The Pac-12 South race tightened in Week 8 of the college football season. UCLA and USC, facing last-stand situations, came out swinging. The Bruins knocked out Cal; the Trojans swatted previously unbeaten Utah.
Arizona, meanwhile, didn’t stand up. It sat down.
The damage has been done. The Wildcats, unable to patch together a whole defense out of spare parts, lost 45-42 at home to Washington State, dropping UA to 5-3 overall and 2-3 in the Pac-12. Utah still leads the South at 3-1, but UCLA, USC and Arizona State are only a game behind. The Wildcats are buried.
And they have no easy answers.
Coach Rich Rodriguez’s defense gave up a school-record 514 passing yards to Washington State quarterback Luke Falk. The Wildcats were simply too young, too injury-plagued, too inexperienced to stop the Air Raid attack. Falk completed 47 of 62 passes, working the middle of the field as if it were merely a lazy summer afternoon of 7-on-7 drills.
All-American linebacker Scooby Wright has missed six full games this season, and a foot injury could mean he won’t play as a Wildcat again before leaving for the NFL. The team’s second-best linebacker, Derrick Turituri, was out again because of a hip injury. He has missed half the season and doesn’t appear close to a return.
After eight games last season, with the bulk of the production coming from Wright, they had combined for 120 tackles, including 23.5 for loss and 15 sacks. This season: 21 tackles, two for loss. The whole team has 15 sacks.
No, Arizona isn’t magically going to get better on defense in the final month of the season. The situation could very well get worse.
The Wildcats play at Washington on Saturday night (when they at least will have a fighting chance), but then they go to USC, play host to Utah and go to rival Arizona State to finish a regular season in which it will have played in 12 consecutive weeks without a bye.
After winning the Pac-12 South last season, Arizona is now in a full-out race just to get to six wins and become bowl eligible.
Rodriguez seemingly has only one move left.
He has gone to the bullpen in each of the past two weeks, and Jerrard Randall has provided a spark both times. He rallied the Wildcats to a 38-31 win at Colorado and nearly led Arizona all the way back from a 38-21 deficit on Saturday against the Cougars.
Jerrard Randall. He's got what the kids call WHEELS.
— Pac-12 Network (@Pac12Network) October 24, 2015
Rodriguez, not in a talkative mood after the game — his press conference lasted about 100 seconds — was coy, as usual, when asked about his starting quarterback moving forward. “If I did (know), I ain’t going to tell you,” he said.
But sophomore Anu Solomon, who has started 21 games, hasn’t played all that well since suffering a concussion on Sept. 26 against UCLA. He missed a game, was solid in a win over Oregon State (the worst team in the league) and then had to pulled in the third quarter in each of the past two weeks.
“Anu did some good things and then was off a little bit,” Rodriguez said Saturday. “More than anything, we just wanted to try to get a spark, and I thought Jerrard did that again. Came in and ran well, competed well, and gave us a chance.”
Randall, a senior, completed 11 of 16 passes for 137 yards and two touchdowns, without an interception, against Washington State. His first play after replacing Solomon in the third quarter — when everyone in the stadium knew Randall was going to keep the ball — was a 59-yard run.
“I thought he gave them a spark and ignited them emotionally,” WSU coach Mike Leach.
“Some of it was the first play he did when he got the big run. We had people in position to tackle him who should have done that. He is a real scrappy player.
“Somehow, he got them fired up emotionally, and part of that is because as a defense, you are a little apprehensive. People talk about all these quarterbacks that can run, and that kid can really run.”
— Arizona Wildcats (@BR_UAWildcats) October 25, 2015
Randall ran 10 times for 105 yards. He is averaging 11.0 yards per carry for the season; he has 58 rushes for 639 yards. He has four runs of 50-plus yards, the same as LSU running back Leonard Fournette, the Heisman front-runner.
Randall began his career at LSU, transferred to a junior college after two years, and then landed at Arizona before last season. He’s as athletic at quarterback as anyone in college football. The arm strength is off the charts.
Holding him back has been knowing where and when to deliver the ball, and then being accurate when he does.
But with Randall improving and the far-less-athletic Solomon suddenly struggling in those areas, it only makes sense to give Randall a shot at being a full-time spark.
It won’t fix the defense, but there’s not much else for Rodriguez to do.