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Rich Rodriguez looks for Wildcats to play better as they face UTSA

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Rich Rodriguez is a hard man to please.

The third-year Arizona Wildcats head coach said his team “can play a whole lot better” than it did in its 58-13 season-opening trouncing of UNLV on Friday night.

It’s quite a statement when one considers the records, or near records, set by the Wildcats in that game:

• Their 787 yards of total offense didn’t just shatter the old program record of 691 yards set in 1969 vs. New Mexico St.; it was the highest total of any FBS team in the first week of the 2014 season.

• For the first time ever, UA had a pair of 100-yard rushers and 100-yard receivers in the same game. Senior RB Terris Jones-Grigsby (124 rushing yards) and freshman tailback Nick Wilson (104 yards) helped quell concerns about the Wildcats’ running game minus Ka’Deem Carey, while senior wide receiver Austin Hill (110 receiving yards) and sophomore WR Samajie Grant (101 yards) confirmed what we already suspected: the Wildcats are loaded at the wideout position.

• Hill’s 92-yard third-quarter touchdown reception is tied for the third-longest TD catch in UA history, and it was the longest offensive TD for the Wildcats since 2002. After missing all of 2013 with an ACL tear, Hill recorded his seventh 100-yard game in a Wildcat uniform.

• Wilson’s 85-yard TD run late in the third quarter was the fifth-longest in UA history.

• The Wildcats recorded two offensive scoring plays of at least 85 yards in one game for first time ever.

• New starting quarterback Anu Solomon’s 425 passing yards were a single-game school record for a freshman, and the eighth-highest total in UA history.

And yet…

“I thought (Solomon) played pretty well, but could play better,” Rodriguez said, adding that the freshman, who went 25-of-44 and threw four touchdowns in his collegiate debut, missed some sure TD throws and occasionally held on to the ball too long.

As for that wide receiver corps? “We’re a little deeper at that position than we had been, but we still can play better,” he said. “Some of the routes weren’t crisp. We missed some of the throws. We can certainly play a whole lot better than we did Friday night.”

To be fair, Arizona will likely have to play better in order to cruise to victory as easily on Thursday against Texas-San Antonio.

Last season, UA beat the Roadrunners 38-13 in what was essentially a warm-up home game for the Wildcats. This time, they head to San Antonio to face a team that returns 10 defensive starters who held Houston to minus-26 rushing yards and forced six turnovers in a 27-7 rout of the Cougars on Friday.

UTSA’s game began 90 minutes before UA took the field.

“I saw a little bit of it before our game,” Rodriguez said. “Right after the game, I saw the score and told the team after the game, ‘We’re going to have a tougher opponent on the road next week.’

“It’s going to be a big crowd, and it’s supposed to sell out. We’re going up against a veteran team, so it will be a tough environment. We’re going to prepare for it this week at practice.”

Loaded with seniors on both sides of the ball, Rodriguez noted that UTSA is one of the nation’s most experienced teams and best-coached squads, particularly on defense.

“UTSA does as well as anybody we play — and I’m talking about anybody we play — as far as coaching their guys on how to use their hands on their pass rush. I’m talking about slapping hands down, doing the quick spin and rip moves — they’re as good as anybody we’ve seen on film,” he said.

“UTSA doesn’t do as much (blitzing) because they can get some pressure with their (defensive lineman), and we struggled somewhat with their front last year and we got whipped a little bit, so we’ve got to do a little better job this year.”

While Solomon will be going up against a veteran defensive line on Thursday, he’ll be playing behind an experienced offensive line that has plenty of confidence in him.

Redshirt senior Mickey Baucus — one of three starting seniors on UA’s O-line — went as far as to compare Solomon’s composure to that of a former Wildcat and current starting NFL quarterback.

“He’s always been calm and collected and never gets too flustered. He had a couple of overthrows in the first half, and then he settled down and had the game he had,” he said.

“He reminds me a lot of Nick Foles because he never got too rattled when the game wasn’t going his way. I think Anu is going to be fine. He’s going to have a calm and collected attitude and he’ll do well.”

