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Arizona Wildcats not who we thought they were

WSU will look to end its opponent's three-game winning streak

Redshirt+senior+quarterback+Luke+Falk+slides+for+a+first+down+in+a+game+against+University+of+Colorado%2C+Boulder%2C+on+Saturday.+WSU+beat+the+Buffaloes+28-0.
Redshirt senior quarterback Luke Falk slides for a first down in a game against University of Colorado, Boulder, on Saturday. WSU beat the Buffaloes 28-0.

Redshirt senior quarterback Luke Falk slides for a first down in a game against University of Colorado, Boulder, on Saturday. WSU beat the Buffaloes 28-0.

CODY COTTIER | Daily Evergreen File

CODY COTTIER | Daily Evergreen File

Redshirt senior quarterback Luke Falk slides for a first down in a game against University of Colorado, Boulder, on Saturday. WSU beat the Buffaloes 28-0.

BRADEN JOHNSON, Evergreen columnist

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Arizona was projected to finish last in the Pac-12 South division in the conference’s preseason media poll.

That was back on July 26, about the same time seemingly everyone in and around Tucson was calling for the firing of fifth-year Head Coach Rich Rodriguez. How times have changed.

The Wildcats (5-2, 3-1), riding a three-game winning streak behind sophomore quarterback Khalil Tate’s 694 rushing yards, are tied for first in the Pac-12 South in the loss column. Now, Saturday’s home date with No. 15 WSU no longer stands out as the most winnable road game for the team dressed in crimson.

Aside from replacing incumbent starting quarterback Brandon Dawkins three weeks ago with Tate and the heat on Rodriguez’s coaching seat, it’s tough to find any deviations from what we can normally expect from Arizona’s offense. And yet, that’s exactly the point.

“As a coach with rare exception, unless you’re just lazy, and I don’t know hardly any lazy coaches, [fans] already got everything you’ve given,” said WSU Head Coach Mike Leach in response to questions about Rodriguez’s job security. “My opinion, you try as hard as you can and if you’re unsuccessful, screw ‘em.”

Part of the clamor around Rodriguez may have something to do with him being the fifth-highest paid head football coach in the country.

At the end of the day though, the Wildcats are led by a coach who has taken three separate teams to Bowl Championship Series or New Year’s Six bowl game appearances. Kind of hard to fathom what’s wrong with that recipe.

“I’ve known him a long time,” Leach said of Rodriguez. “I’ve actually known Rich since I was toward the end of my tenure at Valdosta State … then we became conscious of and got to know each other more and more since.”

Outside of Rodriguez, Arizona’s offense has scored at least 45 points in each of its last three wins and averaged 561 total yards of offense during this stretch. Granted, the wins have come at the expense of opponents who have combined to win just four conference games, but Tate’s play has largely pushed the Wildcats back into the conference’s top-half of teams.

Leach noted Tate’s ability to convert fade routes and floater passes to receivers who get behind the secondary as what separates him from past read option quarterbacks Rodriguez has had at Arizona. Tate just turned 19, by the way.

“He’s unique, he’s doing some crazy stuff,” said redshirt senior defensive lineman Daniel Ekuale of Tate. “He’s a fast quarterback, but that doesn’t change who we are as a defense.”

Ekuale added that Tate is faster than the run-first quarterbacks WSU has seen thus far. The Wildcats boast the top scoring and rushing offense in the Pac-12.

What does Arizona’s renaissance of sorts mean for WSU? Well, given Rodriguez’s track record and Tate’s similarities with past successful offenses of his, it really should not come as a surprise.

“The biggest difference we’ve noticed is that they play a lot harder,” redshirt junior offensive tackle Andre Dillard said. “They’ve simplified their scheme a bit in order to focus on firing off.”

With a pair of shutouts and a track record of limiting dual threat quarterbacks through its first eight games, WSU’s defensive is certainly prepared for the challenge Tate will present.

WSU’s offense is of greater curiosity in this matchup. Leach said Saturday’s 28-0 win over Colorado was played in the worst weather of his coaching career, yet something still seemed off with the Air Raid.

Granted, WSU played without leading junior wide receiver Tavares Martin Jr. in the contest, but backups Davontavean Martin and Brandon Arconado combined for two scores and nearly 100 yards receiving in relief.

I think the inconsistency in the air over the last three games has more to do with opponents taking away redshirt senior quarterback Luke Falk’s first read and applying consistent pressure off the edges.

The honest truth is that the 2017 Wildcats possess a lot of the core elements Rodriguez’s successful teams have had. In that sense, depending how you view it, Rodriguez and Arizona’s three-week revival is either a complete surprise or none at all.

For WSU, both the defense’s success and recent questions raised about the Air Raid point to a similar theme.

Is it a flash in the pan, or a growing trend?

Not sure where WSU will stand in the Pac-12 North four weeks from now or what it will look like against an intriguing Arizona squad.

But as far as the Wildcats and Rodriguez are concerned, this is about what I expected, and that’s meant in a good way.

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Arizona Wildcats not who we thought they were