Arizona aims to get back on the winning path — and is taking a bus to get there
Arizona's Week 3 date at UTEP Friday night is a throwback to yesteryear for the Wildcats in certain ways. UTEP was a longtime Border Conference rival of Arizona in the first half of the 20th century. The two were counterparts in the Western Athletic Conference for a decade before Arizona received its invitation to turn the Pacific 8 into the Pac-10.
UTEP – then Texas Western – dominated the series in the 1950s, but Arizona is 22-1-1 since 1958. The last meeting was in 2003, a 42-7 blowout and the final victory of John Mackovic's ill-fated tenure with the Wildcats.
In this restoration of a throwback series, Arizona's taking a throwback means of transportation, opting for the four-hour bus ride from Tucson to El Paso. Couple the bus with it being a Friday night game, and this might feel like a throwback to high school for the players involved.
"It's a business trip," Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez said of the bus ride. "We won't be singing 'Kumbaya.'"
Arizona at UTEP
Kickoff: Friday, Sept. 15, 10:15 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Line: Arizona -23
Three Things to Watch
1. Quarterback rotation
Brandon Dawkins started each of Arizona's first two contests, and Rodriguez said Dawkins remains the starter with Khalil Tate the backup. Still, Tate's insertion into the lineup with the Arizona offense struggling against Houston provided a momentary spark, but not enough to capitalize on a stout effort from the Wildcats defense in a 19-16 loss.
Citing Dawkins being "a little nicked up," Rodriguez did not attribute the switch to anything situational or indicative of a change going forward. Dawkins will take the snaps to start Friday, barring an unforeseen change.
2. Get running early
UTEP's defense has struggled through its first two contests, allowing 56 and 31 points in losses to Oklahoma and Rice. The 486 yards the Miners allowed on the ground in those games ranks No. 117 in the FBS, and opponents' 5.6 yard per carry average ranks No. 115.
In a dramatic role reversal from the previous two seasons, Arizona lost playing a solid, if not great defensive game against Houston, while struggling to mount a consistent offense. The Wildcats rolled up 506 rushing yards in Week 1 against Northern Arizona, but the Ed Oliver-led Houston defense stymied Arizona's multifaceted run game to just 3.9 yards per carry for 152 in total.
Arizona should be able to get its run game going early against UTEP. Building momentum ahead of a Pac-12 Conference opener against a tremendous Utah rush defense is critical.
3. Continuing to grow on defense
Second-year Arizona defensive coordinator Marcel Yates took on a cumbersome job. When he arrived, Arizona was coming off a 2015 season in which its defense was one of the most porous in college football.
His second season is off to a positive start, holding a Houston offense that averaged nearly 36 points per game in 2016 to 19 last week.
"In the first game, they seemed a little tentative," Rodriguez said of the defense's performance in a win over Northern Arizona. "That could be youth and inexperience. The second game, we were a lot more aggressive, played more confidently and it snowballed. I thought it was really good in the red zone."
Arizona held Houston to three scores on five red-zone opportunities. The Wildcats can build on that positive trend in the final non-conference game before Pac-12 play.
Although once conference rivals, this Arizona team should overmatch UTEP in every phase. Strange things have happened in the Sun Bowl in recent years; UTEP nearly stunned Texas Tech there just a few years ago, and with a 9:15 p.m. local time kickoff, the atmosphere will be right for some Pac-12 After Dark in Conference USA country.
Nevertheless, Arizona's offense should have no trouble establishing the run early, giving Dawkins opportunity to work on opening up the passing game – a must for the Wildcats to have the balance necessary to compete in the Pac-12.
Prediction: Arizona 48, UTEP 20