One of the real surprise teams of the early season closes out a three-game homestand to start the year, as the 24th-ranked Arizona Wildcats play host to the South Carolina State Bulldogs.
Rich Rodriguez was brought to Tucson to reverse the fortunes of a football program in need of a change. Well, he has accomplished it in a short amount of time, opening up 2-0 on the year, including an impressive 59-38 upset of nationally-ranked Oklahoma State last weekend in a game where the two teams combined for an eye-popping 1,137 yards of offense.
Oliver Pough has built and FCS powerhouse at South Carolina State. The Bulldogs have won or shared four MEAC titles under Pough with the last one coming in 2010. South Carolina State went 7-4 last year, finishing second in its league. This year has started with mixed reviews, as the Bulldogs opened 2012 with a 33-6 pasting of Georgia State, followed by last weekend's 27-14 loss to Bethune-Cookman.
Rodriguez knows the Wildcats can't overlook anyone, even the Bulldogs.
"Well this is another spread team and another team that pushes the tempo. Not that we're not used to it or can't adjust, they're probably going to have our guys play a lot of plays again. Normally you would say your guys are in good enough shape they should be able to handle it but it is concerning as you go through."
This marks the first-ever meeting between these two teams on the gridiron.
The Bulldogs return nine starters on the offensive side of the football this year, and the hope is that familiarity breeds success. The team put up good numbers in the opener, but couldn't muster much against the Wildcats last time out (236 total yards).
While SCSU is averaging a solid 177.5 yards per game rushing, the workload is split up. The majority of the carries have gone to tailback Jalen Simmons (31 carries, 109 yards, one TD) and quarterback Richard Cue (20 carries, 107 yards).
Cue has been less reliable with his arm, completing just 47.4 percent for 369 yards, with three TDs and four INTs. Junior wide receiver Caleb Davis has been the top target and perhaps the team's top offensive threat, recording 13 catches in the first two games, for 143 yards. Senior wideout Lennel Elmore adds another dimension, making the most of his five receptions (131 yards, one TD).
The SCSU defense has been a strength early on, despite only two returning starters on that side of the football. The pass defense has been particularly solid, limiting its two opponents to a mere 155.0 yards per game.
The unit has been able to get upfield, recording 15 TFLs and seven sacks thus far. Linebackers Joe Thomas and Justin Hughes have led the way. Thomas leads the team with 16 total tackles, with 3.0 TFLs and one sack. Hughes is right behind at 15 stops, with 4.0 TFLs and a pair of sacks.
Rodriguez's offensive scheme seems to be tailor-made for the Wildcats. The team is averaging a whopping 562.5 yards per game, with great balance, netting over 200 yards rushing and over 350 passing.
Quarterback Matt Scott has looked like an All-American in the early going. The senior signal-caller has completed over 66 percent of his throws in the first two games, for 707 yards and four TDs against just one INT. Wideouts Dan Buckner (16 receptions, 176 yards) and Austin Hill (12 receptions, 263 yards, one TD) have benefited the most from Scott's accuracy.
Rodriguez likes the way Scott has embraced the offensive scheme.
"When you have a quarterback that can throw as well as Matt (Scott), and has the skill-set that Matt has, it'll always gives you a chance. I knew that after our first practices in the spring. Matt can make all the throws. I wish he had more than one year, because he's still learning on the job, but he can make all the throws. He runs well, and he's a competitive guy."
It also helps to have a strong rushing attack to keep defenses guessing. Arizona has leaned on sophomore tailback Ka'Deem Carey thus far. The 5- foot-10, 197-pounder is averaging nearly six yards per carry (5.9), amassing 273 yards and four TDs thus far. The Cowboys had no answer for Carey last weekend, as he rumbled for 126 yards and three TDs, adding a fourth on a reception.
While the Arizona offense is getting it done with precision, the defense has struggled to keep up. The Wildcats are yielding a generous 497.0 yards per game, a stat inflated by last week's game.
Middle linebacker Jake Fischer has been all over the field, leading the team with 27 tackles, with 2.5 TFLs, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. Safety Jared Tevis has gotten off to a fast start as well, with 21 tackles and two INTs.