There are few teams in America that need to play a football game as badly as Stanford does. After last Saturday's disheartening road loss to Washington, quarterback Josh Nunes and the Cardinal return home to Stanford Stadium where they'll take on the new-look Arizona Wildcats.
When Mike Stoops was hired away from Oklahoma in 2004, optimism was high. After all, Stoops had been the defensive coordinator under his older brother Bob for four years, and during that time the Sooners had gone 55-11, including a national championship and three Big 12 championships.
The Stoops Experiment lasted a long time in Tucson, but it was ultimately a failure. In seven and a half seasons (Stoops was fired after six games in 2011) he posted a terribly mediocre record of 41 wins and 50 losses, a far cry from what was expected.
Enter Rich Rodríguez. After being cast off by the Michigan Wolverines, Rich-Rod has landed in the desert, bringing with him his spread offense and quirky defense. Initially things looked good, espcially after the Wildcats beat #18 Oklahoma State by three touchdowns in early September. But U of A is up to their old tricks of late, having lost a 49-0 blowout to Oregon two weeks ago and a 38-35 last minute heartbreaker to Oregon State last Saturday.
After this weekend's game against Stanford, the Wildcats will be halfway through a brutal six-game stretch during which they'll face six straight ranked opponents. Washington, USC, and UCLA are still waiting, so it could be argued that Saturday's game is the most important on Arizona's schedule. A win would give them much-needed confidence as they prepare to run the rest of their gauntlet, while a loss could send them into a death spiral from which they might never recover.
So as we prepare for this pivotal game, let's take a look at what the other side is saying. For the second year in a row, Kevin Zimmerman of Arizona Desert Storm has been good enough to answer some of my questions about the current state of the Wildcats. (You can read my answers to his questions about the Cardinal right here.) Check it out, because it's great to learn -- knowledge is power!
It's kind of been an up and down season for Arizona, as they had to go to overtime to beat a team from the MAC, followed that up with an impressive win over Oklahoma State, got shellacked by Oregon two weeks after that, then lost a close one to Oregon State last Saturday. What's the current mood of the fan base? Have they fully embraced Rich Rodriguez, or is the jury still out?
There's definitely no panic right now. I think people have cooled on the expectations for this season, but there's nothing surfacing that shows people disapproving in Rodriguez. He's implemented a new culture and new schemes that appear to be working well. Mistakes on the field have done the Wildcats in in the last two games, but the effort has been there and against two pretty good teams Arizona looked competent. It's day and night from watching the Wildcats fail to execute while looking sleepy and slow toward the end of the Stoops era. Overall, the coaches have put a roster that we expected to be greatly lacking in talent in the position to win. In fact, I think we're all surprised about how much talent still remains.
Quarterback Matt Scott has put up some impressive numbers, including 403 yards passing last week against Oregon State, and leads the Pac-12 in passing yardage by a healthy margin. What are his strengths as a quarterback? Is he simply a product of Rich-Rod's high octane system, or is he a legitimate NFL prospect?
I think he hasn't had the chance to prove he can be an NFL prospect, but I wouldn't completely say he's not. Last year's coaching staff definitely believed in him, and then-quarterbacks coach Frank Scelfo would say he's an NFL prospect. Scelfo wasn't one to make that kind of stuff up, either.
And what about the running game? Rodriguez has always been known for his run-oriented spread offense. Can we expect to see that? Ka'Deem Carey has rushed for big yardage thus far, but do you expect that he'll have that same success against Stanford's front seven?
Going back to the last question a little bit, Scott is probably the most competent passer that Rich Rodriguez has had as a head coach. Arizona has been pretty even with its run-pass ratio -- I think the touchdowns are split 11-11 each way -- but they're still more pass-oriented both because the offensive line hasn't developed to help the run and because Scott has some talented receivers. RichRod keeps emphasizing that he wants to improve the run game, and Carey showed a lot of promise last week. He went for over 115 yards on 17 carries against a Beaver team that had shut down Wisconsin's Montee Ball and UCLA's Johnathan Franklin. I expect Arizona will continue trending toward more run each game even though it's probably the most pass-heavy RichRod offense yet.
Okay, here's the real concern. How good is the Arizona defense? Rodriguez has brought his 3-3-5 defense with him to the desert. That scheme failed miserably at Michigan, largely because there weren't enough big bodies to stop the power running games prevalent in the Big Ten. How's it going in Tucson? Can they expect to stand up to the size and strength of Stanford's offensive line?
Arizona hasn't faced this type of offense this season, but let's just say the defense is nowhere near as bad as last season. It lacks depth because of the talent and the 3-3-5 could appear to be implemented because of the lack of size [on the roster] more than because the lack of size on the field is due to the scheme. That latter is obviously not the case. The Wildcats are in very, very good physical shape this year -- you'd think we shouldn't notice a difference in D-1 football, but from the Stoops era we do -- and are executing. They're doing what they should and playing smart. Arizona didn't look silly on defense against Oregon despite the score, so it's easy to say this is the most surprising part of this season.
Who are the best players on Arizona's defense, and how will they attack Stanford and struggling quarterback Josh Nunes?
Middle linebacker Jake Fischer is an undersized but fierce tackling machine, and the Wildcats should be steady in the defensive backfield with cornerbacks Jonathan McKnight and Shaquille Richardson. So with those guys holding everything else down, the key against Stanford considering Arizona's struggle to pressure the quarterback will be linebacker Marquis Flowers and spur safety Tra'Mayne Bondurant. Flowers is a converted safety while Bondurant plays one of the hybrid positions in the 3-3-5, and both will be used heavily in blitz packages to hit Nunes in the backfield. Arizona's defense is obviously based on speed and confusion, and those two will be key.
Finally, how do you expect this game to play out? Who's the winner on Saturday afternoon, and what's the final score?
I really see a lot of non-analytical factors playing in Stanford's favor. It's homecoming, Stanford has had more than a week to recover from a painful loss, and I think the Wildcats could still be mentally vulnerable after two very different but very painful losses. However, I think Rich Rodriguez will at least put the team in a good position to win, and there's a chance Arizona's style could cause a few problems for Stanford. Take all that into account, and it's hard to see anyone but the better team winning on its home field. Call it a 35-21 loss for Arizona.