The biggest surprise in a season that has, so far, been full of them is easy to count but tougher to quantify: tackling.
The Wildcats did a good job of tackling in space and wrapping up in wins over Toledo and Oklahoma State. They were even able to turn big hits into a few turnovers.
Nobody has been better than linebacker Jake Fischer; his total of 27 stops over two games ranks first in the Pac-12 Conference and is tied for tops in the country. "Bandit" safety Jared Tevis has 21 tackles and a pair of interceptions, and safety-turned-linebacker Marquis Flowers has 19.
Arizona's ability to tackle will go a long way toward determining its success the rest of the season. Following tonight's game against South Carolina State, the Wildcats will face, in order, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, Washington and USC. All five teams have game-changers on offense, players capable of breaking tackles - and burning defenses.
Tra'Mayne Bondurant, the UA's starting "Spur" and its fifth-leading tackler, said tackling is "very important" in the UA's 3-3-5 "odd stack" defense. The Wildcats don't yet have the defensive speed to swarm to the ball; without help, players must tackle efficiently in space.
"You've got to tackle to win games, and you've got to tackle to stop teams," Bondurant said. "We have to have that mentality on defense."
Tackling is a tricky topic during practices, however, since the Wildcats so rarely go full-speed "good on good." Their first two games were exhausting, and the team lacks the depth necessary to risk players' health in practices.
The Wildcats have found a serviceable solution: Prospective tacklers run to the ball in a hitting position, even in noncontact drills; defenders are encouraged to swarm to the ball, even if everybody else is going half-speed.
"They really want us to run to the ball in practice and break down like we're going to make a tackle," Fischer said.
So far, it's working.
"Tackling well is a focus we have to have during the week," Bondurant said. "You can practice tackling, but you're really just practicing the technique of it. At the end of the day, you have to go out there and do it."
Backup QB Denker is itching for his chance should Cats get big lead
The Arizona Wildcats are heavy favorites tonight against South Carolina State, a FCS school making its first big trip to the West.
B.J. Denker can't wait for kickoff. The UA's backup quarterback could make his college debut tonight if, as expected, the Wildcats run up a big lead against their small-college visitors. Coaches love what they've seen from Denker, a transfer from Cerritos College in California: At 6 feet 3 inches and 177 pounds, the lefty - nicknamed "Vanilla Vick" - has the size and quickness to run the spread-option offense. There's no reason to sit him, either: Denker used his redshirt season in junior college, meaning he has two years at the UA to play two seasons.
"B.J.'s practiced really well. He's progressed really well," coach Rich Rodriguez said. "At some point, he's going to be playing - and hopefully he's not going to be in there because something's happened to Matt" Scott.
Tonight, the junior might just get his chance. Here's what Denker had to say:
On seeing the field: "I think about it every day. Every game, there's a possibility of me playing. Maybe there's more of a chance I'm going to play now because its a Division I-AA team, but we're going into the game and trying to win. I'm not going to play just to play."
On whether he's ready: "If I get the opportunity, I'm going to go out there and play some ball. I'm just as prepared as Matt is."
On what he's improved on the most: "Making the right decision, quickly."
On what impresses him the most about Scott: "He plays nasty. I don't know if you can tell in the stands or out in the sidelines, but he gets nasty out there. He's not afraid to hit a defensive end, and he's not afraid to yell at somebody. I like how he plays. He plays nasty. I think I play like that, too."
Another track meet
3rd no-huddle foe means longer game, fewer potty breaks
After two chaotic games to start the 2012, the UA has caught a scheduling break.
Schematically, though, it'll be more of the same.
South Carolina State will take the field tonight armed with a no-huddle spread offense similar to those run by the Wildcats' first two opponents, Toledo and Oklahoma State. The Bulldogs ran 78 plays in their season-opening win over Georgia State, and 67 in last week's loss to Bethune-Cookman.
"Here we go with another spread team or another team that pushes the tempo," UA coach Rich Rodriguez said. "They're probably going to have our guys playing a lot of plays again."
It's possible, then, that the two teams can set another UA record tonight. The Wildcats and Toledo ran a combined 182 plays in Week 1, the highest single-game total in program history. Arizona and Oklahoma State, surprisingly, ran the exact same number of plays - 182 - last weekend.
More plays (and fewer huddles) lead to more possessions, which - along with television timeouts - lengthen games. Arizona needed 3 hours 47 minutes to defeat Toledo, and 3:36 against Oklahoma State.
Rodriguez said he doesn't mind the long game times - though that may change as he ages.
"I've not gotten to the point yet where I need a bathroom break. Halftime comes at just the right time," he said. "There may come a point where if you see me take a timeout or between quarters run to the locker room, you'll know what happened. So far, I'm good."
Who are these guys?
Grads stay at home, and ag school is gone
1. It's South Carolina's school. SCSU, a historically black college and university (HBCU) and land grant institution, has about 30,000 living alumni; most of them (18,388) still live in-state.
2. It's an ag school no more. The university scuttled its agricultural program in 1971, turning the college farm into a golf course and a soccer and baseball complex. In a nod to history, SCSU students - there are 5,000 of them - can still major in agribusiness.
3. Pioneer called Orangeburg, S.C. home. The Bulldogs play in Dawson Stadium on Willie E. Jeffries Field, named for the man who, in 1979 at Wichita State, became the first African-American to run a Division I football program. Jeffries coached 19 seasons in two stints at SCSU, and remains the only man to coach against both Eddie Robinson and Bear Bryant. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2010.
4. And of course, a band that rocks. Like many historically black colleges, South Carolina State prides itself on a rollicking marching band. The Marching 101 recently performed at the 2012 Honda Battle of the Bands, a showcase featuring some of the nation's bests. You can go on YouTube to see the band's performance, which includes Lady Gaga songs. Impressive stuff.
South Carolina State at Arizona • 7:30 p.m. • Pac-12 Arizona • 1290-AM, 107.5-FM, 990-AM (spanish)
The Arizona Wildcats have done a surprisingly good job of tackling so far this season. In fact, three UA players rank in the topfive in the conference in tackles. Here's a look at the list:
Rk. Player, School T Avg
1. LB Jake Fischer, Arizona 27 13.5
2. S Jared Tevis, Arizona 21 10.5
3. LB Robert Mullins, Cal 20 10
S Josh Hill, Cal 20 10
5(t). LB Marquis Flowers 19* 9.5
*Three others tied at 19
ready for prime time?
These backups could see significant playing time if the Wildcats get up big tonight:
• Quarterback: B.J. Denker
• Running backs: Daniel Jenkins, Kylan Butler, J.T. Washington
• Wide receivers: Trevor Ermisch, Johnny Jackson, Sean Willet.
• Offensive line: Faitele Faafoi, Addison Bachman
• Linebacker: Dakota Conwell
• Defensive backs/safeties: Will Parks, Jamar Allah, Wayne Capers Jr.
About South Carolina State
• Location: Orangeburg, S.C.
• Enrollment: 5,000
• Year founded: 1896
• Nickname: Bulldogs
• Famous alumni: Former NFL stars Deacon Jones and Harry Carson, U.S. Rep. James E. Clyburn, political commentator Armstrong Williams, radio host Doug Stewart of "2 Live Stews."
What's at stake tonight, by the numbers
Consecutive wins by the Arizona Wildcats, dating back to last season. The streak is tied for ninth-best in major college football during that time.
Arizona's winning streak should it defeat FCS (formerly Division I-AA) South Carolina State tonight.
Years since the Wildcats' last winning steak of five or more games. The UA won its final seven games, including the Holiday Bowl, in 1998.