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November 18, 2012

Arizona continues run few expected



Before the first year of the Rich Rodriguez era began, many attempted to predict where Arizona would finish by the end of the season.

There was little doubt that the Wildcats had the offense to compete, as Matt Scott and Ka'Deem Carey looked like a solid 1-2 punch in the passing and running game. The faith was there, for the most part, in the offensive-minded Rodriguez and his assistants.

The outlook on defense can probably be summed up in one word: hopeless.

The Pac-12 Conference media members tabbed the Wildcats for a fourth-place finish and several predictions called for a record slightly below .500 or worse. The best-case scenarios called for six wins, maybe seven.

For the record, this writer chose the latter.

Now, with only Friday's regular-season finale against rival Arizona State remaining, Rodriguez and the 'Cats are already at win No. 7 and will play in the postseason. An eighth win is now a very real possibility and an improbable ninth is well within reach, depending on the bowl matchup.

Nobody saw this coming.

Nobody had wins written down against top-25 teams Oklahoma State AND USC at the start of the year. Sure, there were eight home games on the schedule, but a possible 7-1 run in Tucson would have likely been laughed at - and not just from up north in Tempe.

Nobody projected a 3,000-1,000-1,000-yard trio in Scott, Carey and receiver Austin Hill.

Nobody had Carey leading the nation in rushing by 21 yards with a game to play. A breakout year? Definitely. A record-breaking campaign? Hardly. That may be one awkward Doak Walker Award presentation in New York if Carey - who has 1,585 rushing yards and counting, but is not a semifinalist - becomes Arizona's first player to win the rushing title in 57 years.

Carey is now just 18 yards shy of breaking the school's single-season rushing record set in 1999 by Trung Canidate, who already watched his single-game record surpassed by Carey. Three more rushing touchdowns also will break Art Luppino's 58-year school mark.

Nobody figured Hill would emerge in this fashion. Heck, most of the general public expected a run-heavy attack from a staff that once ran the ball 70 percent of the time in one season at West Virginia. So, excuse me if I refuse to believe that anyone had the sophomore pegged for 68 catches, 1,119 receiving yards and eight touchdowns.

Oh, by the way, add Biletnikoff Award semifinalist to that list, too.

Nobody knew Scott would run the system this fluidly. The coaches were aware in the spring that the fifth-year senior had a better grasp in Year 1 than any of their previous signal callers did while adjusting to the system. Sure, Scott had previous high school experience running the zone read, but the conditioning level needed to properly execute the offense was unlike any other.

Yet, here he is, sitting at 3,008 passing yards and 21 touchdowns. On the ground, Scott has collected 443 yards and five more scores, putting him among the nation's top 10 in total offense.

Nobody expected this thin defense to withstand enough lumps to come up with timely stops. Is the unit very good? Not really, but there is no questioning its resiliency despite posting the seventh-worst total defense numbers in the country.

Instead of losing games because of the unit, the Wildcats have found a way to pull out games in spite of the performance - and, when needed most, the defense has found a way to come through against offenses that dare UA to prove it can get a stop. Defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel has not exactly performed a miracle, but a group heavy on freshmen and walk-ons has been all ears, all season.

Nobody - not even RichRod - could have expected this type of year, and it's not over. But, now, Rodriguez has secured at least a winning record, which will make him the first Arizona head coach since Jim Young in 1973 to finish with a mark above .500 in his first season. Throw away the Michigan debacle, Rodriguez has quieted all of his critics.

Young's Wildcats went on to post an 8-3 record, and Rodriguez's troops have an opportunity to do one better.

Nobody saw that coming.

Tracy McDannaldTracy McDannald
GOAZCATS.com Senior Editor

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