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By Kyle Kensing, AZ Desert Swarm
Oklahoma State isn’t a Pac-12 Conference rival of Arizona’s, obviously, but it is starting to feel that way: The UA makes its debut on Pac-12 Networks Sept. 8, hosting the Cowboys in their third meeting in the last 21 months.
OSU dispatched the Wildcats 37-14 in Stillwater last September, and 36-10 in the 2010 Alamo Bowl. Some things have changed in the months since the teams last met, though.
Gone is the explosive quarterback-wide receiver tandem of Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon, each selected in the first round of April’s NFL Draft. Weeden and Blackmon connected for four combined touchdowns in two games against UA.
“OK State lost two great players, but they reload every year,” said UA linebacker Jake Fischer. “They might have a little bit of a different offense, but it’s still going to be potent.”
Arizona has undergone its own big changes, hiring Rich Rodriguez as the Wildcats’ head coach last November. His overhauled staff will man the sidelines in an Arizona Stadium undergoing $72.3 million worth of renovations.
Rodriguez said he studied film of last season’s Cowboy win in preparation for his second game as UA head coach.
“That’s a talented team,” Rodriguez said. “[Joseph Randle] is as good as any [running back] in the country. He’s an NFL player.”
Randle is the veteran leader of the offense with Weeden and Blackmon’s departures. The junior tailback rushed for 24 touchdowns and over 1,200 yards in 2011.
SB Nation’s Oklahoma State site Cowboys Ride For Free offered, “Randle [is] the leader on offense this year, so there will be more action sent his way.”
The Cowboys’ No. 2 rusher, Jeremy Smith, is also back in the mix, coming off a nine-touchdown campaign. Last season’s Fiesta Bowl-winning ‘Pokes may have been known for airing it out, but this team can also run.
But don’t anticipate OSU head coach Mike Gundy and offensive coordinator Todd Monken retiring the many passing options from the playbook with true freshman quarterback Wes Lunt behind center.
“Arizona will be a good test for the freshman and could build his confidence early,” said Cowboys Ride For Free staff.
Weeden left Lunt some big shoes to fill, but when Weeden was successor to Zac Robinson, he was known more for throwing curveballs than touchdown passes. The Cowboys’ system has a way of easing the transition for new quarterbacks into D-I football.
UA defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel’s duty is slowing the Cowboy offensive juggernaut. His signature 3-3-5 stack formation is a dramatic change for a defense that gave up over 35 points per game in 2011.
“The good thing with the 3-3-5 [is] you can disguise a lot of things. Without that fourth down-lineman, you can mess with the offense,” Arizona’s Fischer said. “Watching tapes of Coach Casteel’s teams at West Virginia, we’re trying to get to that level.”
Channeling some of the tenacity that defined Casteel’s Mountaineer defenses is critical if the Wildcats are going to afford breathing room to operate for Matt Scott and the new zone-read spread option offense (UA fell behind 21-0 and 23-7 in the previous two meetings).
Turning yards into points early to keep pace is paramount to the Wildcats’ efforts, but no easy feat against a defense that held opponents to nearly 22 fewer points than its offense was scoring.
“The [OSU] defense has everyone back,” Rodriguez pointed out.
Indeed, OSU returns key defensive contributors like cornerback Brodrick Brown, who intercepted five passes in 2011. Linebackers Daytawion Lowe and Alex Elkins bring 187 combined tackles. The two are foils for what should be a prolific rushing attack in the UA’s new-look backfield.
Alongside the dual-threat quarterback Scott are several backs that Rodriguez said have breakout potential.
Ka’Deem Carey and Daniel Jenkins each progressed with increased carries last season, and will factor prominently into the zone-read. Big H-back Taimi Tutogi provides a different look at 6-foot-1, 260 pounds, the proverbial thunder to Carey and Jenkins’ lightning.
The UA offense may need to conjure up a storm on Sept. 8, during the height of Tucson’s monsoon season, to make one final change from its last meeting with OSU – a W.