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September 25, 2013
UTSA is a program on the rise, but in just its third season of competition. Northern Arizona is a playoff contender and ranked in the top 25 of the Championship Subdivision - but still FCS. And UNLV, well?at least it's an entertaining basketball rivalry.
Arizona entered its first bye of the 2013 season 3-0, a record compiled against not exactly the most daunting of schedules. It's a far cry from last season, when UA opened with Toledo and Oklahoma State, both of which were coming off bowl seasons and headed to the postseason again in 2012.
Saturday's return from a bye week and introduction to Pac-12 Conference play should reveal just how much UA progressed in its initial stretch, and provide an outlook for the rest of the 2013.
"You find out more when you get into conference play, always," head coach Rich Rodriguez said on Tuesday's Pac-12 coaches teleconference.
While the early slate was far from challenging - UA only trailed for a few minutes, 3-0 in Week 3 against UTSA, and won by an average of 38.3 points per game - the Wildcats may have benefited from the scheduling.
"I think we were ready to play a league game the first week," Rodriguez said.
Nevertheless, the initial stretch provided ample tune-up time.
A quarter of the way through its slate and halfway to bowl eligibility, UA looked like a better team on Sept. 14 than it did on Aug. 30.Though this roster was among the most veteran corps of returning starters in the Pac-12 entering the season, it still had numerous positions to get up to speed.
Rodriguez said at Pac-12 media day that linebacker depth was a concern throughout 2012, forcing standouts Jake Fischer and Marquis Flowers to play almost entire games. In a conference where opponents frequently run hurry-up offenses predicated on 80-90 snaps, that's an unreasonable workload.
Freshman Scooby Wright's emergence to help carry the burden manifested immediately in Week 1, and Wright grew up quickly through UA's 3-0 start. The first-year player out of Santa Rosa (Calif.) Cardinal Newman is atop the Wildcat stat book in tackles and tackles for loss.
Wright is part of a freshman class that Rodriguez called "more mature than their years."
The first stretch of the schedule afforded those newcomers the opportunity to play significant numbers of downs. Never was youth more prevalent than in the receiving corps, a unit Rodriguez said before the season was a primary area of concern.
Indeed, the youth and lack of a clear, big-play target like Austin Hill hindered quarterback B.J. Denker in the passing game. The inexperience both of Denker and his receivers was readily apparent against NAU and UNLV, but by the UTSA game his rhythm greatly improved.
"[The passing game has] gotten a whole better in the last three weeks," Rodriguez said. "We've worked harder on that than anything else we've done offensively."
How much the passing attack has progressed should reveal itself early against an outstanding Washington defense. Since bringing on Justin Wilcox as defensive coordinator before the 2012 season, the Huskies went from the cellar to atop the Pac-12 in several defensive categories.
To complement the defense, head coach Steve Sarkisian introduced a hurry-up, no-huddle element to the offense that has UW scoring 42.7 points per game.
Running back Bishop Sankey and third-year starting quarterback Keith Price head the newly uptempo offense expertly. Sankey led the nation in rushing through UW's first two games, and only fell out of the lead because he was limited to four carries against Idaho State.
All Sankey did with those opportunities was produce 19.3 yards on average.
The Huskies are a measuring stick for a UA defense that struggled mightily in 2012, but showed strides in the early going. Sarkisian recognized the early improvements, citing the play of Flowers, Fischer and Tevin Hood specifically.
"They're a veteran group," Sarkisian said. "Second year in the system, I think they're understanding exactly what those coaches are asking them to do."
Rodriguez confirmed Sarkisian's outside perspective, emphasizing the importance of another season - not to mention three additional games - getting the defenders up to speed.
"The confidence brewing in the second year in the system?and frankly, the chip on their shoulder," Rodriguez said. "They're playing with a lot more confidence than a year ago."
Saturday could either rattle that newly gained confidence, or justify it.