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Seven days after squaring off with UCLA in Los Angeles, Colorado returns home to Boulder to face another team coming off a bitterly disappointing 2016 season.
Looking to bounce back from a 3-9 season a year ago (two of the three 2016 wins came against Grambling State and Hawaii), Arizona invades Folsom Field in Boulder for a Week 6 matchup on Oct. 7.
Watching the Wildcats last season, it was understandably difficult to remember Arizona won the Pac-12 South just two years earlier and appeared in the conference championship game, where they were trounced, 51-14, by Oregon. A month later, Arizona fell to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl.
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You could reasonably argue Arizona has never recovered from those back-to-back defeats on the national stage, falling to seven wins in 2015 and three in 2016. The Wildcats are 10-15 over the past two seasons (10-17 since the 2014 Pac-12 championship game).
Three issues doomed Arizona in 2016: injuries, inability to throw the ball consistently and the catastrophic failure to defend the pass.
As you would expect from a Rich Rodriguez coached offense, Arizona effectively runs the zone read, topping the Pac-12 in rushing offense in 2016 with an average production of 235.0 yards per game. That trend should continue in 2017 considering Rodriguez is regarded as one of the pioneers of the spread option.
As long as they stay healthy (which they didn’t do in 2016), the running back duo of Nick Wilson (320 yards on 55 carries) and J.J. Taylor (261 yards on 38 carries) could be very productive and give opposing defensive coordinator nightmares.
Wilson and Taylor, though, combined for just nine games last season because of injuries. Wilson is looking to regain his 2014 form when he rushed for 1,375 yards and 16 touchdowns.
While the running game shows promise, throwing the football was a challenge for Arizona in 2016. The Wildcats had the lowest completion percentage in the Pac-12 (51.3 pct.) and tied with Oregon State for the fewest TD passes in the conference (13). Only one Arizona wide receiver amassed more than 30 receptions last season.
Biggest need for 2017? Quarterback Brandon Dawkins must stay healthy. He appeared in 10 games last season, completing 53.8 percent (98-182) of his passes for 1,348 yards, 8 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. Khalil Tate will challenge him for the starting job.
“If anybody was a frontrunner, it would be Brandon Dawkins because he’s the one with the most experience and has performed pretty well,” Rodriguez said recently. “But it’s going to be a competition probably up until the week of the first game until somebody separates himself.
“I like what we have coming back with Brandon and Khalil. The competition we want in the quarterback room is better now than it’s been since I’ve been here. Brandon may be the frontrunner and we know what he can do, but he has to play better and he has some things he has to work on. He knows that. He’s a competitive guy.”
Defensively, the Arizona secondary was a disaster last season as the Wildcats allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 65.8 percent of their passes for 34 touchdowns in 2016, both figures the highest in the Pac-12. Only one team allowed more passing yards per game: Territorial Cup rival Arizona State.
Not surprisingly, because the Wildcats defense struggled to keep the passing yardage under control, they allowed an enormous number of third-down conversions by opposing offenses. The Wildcats finished last in the Pac-12 in third down conversion defense at 52.6 percent.
Unless Arizona demonstrates significant improvement stopping the pass by the rime the Week 6 matchup comes around, Colorado could enjoy a very productive day throwing the football.
The good news for the Arizona defense is they will be more experienced in 2017 as six of the top eight tacklers return and the secondary should be better after the Wildcats intercepted just eight passes last season, five in the first four games.
Considering how last season unfolded with all the injuries and lack of production, it’s little wonder some of the biggest offseason commotion for Arizona occurred earlier this week when the school unveiled new uniforms.
Besides better players, Rodriguez hopes a rededication to leadership by the Wildcats’ older players pays dividends in the won-loss column. Last year, leadership was seemingly in short supply in Tucson.
“I’ve seen since the spring game and I’ve seen it in the offseason,” Rodriguez said. “More critically, I need to see it this summer. I think this senior class is going to take a lot of ownership into what the guys do this summer and how hard we work.”
ARIZONA 2017 FOOTBALL SCHEDULE:
Sept. 2 NORTHERN ARIZONA, 8 p.m. (Pac-12 Networks)
Sept. 9 HOUSTON, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN/ESPN2/ESPNU)
Sept. 15 at UTEP, 7:15 p.m. (ESPN)
Sept. 22 UTAH*, 7:30 p.m. (FS1)
Sept. 30 Bye
Oct. 7 at Colorado*
Oct. 14 UCLA*
Oct. 21 at California*
Oct. 28 WASHINGTON STATE*
Nov. 4 at USC*
Nov. 11 OREGON STATE*
Nov. 18 at Oregon*
Nov. 25 at Arizona State*
(All Times Mountain)
* Pac-12 Conference Game
Insight on Colorado's three new commitments https://t.co/liYqosUiyI
— CUSportsNation (@CUSportsNation) June 27, 2017
Colorado now has 11 football commitments for the 2018 class https://t.co/lVYOF3pp5N
— CUSportsNation (@CUSportsNation) June 25, 2017
— CUSportsNation (@CUSportsNation) June 28, 2017