Storm clouds loomed over Arizona’s practice field Tuesday, but you could also see the silver lining.
The Wildcats have gotten off to about the worst start in Pac-12 play you could imagine. On the morning of Sept. 26, Tucson woke up with the 16th-ranked team in the nation, with ESPN’s College GameDay on campus, and the sun shining brightly at kickoff for a prime-time matchup against UCLA.
By the end of the evening, the team’s two most valuable players — linebacker Scooby Wright and quarterback Anu Solomon — had suffered injuries, and the Bruins had added all kinds of insults, running away with a 56-30 victory.
A week later, with Wright and Solomon left at home to rehab and recover, the Wildcats traveled to Stanford, where they were bulldozed and buried, 55-17.
It couldn’t have been much worse.
“Miserable. Absolutely miserable,” Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said of how the past two weeks have been for him. “Outwardly, we try to be as positive as possible because it’s not like the guys aren’t trying, but I haven’t slept much.”
If there is any cure for what ails Arizona, it is going to be a combination of health and schedule. And this is where the silver lining begins to maybe, possibly shine through the storm.
First the health.
OK, Wright has a sprained right foot and isn’t going to play this month, and very possibly not next month. Arizona fans need to prepare for the chance that Wright, who won the Bednarik and Nagurski awards last season as the nation’s top defensive player, will never don a Wildcats uniform again, leaving after his junior season for the NFL.
The news is better on offense. Rodriguez, who atypically closed all of Tuesday’s practice to the media — a move to presumably protect the news of whatever was going on at quarterback — let the cat out of the bag later on his weekly radio show. Solomon, who did not practice last week, returned to a full-padded practice Tuesday, a sign that he is on his way back to the Arizona Stadium field this Saturday against Oregon State.
“You’re going to err on the side of caution,” Rodriguez said about the concussion protocol with trainers and doctors.
“But Anu did some practice today, which is encouraging. He did most of the work. I think he’ll do a lot again tomorrow, and then he’ll get tested again on Thursday. If everything is OK on Thursday, then we’re optimistic he can play on Saturday.”
Rodriguez also dropped good news about two receivers who have been dealing with preseason foot injuries and have not played this season.
Sophomore Tyrell Johnson, who is also the team’s primary kick returner and Arizona’s fastest player, was able to do some work in practice and has a chance to play Saturday, Rodriguez said. He added that junior Trey Griffey seems to be a week or two away from returning to the field. The Cats have a deep receiving corps, but more options for a healthy Solomon will help get the offense back on track.
That might be enough to carry the Cats for the rest of the month.
“Coming off two losses, we just want to stop losing to be honest,” said receiver Nate Phillips. “We have to stay focused this week and really come to play on Saturday.”
Arizona (3-2) has reached the gooey, soft portion of its 12-weeks-without-a-bye schedule: Oregon State, at Colorado, Washington State, at Washington. Check your Pac-12 power rankings. You’ll find those four teams at the bottom in some order (although we have seen a couple with the Huskies at No. 8, one spot ahead of Arizona).
Doesn’t much matter. Point is, Arizona is favored by 9 to 10 points to beat Oregon State, and likely will be favored, or be no worse than a slight underdog on the road, the rest of the month.
If you wanted to be that glass-half-full, rose-colored-glasses-wearing fan, you’re still holding on to the notion that the Wildcats will get healthier and will end the month with a win in Seattle and a 7-2 record.
“You just keep working,” Rodriguez said.
Another of the negatives of not having a bye week — such as Oregon State just had — is that the coaches have less time for evaluation and adjustments. Rodriguez said the staff is brainstorming its way through potential solutions for a depleted defense, although not many good ones might exist.
For as hopeful as some of the injury news is on offense, the same is not yet true for defense.
You know about Wright’s status. Starting outside linebacker Derrick Turituri missed last week’s game because of a hip injury and isn’t expected back this week. Wright’s backup, Cody Ippolito, is out all season after suffering a torn ACL in camp. Ippolito’s backup, Haden Gregory, suffered a knee injury in the second game and is still out.
Starting outside linebacker DeAndre’ Miller has missed two games because of a wrist injury and was limited to a reserve role last week.
“As a coach, when you talk about injuries when you lose, it’s an excuse,” Rodriguez said. “When you talk about injuries when you win, it’s logic. But the problem is compounded when it’s at one position. … It limits some of the packages that we can do.”
Arizona likes to morph its 3-3-5 into a four-man front, but the guys used as defensive ends in that conversion are Wright and Turituri. Much of what the team practiced all camp went right out the window because those two have been banged up or out since the opening quarter of the opening game.
“When they got hurt, you don’t lose two guys, you lose four guys,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez and coordinator Jeff Casteel can’t make wholesale changes at this point in the season, but they’ll keep poking the scheme to find tweaks that might work, especially during this stretch of winnable games.
“Trust me, the defensive staff is trying as hard as it can to put our guys in position to make plays,” Rodriguez said. “And we have to keep trying. What we’ve been doing, whether its personnel or the teams we’re going against, it’s not working.
“So, we’re not going to sit there and give up. We’re going to try everything we can.”
Maybe by next week, Turituri and Miller will be full-go. Maybe the wins will flow.
Maybe then Rodriguez can get a good night’s sleep.
Well, as long as he’s not thinking of a November schedule of USC, Utah and Arizona State … but that’s a worry for another day.