SunDevilSource: Like ASU, Arizona's season hasn't gone as well as hoped. What are the main things that prevented the Wildcats from having similar success to last season?
Jason Scheer: Injuries have hurt Arizona in a major way. Center Carter Wood never played a down, (star linebacker) Scooby Wright has basically missed the whole season, Cody Ippolito tore his ACL before the season, and Derrick Turituri has been hurt pretty much all year. That’s just a few injuries, but all were going to start and three of them are linebackers. Even on offense, the injuries have been brutal, as (running back) Nick Wilson can’t stay healthy for two games, (quarterback) Anu Solomon missed some time, and the offensive line has suffered a handful of injuries as well.
Whether you want to blame the injuries or not, there’s no denying that the defense has struggled. It has been better the past few games, but this is a defense that basically allowed opposing offenses to do whatever it wanted. Washington is a good example of this, as the Huskies don’t have a great offense and just blasted Arizona.
SunDevilSource: The Wildcats really struggled against Washington and then played USC tough and beat a good Utah team. What was that recent stretch of games like and what enabled a strong response to the three game losing streak?
Scheer: That’s a good question and I don’t have a great answer. The team got blown out against Washington and came out more motivated than ever against USC. That USC game allowed Arizona to gain confidence for the first time all season and I think that was apparent against a Utah team that Arizona has beaten consistently since Rodriguez arrived. It also helps that Solomon was healthy those two games and probably played his best football of the season. You can just tell that Arizona is playing and practicing with more urgency and I don’t know if it was something that Rodriguez said, but the whole team demeanor changed after the Washington game.
SunDevilSource: What are the strengths and weaknesses of Arizona's defense from a personnel standpoint?
Scheer: The weaknesses are in the linebackers and defensive line. Again, Arizona is basically playing third and fourth string guys at linebacker because of injuries. Paul Magloire was moved to linebacker and has played great, but the middle spot is extremely important in the 3-3-5 and Arizona has played names such as Tre Tyler, Haden Gregory, and Sir Thomas Jackson in that spot. They’re playing better as of late, but it isn’t a good unit right now.
The defensive line has struggled at times despite playing well against Utah. The way this defense is designed, the line isn’t going to get a lot of numbers. The main job is to occupy offensive lineman and create push to allow other players to get at the quarterback. The line as been extremely inconsistent in that regard, but Luca Bruno and Reggie Gilbert have been playing well the last few weeks.
Right now, the best player on defense is probably Tellas Jones. Arizona moved Jones to the edge and he is easily Arizona’s best pass rusher. He isn’t great in coverage, but Jeff Casteel has been more aggressive in his play calling lately and he is basically replacing Wright in the sense that he isn’t a defensive lineman, but he is Arizona’s best pass rusher.
SunDevilSource: What challenges are presented by Arizona with the athletic Jerrard Randall at quarterback and does he have the ability to get the ball in the hands of playmakers as much as Anu Solomon?
Scheer: There aren’t many better running quarterbacks than Randall. He has improved in his ability to make reads, but his real strength is in his pure speed. He’s basically a wide receiver playing quarterback and he is a great athlete, so any time you have a player with his raw talent, there are going to be some challenges. The issue is that he simply is not a good thrower. He has the ability to make some nice throws, as shown by the game winner against Utah, but that was also his only completion in five attempts.
Arizona isn’t going to stretch the field with Randall, but it will try to get him to establish the pass just enough to get ASU to back out of the box a little bit and try to create lanes for Randall to run.
SunDevilSource. What type of game are you expecting and what's your prediction?
Scheer: I’ve learned that these games are often unpredictable. It’s going to be very difficult for Arizona to win with Randall at quarterback because Arizona State’s run defense has been solid this year and Randall simply is not a great thrower. The Wildcats have to find a way to run the ball or it is going to be a long night. My guess is that both teams are going to score more often than not and neither outcome will surprise me, but Arizona is playing its best football and I think that means something this time of season, so I will go with the Wildcats by a field goal.