Squeaking past the MAC was something of a theme for BCS conference teams on Saturday, as our friends at Hustle Belt examined. Arizona's 24-17 overtime defeat of Toledo put the Wildcats in company with Iowa (18-17 over Northern Illinois), Florida (27-14 over Bowling Green) and Illinois (held off Western Michigan's second half surge)
That's no consolation prize. Toledo went 9-4 last season and should be in the thick of the MAC title race once again, but comparing the Rockets to what UA will see weekly from the Pac-12 -- or next week against Oklahoma State -- is stacking up apples to oranges.
The Wildcats should have won by multiple scores, which could be a cause both for either comfort or concern, depending on if you are an optimist or pessimist -- which opinion makes you a realist will play out over the season's course.
UA's defense showed a night-and-day difference from 2011. Coordinator Jeff Casteel was going to need someone unexpected to step up for the 3-3-5 stack to have any chance at success, and he got in Jared Tevis. Tevis is a uniquely skilled player to man the Bandit, obviously relishing the roving duties. Mike Stoops' staff couldn't find a place for him, but thankfully for UA, Casteel could.
Jake Fischer played like the leader the defense needs him to be, Marquis Flowers seemed well adjusted to his new linebacker role, and Tra'Mayne Bondurant leveled some devastating hits out of the Spur. The Wildcats also brought pressure into the backfield, a seemingly non-existent proposition a season ago. It was a promising showing, the most notable exception coming when Shaquille Richardson was badly burned on a long, second quarter touchdown. Memories of 2011 came swirling back with that one.
The defensive evolution is promising for the Wildcats' long-term goals. Keep in mind that UT was a team that scored 42.2 points per game last season; UA held the Rockets 25 points below that in more than four quarters, and -- perhaps more impressively -- without a touchdown for the entire second half. Locker room adjustments proved critical and a credit to Casteel. UA locked up the Rockets on third downs, which it struggled to do in the first half. Adjustments have hardly been a given in recent years.
In racking up over 600 yards on offense, UA showed it is well acclimated to Rich Rodriguez's zone-read option. The way in which the Wildcats moved the ball on UT was also noteworthy: quarterback Matt Scott passed 46 times for 387 yards, a positively Foles'ian line and a deviation from the typical Rodriguez offensive approach.
Speaking of Scott, he was a decided positive. He looked every bit as good as advertised in the new system, knowing when to tuck the ball to rush, and doing so effectively when he did. His passing was accurate and spread around the roster. Austin Hill and Dan Buckner showed signs of becoming a formidable one-two combination a la Juron Criner and David Douglas. Scott also showed veteran savvy in every decision save the late interception. Otherwise, he didn't force passes.
Scott talked of incorporating elements of the old offense in the new, and that proved true with Scott's 46 pass attempts. Such a balance should make UA difficult to defend if the running game continues progressing. Ka'Deem Carey was excellent, but Daniel Jenkins will need to improve hitting holes to give the zone-read the variation it needs to flourish. Aside from one long run negated by penalty, Jenkins was a non-factor.
On penalties, the flags were flying with more regularity than at a vintage Oakland Raiders game. UA was penalized seven times for 56 yards -- seemingly low totals, but they must be evaluated in the context of when the flags came. Two rushing touchdowns were called back, and a goal line stand in the second quarter was wiped out by a personal foul. These are similar problems to those plaguing the program the last few years.
There were countless missed opportunities on offense -- reaching the red zone was no guarantee of points, partially due to two shanked John Bonano field goal attempts, partially due to fumbles. The Wildcats' late season collapse in 2010 was largely attributable to red zone failures. Saturday proved that these issues are deeply entrenched; Rodriguez's ability or inability to uproot them will determine how the Wildcats finish.