When Arizona hired Rich Rodriguez after the 2011 season to replace former coach Mike Stoops, most were aware of his talent but also his baggage. After Rodriguez earned two Big East Coach of the Year awards in his career with West Virginia and turned the program into a perennial powerhouse from 2001-07, he announced he was bolting to Michigan in December 2007 after the Mountaineers’ crushing loss to Pittsburgh eliminated them from national title contention.
During his three years at Michigan, Rodriguez registered a paltry 2-7 record against the Wolverines’ chief in-season rivals Michigan State, Notre Dame and Ohio State. Compounding these on-field woes, he came under fire for excessive abusive language during practice and skirting NCAA rules limiting the amount of time players can practice each week.
But Arizona’s gutsy hire is paying dividends in 2012, because Rodriguez can design an offense around speed — something Arizona features an abundance of.
“It speaks to Rich Rod and his system,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “To come in in the first year of a system and completely change a system offensively and put up what they have is really amazing.”
The eye-popping numbers validate Kiffin’s praise. Arizona’s 39.1 points per game rank second in the Pac-12. More impressively, the Wildcats’ 548.7 total yards per game place them fifth among 124 Football Bowl Subdivision teams.
Without question, the catalyst behind this offensive resurgence remains quarterback Matt Scott. After taking the unusual step of redshirting following his junior year, Scott has been a revelation as a dual threat in Rodriguez’s up-tempo, spread-style offense. On the season, Scott has thrown for 2,355 yards and 17 touchdowns, while also running 65 times for 265 yards.
“He’s a phenomenal player,” Kiffin said of Scott. “I didn’t realize he’s as fast as he is — accurate, arm-strength. He’s playing great, doing an unbelievable job with the system.”
One player on the interior defensive line who will be tasked with disrupting Scott’s zone reads is USC freshman defensive tackle Leonard Williams, who learned earlier this week that he would not earn further Pac-12 discipline for his ejection during last Saturday’s game against Colorado.
“I’ve talked to a few people that said they would probably try to do that to me now,” Williams said when asked if future opponents might try to bait him into taking penalties. “But I just won’t let that happen again.”
Williams’ ability to start provides a boost for USC’s defense, which relies heavily on the freshman standout’s penchant for wreaking havoc on opposing offensive lines, as Williams has already registered 5.5 sacks.
On offense, after a stellar aerial assault against an outclassed Colorado pass defense, USC will likely exhibit more balance between the run and the pass against Arizona, especially as a way to control the clock and rest its defense against a Wildcat offense that plays at a fast pace.
“Last weekend was Matt and Woody’s weekend and something I’m really proud to be a part of,” junior running back Silas Redd said, “but I’m definitely happy to run the ball more [this Saturday].”
As prolific as the Wildcats have been on offense, their defense has been porous, surrendering 30.4 points per game (85th in the FBS) and, more distressingly, allowing 291.1 passing yards per game (11th in the Pac-12). Yet the Wildcats will provide a challenge the Trojans have yet to face: a 3-3-5 defense (three defensive linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs) — something Kiffin admits he has never seen at any level.
Redd, who played minimal snaps against Colorado and gained 13 yards on only three carries, indicated Arizona’s 3-3-5 provides an opportunity to run.
“They play a 3-3 (three defensive linemen, three linebackers), so the box is open a little bit,” Redd said.
Barkley also appeared unfazed by the unconventional formation.
“We’ve faced a lot of odd teams this year, so it’s nothing different,” Barkley said. “It’s actually fairly simple what they do, but they play fast. Because they play simple, they play fast and play downhill.”
With the Wildcats’ 52-17 shellacking of Washington last Saturday at home, the Trojans acknowledge this might be their most daunting challenge thus far.
“This is one of the best teams we’ve played this season up until this point,” Barkley said. “From now on, it’s like the playoffs and you can’t lose to any of these teams we’re playing.”
The game will be televised nationally on ESPN2 and ABC.