It’s safe to say that Solomon has embraced RichRod’s preferred breakneck offensive pace. Against UNLV, he engineered scoring drives of 13, 14, 38 and 40 seconds — and Arizona’s 94 offensive plays against the Rebels were more than they reeled off in any game last season.

“Anu isn’t a loud, vocal leader, but he’s still a leader by staying calm,” said sophomore wide receiver Nate Phillips, who led the Wildcats in receiving yards in 2013. “He’s able to settle everyone else down with his calm demeanor when we might be thinking things are going wrong.”

Rodriguez agreed that Solomon, who beat out three former four-star QBs to earn UA’s starting gig, earned another start following his record-breaking performance against the Rebels — even though he made it clear that he expects even more from the freshman and the rest of the offense going forward.

“The nice part about Anu is the way he kept his composure and competed, and he’s going to get a whole lot better,” Rodriguez said.

“He hasn’t hit the ceiling by far yet. There’s still a ways to go, and I’m excited about that part.”

Things to watch for

• Coming off his first-ever 100-yard receiving game, Grant may be poised for another big performance on Thursday. Last season against UTSA, Grant hauled in a team-high five receptions and 48 yards, and he scored UA’s first touchdown of the game on a 13-yard pass from quarterback B.J. Denker.

“His quickness is his best strength. It helps him match up against the taller, longer corners,” said Phillips of his fellow sophomore wideout. “He gets in and out of routes very quickly and he can set you up with anything from the top. Compared to last year, he got even stronger.”

With so many skilled Wildcat WRs requiring the attention of opposing secondaries, Grant may once again find himself open early and often against the Roadrunners.

• In 2013, Arizona was just 63rd in the FBS in third-down defense, allowing opponents to earn a first down 39.3 percent of the time. UA, which returns six starters from last year’s team, will face a Roadrunners team that was 33rd in the FBS in third-down conversions (44.9 percent) in 2013.

On Friday, the Wildcats allowed UNLV to gain a first down on just 4 of 15 attempts (26.7 percent) — but again, Rodriguez said there’s still room for improvement.

“The biggest key to holding people on third down is making it third and long. The third-and-2s, 3s and 4s are easier to convert,” he said. “One thing that UTSA does well is they don’t have a lot of third-and-long situations. They get some positive yards.

“We’ve got to try to create more negative-yardage plays. I didn’t think we did a lot of that (against UNLV).”

• Against UTSA, Rodriguez would like to see the Wildcats’ primary punt return guy, wide receiver DaVonte’ Neal, have more room to work after he gained just 19 yards on four punt returns Friday.

“I wish we blocked a little better,” he said. “Had we blocked a little bit better, I think he maybe could’ve hit a couple creases because he’s a talented guy.”

• Some good news on special teams: new starting placekicker Casey Skowron’s 16 points on Friday, including a 49-yard field goal in the third quarter, tied a single-game school record for points by a kicker, and seven of his 11 kickoffs went for touchbacks. Can the junior keep it up this week in a hostile environment?

• Again, the Wildcats aren’t likely to find as much room to run on Thursday as they did in their 48-carry, 353-yard effort against UNLV. Last season, the Roadrunners were 34th in the FBS in rushing yards allowed per game (143.1). Thursday’s contest will provide more insight into whether Jones-Grigsby, who is listed as questionable with an ankle injury, and/or Wilson are the real deal at tailback.

• Wildcat safety William Parks will try to extend his takeaway streak to three games on Thursday. The junior had a 69-yard interception return for a touchdown in UA’s AdvoCare V100 Bowl win over Boston College in the final game of last season, and he recorded a 14-yard INT return on the first play of the fourth quarter against UNLV. It was the only turnover of the game for either team.

• Sophomore linebacker Scooby Wright quickly became one of the Wildcats’ enforcers with 83 tackles and 9.5 tackles for a loss in his freshman season. Wright, who had a team-high eight tackles and UA’s only sack against UNLV, will be counted on to get pressure on UTSA senior QB Tucker Carter, a first-year starter who was an efficient 15-of-24 with no interceptions against Houston.

• Rich Rodriguez will try to improve to a perfect 10-0 in non-conference play as Wildcat head coach.