed upon long ago with its former AD, Jim Livengood, who has since left UNLV.
The Wildcats' most challenging nonconference opponent was UTSA, which wasn't saying much. The teams have a 2-for-1 series that sends Arizona to San Antonio next year and then returns the game to Tucson for 2015. UTSA is a transitional FBS program that, while slowing building talent, didn't have the experience to match up with upper-level FBS teams.
The cumulative result of Arizona's first three victories—almost no definitive answers about uncertain parts of its game, most notably the passing offense. Those lack of answers came back to haunt the Wildcats against Washington.
B.J. Denker is the best option (by default)
Through the first month of 2013, Arizona's offensive output resembles more of what you'd expect from an option-type team like Navy or Air Force than a high-flying Pac-12 team:
As a team, #ArizonaWildcats are 9th in nation in rushing offense (291.5 YPG) and 117th in passing offense (111.3 YPG).— Daniel Berk (@DSBerk) September 29, 2013
The reason of this is twofold: Arizona has one of the best running backs in the country in reigning FBS rushing champion Ka'Deem Carey. It also has a quarterback with great footwork, at least when it comes to scrambling and heading downfield.
But where the Wildcats are most lacking through the first month of the season—something that was quite evident in the blowout loss to Washington—was that it does not have the kind of quarterback it needs to compete in the Pac-12.
B.J. Denker has yet to show he can make the throws that will take pressure off Carey, who ran for 132 yards but needed a career-high 30 carries to do so against Washington. In the past he's been more of a 20-carry, 160-yard producer, breaking off big runs as a result of a passing attack that kept defenses spread out.
Denker hasn't shown that ability, and his passing efficiency (94.4) is ranked 115th out of 123 qualifying quarterbacks listed on NCAA.com.
The defense might just be pretty good
Arizona allowed more points to Washington (31) than it had to its first three opponents combined (26), so to give credit to a defensive unit right after such a performance might be misleading. But considering Washington entered the game averaging 629 yards and 43 points per game, the Wildcats held their own in limiting such a high-powered offense.
Washington gained 409 yards and 31 points, but quarterback Keith Price—and his 77 percent completion percentage—struggled most of the game.
Much of the talk during preseason practice was how improved the defense looked, though no one was certain how improved because it was going up against Arizona's rebuilding offense.
But through four games the Wildcats are allowing 335 points and 13.8 points per game, while forcing nine turnovers.
A bad passing game isn't all on the quarterback
With a depleted receiving corps, any experience is helpful. Yet Arizona's pass catchers have done B.J. Denker no favors this season; when he actually makes an accurate pass, a lot of times it's been dropped.
Fifth-year senior Terrence Miller is at the top of that troubled list. He got a fifth year to play after missing nine games due to injury last season, but in four games in 2013, he has a measly three receptions for 28 yards.
Not every quarterback throws to the numbers on every pass, so it's up to the receiver to pull in an off-target ball from time to time. That hasn't happened during the first month of the season, and with every drop the already unsure Denker becomes that much more uncertain.
There's plenty of time to make adjustments
As noted before, Arizona has a quirk in its schedule where it plays only one game between now and Oct. 19, that being a Thursday visit to USC on Oct. 10. That game took on added scrutiny with the recent firing of Lane Kiffin, a scenario eerily similar to when Arizona fired Mike Stoops during a bye week in 2010...then blitzed UCLA at home on a Thursday night.
Because Arizona's schedule is short on game action, it means there's extra time to tinker with things on the practice field. Expect a lot of different wrinkles in how Arizona operates on offense when it plays USC, changes that will have a huge bearing on whether the Wildcats are able to navigate the Pac-12 and make another bowl game.