AdvoCare Bowl - Arizona on offense

The Cats are still adjusting to life without last year’s TD-makers. Photo by Wildcat Universe

The Arizona Wildcats went down to San Antonio and got a win Thursday night but when the Cats look back and remember the Alamo (Dome) they’ll know it was a narrow escape.

It’s not often a team gets out-touchdowned and still walks away with a victory.

UTSA scored three TDs while Arizona only found the end zone twice. The UA’s problem was settling for field goals on four of five trips to the red zone and it’s an issue that will need to be corrected in a hurry.

How do you remember last year’s Texas-San Antonio game? Easy win for the Cats, right? Looking closer, however, Arizona’s yardage totals were worse on both sides of the ball last year. Compared to Thursday’s game, the UA offense gained fewer yards against UTSA last season (422 to 454) and the Wildcat D surrendered more yards in that 2013 game (379 to 349).

So why was the Tucson tilt a 25-point rout while the game in ol’ San Antone was a three-point nailbiter? Red zone offense. Arizona scored four touchdowns in five trips inside UTSA’s 20-yard line last year but cashed in only once in five red zone drives this time around.

Rich Rodriguez knows it. “We won the game on field goals,” the Arizona head coach told the media after the game, “but we gotta quit getting those threes and get sevens.”

Looking at last season’s game the key was first down. Here is how each red zone series against UTSA began in 2013 (and how the drive ended):

1st and 10 at the 13: B.J. Denker pass for 13 yards (touchdown)
1st and Goal at the 7: Ka’Deem Carey rush for 1 yard (field goal)
1st and 10 at the 18: Denker rush for 5 yards (touchdown)
1st and Goal at the 4: Carey rush for 3 yards (touchdown)
1st and 15 at the 18: Carey rush for 11 yards (touchdown)

Every red zone series that started with decent yardage on first down ended in the end zone. Now contrast that with the game in San Antonio:

1st and 10 at the 19: Anu Solomon pass incomplete (field goal)
1st and 10 at the 11: Nick Wilson rush for loss of 1 yard (field goal)
1st and 10 at the 14: Pass interference in the end zone (touchdown)
1st and 10 at the 18: Wilson rush for 1 yard (field goal)
1st and 10 at the 11: Wilson rush for 1 yard (field goal)

The Cats found themselves in second-and-long four of the five times in the red zone and ended up kicking a field goal all four times.

Obviously, gaining five yards on first down doesn’t guarantee you’ll gain the next 15 yards and score. But staying out of second-and-long helps keep you out of third-and-long, and third-and-long is what leads to incomplete passes, sacks and field goal tries.

Last year’s run-first attack was built for the red zone. You could either give it to Ka’Deem until he scored or, if the defense overloaded the middle, B.J. took it around end. There’s a reason the duo combined for 32 TDs on the ground in 2013.

What are the options this year now that Carey is in the NFL and Denker is wearing a coach’s headset? It’s too much to ask for the offensive line to simply bulldoze people so Wilson and Terris Jones-Grigsby can plow straight into the end zone every time. Solomon is either going to have to be more aggressive as a runner inside the 20 or the red zone passing game needs to improve.

The potential to convert through the air is there. Arizona’s receiver rotation features four guys 6-foot-3 or taller in Austin Hill, Cayleb Jones, Trey Griffey and David Richards. Recall the pass to the 6-4 Richards in the back of the end zone Thursday night when replay showed he got his feet in bounds but he couldn’t complete the catch. Tighten up the execution and the TD register should start ringing again.

It’s time for your weekly reminder of how much Denker improved over the course of last season. He didn’t have 90 yards passing in either of his first two games. He didn’t have a 200-yard passing game until the fifth contest. In half of those first four starts he completed 40% of his passes or worse. By the end of the year he was throwing 275 yards and two touchdowns in a bowl victory.

Solomon has already shown flashes of being exactly what this team needs. The next step is mastering the red zone offense.

Once it happens the odds of Arizona getting out-touchdowned go way down and opposing defensive coordinators will be the ones seeing red.

– – – – –