Thanks to the Pac-12 schedule rotation, its been 3 years since the Oregon State has played Arizona, or been to Tucson for that matter, so the 'Cats are a relative unknown to the Beavers. At least its not like the SEC rotation, where it can be 12 years between visits to a cross-divisional opponent.
The Beavers are as big an unknown to 'Cat fans as well.
BTD: Arizona went from being the defending Pac-12 South champion to last place in the division in 8 days, and even if the ‘Cats win out, they will need help to get back to the Conference Championship game. What has that done to the mindset of the team? And how about the fanbase?
David: I'm not sure the mindset of the team has been that affected by the performance thus far. I think a lot of things have gone against them, and Rich Rodriguez did not build up unreasonable expectations the same way a certain coach in Tempe did before the season.
The fan base, though, has gotten a little ornery. I don't think it's necessarily because we've lost games - UCLA and Stanford are both very good teams and there's no shame in dropping those games. The problem is how Arizona has lost those games, as they've been blown out in back-to-back weeks. I've personally hit the panic button already and just hope we can scrape together bowl eligibility, which is by no means certain at this point.
BTD: Anu Solomon is back as the starter, after missing last week's game at Stanford with a concussion. Based on practice this week, is he back to 100%? Will Arizona turn him loose fully? Or rein him in a little to try to keep him healthy?
David: I don't know if he's all the way back to 100%, but Rich Rodriguez said that he has looked good, which is about as much as you can possibly get Rich Rod to say about injuries. I think they'll turn him loose fully, but for Anu Solomon, "turn him loose fully" is mostly completing intermediate and short passes and occasionally using his quickness to buy time in the pocket or scramble for a little bit of yardage. I don't expect that Rich Rod will change the game plan at all on the basis of Anu's concussion.
BTD: Nick Wilson was having a real big year, but was pretty well shut down by Stanford. Not coincidentally, he couldn't come up with any big gains against the Cardinal, with an 8 yard run being his longest, after topping 20, 30, and even 40 yards on a single play in every previous Arizona game this season. Does he need to hit the big play at some point for the ‘Cats' offense to really click? Where do his big plays come from, and what tactic best takes him away?
David: Nick Wilson is a great running back, but the best way to help him out is to give him some support in the passing game. Against Stanford, Wilson couldn't get free because Stanford knew that he was Arizona's only option offensively given Jerrard Randall's struggles in the passing game. On the year, Wilson has averaged 6.5 yards per carry with Anu Solomon at quarterback and 4.4 yards per carry with Jerrard Randall at quarterback.
Because Anu is more of a threat to pass, Wilson has more space to run, and that's where he can generate those long runs. He couldn't do that against Stanford, but I think he'll be a lot better on Saturday with Anu under center.
BTD: In light of these 2 losses, both of which were lopsided (26 & 38 points), there's been a lot of heat directed at Coach Rich Rodriguez's 3-3-5 defense. In fairness, the absence of Scooby Wright had something to do with it, and would have no matter what alignment the ‘Cats preferred. And against UCLA, it appeared some of the significant plays came against more of a 3-4-4 alignment.
But at the same time, when Arizona has problems with defense, it tends to be big problems, in terms of the opponents' production, compared to what the ‘Cats give up when its working. Do you consider this defense to be a high risk, high reward (when it works, its been very effective) system? Is it capable of producing a championship, or was it a means to an end (some wins produces better recruiting) that will need to give way to something else in order for Arizona to reach the next level?
David: In my mind, the 3-3-5 is a useful defense because it gives you a lot of opportunities for turnovers and it is effective at stopping the spread. In that respect, it is a high risk/high reward defense, as you are often relying on your playmakers to get interceptions or force fumbles and turn the ball over. Some of Arizona's best players in the 3-3-5 (Tra'Mayne Bondurant, for example) excelled at forcing those turnovers. However, when you're not getting those turnovers, there's a chance that the other team will be able to move the ball at will.
