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Kragthorpe: Huskies will test Arizona's Pac-12 preparation

Published September 24, 2013 5:19 pm

College football • Arizona defense faces first real challenge of season.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Nobody's expecting Washington's rejuvenated offense to maintain its production level of the first three games as the Huskies open Pac-12 play Saturday against Arizona in Seattle. Yet the Huskies will come closer to repeating what they've done offensively than Arizona will defensively, that's a guarantee.

Washington's nonconference schedule of Boise State and Idaho State at home and Illinois in Chicago was not overwhelming, as the Huskies have averaged 43 points and 629 total yards, but the degree of difficulty certainly exceeded Arizona's. The Wildcats' warm-up act of Northern Arizona, UNLV and Texas-San Antonio is easily the worst lineup for a Pac-12 school this season — and maybe ever, considering NAU's middle-tier status in the Big Sky Conference and the state of those other programs.

So any credit the Wildcats receive for their defensive work, having allowed a total of 26 points through three games, comes with a huge asterisk. They may be better, after giving up 35 points a game last season to rank 104th in the country, but the genuine evidence of that growth will come only at Husky Stadium.

In one sense, there's nothing wrong with playing a lousy schedule. Those three wins represent half of the Wildcats' necessary total for bowl eligibility, with no disclaimers attached as of late November. The question is whether Arizona is adequately prepared to face a team like Washington, after easing into the season to an extreme degree.

Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez is not concerned about that issue. "I think we were ready to play a league game the first week," he said.

Rodriguez believes his defense is much improved, having seen progress in spring practice when that group went against the No. 1 offense. The players are more confident, they're accustomed to the scheme in the coaching staff's second season, they have more depth and they're motivated after generally being riddled by opposing offenses in 2012.

"They're understanding exactly what those coaches are asking them to do and they're making plays," said Washington coach Steve Sarkisian.

So we'll see how the Wildcats respond against UW quarterback Keith Price, running back Bishop Sankey and the rest of the Washington offense that itself has advanced beyond last year's struggles.

The strange thing about this whole discussion is that a low point of the Huskies' 2012 season offensively came at Arizona. Some critical turnovers hurt Washington in a 52-17 loss.

"They did a great job when they got the lead," Sarkisian said. "They kept the ball in front of them and they tackled us."

The Wildcats rarely dominated an opponent last year, usually having to outscore the other guys. So Washington actually has as much — or more — to prove Saturday.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribkurt