Arizona is one Pac-12 victory away from exceeding the amount it had during Rich Rodriguez’s first two seasons as coach, but he’s attempting to deflect the attention from wins and losses to how much the program has grown since he took over.
The 17th-ranked Wildcats will need at least a couple more victories for a shot at the conference title game, though, as they prepare to host Washington on Saturday.
Rodriguez has brought Arizona (7-2, 4-2) to back-to-back bowl games after consecutive 8-5, 4-5 records. The Wildcats haven’t won at least five conference games since 2009, and two more victories would give them nine overall for the first time since the 1998 team finished 12-1.
“Ultimately you’re judged by wins and losses – whether that’s fair or unfair,” said Rodriguez, who inherited a team that went 4-8 in 2011. “But I can tell you I saw a turnaround with this program from Day 1 of our first spring practice (in 2012).”
Arizona seemed primed to be a darkhorse national title contender after upsetting then-No. 2 Oregon 31-24 on the road Oct. 2, but it has gone 2-2 since. Rodriguez’s focus now is on winning the South Division and an opportunity to play in the Pac-12 title game, where a rematch with the Ducks potentially awaits.
The Wildcats trail Southern California and UCLA by one-half game and division leader Arizona State by a full game. They lost to the Trojans on Oct. 11 and UCLA on Nov. 1, and they’ll host the Sun Devils in the season finale Nov. 28.
“This is where there’s so much still at stake, particularly in our conference,” Rodriguez said. ”Every game you win now you kind of climb up the bowl ladder. Certainly we’re in a spot, as are a couple of other teams in the Pac-12 South, that it’s all going to be settled here in the next few weeks.”
Redshirt freshman Anu Solomon threw for four touchdowns and added a season-best 115 yards on the ground in last week’s 38-20 win over Colorado in a surprisingly tight game.
The Wildcats forced a season-best four turnovers, including an interception by safety Jared Tevis.
“That’s something we try to focus on every week,” Tevis said. “Our mentality has matured. Everybody’s just trying to get after the ball and that pays off when there’s 11 guys doing that.”
Arizona will try for another solid effort against a Washington offense that could have a much different look.
Shaq Thompson has averaged 7.2 yards per carry over the last three after rushing for 100 in last week’s 44-30 loss to UCLA, but the defense struggled as the Huskies (6-4, 2-4) lost for the third time in four games.
Thompson also is a solid linebacker, though, and coach Chris Petersen believes his team will be better suited with Thompson returning to the defensive side of the ball.
”We’re getting our running backs going a little bit, so we’re maybe able to balance (Thompson) back over (at linebacker) a little bit more,” Petersen said.
If Thompson does see time at running back, Arizona will be prepared.
“He’s obviously an athletic kid being able to play both sides of the ball,” Tevis said. “He’s a tough runner, hard runner and we’ll need to get as many people to the ball as possible and make him pay for being on the offensive side.”
Washington ranks seventh in the Pac-12 in total defense and has allowed an average of 452.5 yards over its last four. It lost top cornerback Marcus Peters, widely considered a first-round draft pick, when he was dismissed from the team last Thursday after numerous run-ins with the coaching staff.
Sophomore John Ross, the Huskies’ leading receiver with 371 yards and four touchdowns, will get the start at cornerback after playing there most of last week. Ross also ran a kickoff back 100 yards for a touchdown.
”I think we’d like to see what he can do over there at the corner position,” Petersen said. ”It’s hard to really split reps, especially when a guy’s new and young to a position.”
The Huskies also received news that defensive end Hau’oli Kikaha will be ready to go after suffering a stinger in the first quarter last week. Kikaha leads the nation with 16 1/2 sacks.
Washington has lost three straight road meetings with Arizona but won last year’s matchup 31-13 at home.