With regard to whether it can produce a championship, I think a team running the 3-3-5 could win a championship. Rich Rodriguez's West Virginia teams, after all, got awfully close to the national championship game running that defense. I don't think it's a means to an end, but I think it's what Rich Rodriguez sees as the best chance for success in Tucson.
BTD: Will Arizona come hard after Oregon State's freshman quarterback Seth Collins early and often? Or will they set back at all, forcing Collins and the Beavers to sustain long, tiring drives in the heat?
David: I don't think Arizona will send much pressure at Collins. Jeff Casteel doesn't blitz often, and Arizona's defensive line and linebackers have had trouble getting to the quarterback so far this season. I think that they're more likely to dare Collins to make throws and hope they can turn him over.
BTD: Arizona has 4 receivers whose' numbers are really quite close to each other in David Richards, Cayleb Jones, Johnny Jackson and Nate Phillips. Are they really similar threats? Or are there marked differences in them that will require covering different individuals differently enough to force an opponent like Oregon State to tailor their defense and coverages to which receiver is where?
David: They aren't all similar threats. Richards and Jones are both big - 6'4" and 6'3", respectively - and tend to operate on the outside. Jones is probably the most talented of the bunch, too, though he has been a little disappointing so far this year. Jackson and Phillips, meanwhile, are smaller and are more likely to be stationed in the slot, though they'll move Phillips around a little. I don't think any of them, though, have established themselves as such huge threats that you should let them dictate coverage.
It is worth noting that Arizona will likely have Tyrell Johnson back this week. Johnson's injury is a big reason why Johnny Jackson has seen so many snaps so far this season, and I think Johnson will take some snaps away from Jackson this week.
BTD: Coach Rodriguez's offense is another product of an aggressive approach that has had the same track record; i.e. big success or big blowups. I'm not sure he could have gotten Arizona as far as he has with any other approach, but again, should he remain committed to this philosophical approach? Or adjust it somewhat in recognition of the fact that the ‘Cats are in a better position in terms of recruiting and resources than they once were?
David: I think Arizona should stay the course. Sure, this year hasn't gone great, but Rich Rodriguez's philosophy is a large part of who he is, and I don't think you can mess with that without materially affecting his success on the field. Rich Rodriguez somehow got Arizona to the Fiesta Bowl last year, and even if it means that we occasionally have some rough patches, I'll take the bad with the good.
BTD: It's been 3 years since the Beavers were in Tucson, or have played the ‘Cats. Who and what has changed we should know about, but may not have heard of given the attention Solomon and Wright have gotten?
David: I mean, let's start with the most important thing that is totally not related to the Wildcats at all: downtown Tucson has gotten pretty awesome. Since Oregon State last came down to the desert, more and more restaurants and bars have opened up in the downtown area, and it's a great place to hang out after the game. If you're an Oregon State fan coming down to Tucson for the game, I can't recommend the downtown area highly enough.
With regard to the team itself, I think the two guys to watch out for in this game are DaVonte' Neal and Will Parks. When these teams players in 2012, Neal was not on the roster back while Parks was backing up Jared Tevis at safety. Neal is a cornerback who played wide receiver last year, but has probably been the team's most consistent corner this season. He does a good job in coverage and, more importantly, lays the wood on defenders in the run game. Unfortunately, he's questionable with a hamstring injury going into this game, but he's a guy to watch out for if he plays.
Will Parks, on the other hand, was widely considered Arizona's second best defensive player coming into this season. He hasn't necessarily lived up to those lofty expectations, though, and hasn't made the impact in the same way that Arizona safeties in past years (Tra'Mayne Bondurant and Jared Tevis, for example) have. Still, Parks is immensely talented and this is a game where he could break out. Neal (if he plays) and Parks are the two guys I'd look out for beyond Wilson and Solomon.
Thanks, David! Always helpful to have some insights into the upcoming opponent from those who see them first hand all the time!
Be sure to check the Desert Swarm for up to the minutes updates as game time approaches.