Saturday evening, Rich Rodriguez’s Wildcats will open up their season in Arizona, though early indications are they won’t exactly be playing a home game.
Arizona is facing BYU at University of Phoenix Stadium, and with the game less than one week away, reports are Cougars fans have dominated the ticket window.
Rodriguez, as a guest of Doug and Wolf on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM, said he’s heard those reports, but is hopeful his school will be well represented at kickoff.
“It’s great that we’ve got a bunch of alumni up in the Valley; obviously it’s a pretty easy drive from Tucson,” he said. “So we’re certainly hopeful that this week that we’ll ratchet it up a little bit and outsell the Cougars, so to speak, in the stands.
“I think it will be a great atmosphere and it’s going to be a great game for us. They’re very talented, have got a great quarterback. So it will be a big challenge, a lot of fun.”
This will not be the first time the Wildcats have played a game in the sparkling Glendale venue, as in 2014 they took on Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl at UofP Stadium. Arizona lost that game, and though Rodriguez originally felt like there would be a bit of a homefield advantage in this game, he is excited to begin the season on national TV in a building that is regarded as one of the best in football.
As for what kind of team the Wildcats will be fielding when the game kicks off at 7:30 p.m. is anyone’s guess. Arizona won seven games last season, but overhauled its defensive coaching staff and is featuring a collection of new starters on both sides of the ball.
The official depth chart leading into the game does not list a clear starter at quarterback, running back, kicker and punter, and though there are favorites for each of the jobs, until the game begins no one can be sure of who will play.
Of course, the position decision under the most scrutiny is quarterback, where redshirt junior Anu Solomon has been competing with redshirt sophomore Brandon Dawkins.
Solomon entered camp as the favorite and presumably still is, but Dawkins did enough to keep his name in the conversation.
“Well we kickoff at 7:30, at 7:29 we’ll know for sure,” Rodriguez said. “You know, I think we have two starters. Anu Solomon, we know he’s a proven guy and I think he’s had a really good camp. Brandon Dawkins has gotten better. Right now, we’re leaning to play them both because I think we’ve got two starters. But they’ve got a couple more practices to seal the deal.”
As for the changes on the defensive staff, Rodriguez said the team’s scheme will not change as much as people might think — or even hope. Last season Arizona was 10th in the Pac-12 in allowing 35.8 points per game, while they surrendered 466.9 yards per contest.
Where Rodriguez believes the additions of Marcel Yates, Donte Williams and Jahmile Addae to the staff will help is in teaching as well as the program’s ability to recruit.
“That’s one thing I’ve seen, our whole staff has been a little more aggressive in the last six or seven months recruiting-wise, it’s paid off and I think you’ll see the results in the next year or two,” he said. “But the enthusiasm is there defensively; I think they’re a younger group overall — our players have responded well — and certainly the biggest test is going to be during the games.”
Rodriguez acknowledged there will be some growing pains, but is confident the players have been taught good fundamentals and that there is a new energy on the defensive side of the ball.
After facing BYU Saturday, the Wildcats will have games against Grambling State, Hawaii and Washington in Tucson before traveling for games at UCLA and Utah.
They will host USC on Oct. 15 before getting a week off in advance of an Oct. 29 home date with Stanford. The Wildcats then finish up with a road game at Washington State, a home game against Colorado, a trip to Oregon State and then a date with rival Arizona State in Tucson.
Does Rodriguez like the slate?
“Yeah, certainly from the standpoint that we’ve got a bye, which is good,” he said. “We won’t have another schedule without a bye for, I guess, 12 years, so I guess that’s a good thing, so the next coach will have to deal with that one.”
The last line was said with a laugh, and then the fifth-year coach continued by pointing out how the Pac-12 is filled with tough teams, many of whom show up early in the schedule.
“So we’ll have to stay healthy, but at least we do have a bye right around midseason, which is probably going to be a good time to get it to get healthy, because we’re still not deep like we want to be and we’re still kind of crossing our fingers that the guys can stay healthy, but things happen,” he said. “And we’ve tried to develop that depth, and we’re going to force ourselves early in the season to play a lot of guys to get ready for the Pac-12 schedule.”
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