Know Your Enemy: Previewing Rich Rodriguez's Arizona Wildcats Offense

These two combined for more than 550 yards last week. - Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

This Arizona offense is a mix of concepts we have seen repeatedly this season. Can Andy Buh show that he's learned from past mistakes?

"[The huddle] is the biggest waste of time in football" - Rich Rodriguez

If any game tells us about how good of a job Andy Buh is doing as Cal's defensive coordinator, it is this one. Nothing Arizona does will be new to this defense. We've faced zone read, option running, mobile quarterbacks, bubble screens, and spread principles in the passing game. We've seen these components over and over and over this season. This should be nothing new to the players and nothing new to the coaches. We've seen the many ways one goes about not defending this kind of offense and this is a great opportunity for Buh to show that he's learned from the team's mistakes and that he can develop players over the course of the season. We certainly will not (nor should we expect to) see the defense pitch a shutout or anything that drastic. But we ought to see evidence of some improvement from the defense.

Scheme

Rich Rodriguez sticks closely to the principles of the spread defense. He wants to spread the defense out in order to gain numerical advantages and to put his best players in open space.

Running Concepts

We have seen all components of Arizona's running game from our previous teams. The Wildcats will use inside zone running and zone read with a dash of other running plays such as the option.

Zone Read

First, a note on Arizona's base formation. Below Arizona lines up in a 2x2 (2 WRs on each side) formation with a single RB in the backfield. This is Arizona's base personnel package. Last year Arizona lined up in this formation for 72% of its plays. Arizona will occasionally line up with two backs in the backfield or line up in a trips formation, but the 2x2 should be the most common, by far. Arizona will run most of its offense from this formation, which means the defense will generally be unable to tell what play Arizona is running prior to the snap. Cal will have to read and react quickly, a tough task for Cal's young, inexperienced defense. Fortunately, the defense has seen all of these concepts before.

This will be our seventh opponent who runs the zone read. The zone read is a staple of RichRod's run-heavy offense. UA is in its base formation.

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As we have seen many times this season, the zone read leaves a defender unblocked while the QB meshes with the RB. The QB reads the unblocked defender. If he stays outside to contain the QB, the QB will hand off to the RB. If the defender steps inside to stop the RB, the QB keeps the ball and runs outside.

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Here the circled UW defender has an easy decision. The weakside LB is unblocked and has charged into the backfield and will tackle RB Ka'Deem Carey for a 3-yard loss if he gets the ball. The LB being read should contain the outside lane to prevent QB D.J. Denker from keeping the ball. With the RB's path obstructed, he wants Carey to get the ball.

He doesn't make the easy decision. Perhaps he doesn't see his teammate, as he heads inside to stop Carey. This is great news for Denker.

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You could drive a Buick through that running lane. Denker tucks and runs for a huge gain. Great closing speed from the corner at the bottom of the screen prevented a TD.

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Almost an Option

The next play has Arizona lining up in something besides their base formation! They line up a TE on the left side of the line, put 2 WRs on the strong side and 1 WR on the weak side.

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After the snap the line will block to the left while the strong-side inside receiver runs towards to backside for a potential reverse.

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The fake reverse doesn't completely fake out the UW defense, but it makes them hesitate for just long enough...

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Denker follows Carey who serves as his lead blocker. Despite a turrible block from Carey, Denker manages to cross the plane of the end zone just before he goes out of bounds.

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I thought this play as a little bizarre. Carey is not a good run blocker, but he was Denker's lead blocker here. Had Denker been leading Carey, then they could have run an option from this. If the safety goes after Denker, he pitches to Carey. Otherwise he runs into the endzone. The play ultimately worked for UA, but it seems like an option is a more natural run to use out of this fake reverse. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to see Arizona run a similar-looking option play on Saturday.

Passing Concepts

With Denker's rapid improvement, the Arizona passing game is really taking off. If we had played Arizona three weeks ago, we would hardly need to spend any time on the Arizona passing game--it did not exist. Now Cal must be ready for a resurgent Wildcat passing attack.

Much of the following material comes from the authority on this offense: Rich Rodriguez himself. That's right, this material is pulled directly from an article Rodriguez wrote when he was at West Virginia. He explains several of his offense's concepts and what he hopes to accomplish with them. At the most basic level, many of these are designed to spread the defense horizontally, vertically, or in both directions. This creates room for Arizona to put its best playmakers in space.

First up, the hitch.

Hitch

We have seen this from several offenses so far this season. Arizona will run this from its base 2x2 formation or from a trips formation. No matter the alignment, the routes are identical: everyone runs vertical routes before suddenly turning around to face the QB. These quick passes are simple completions for the QB and are ideal for moving upfield 5-10 yards at a time.

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RichRod explains how the QB reads the field on this play.

We really stress rhythm and timing with the hitch game. In terms of the quarterback's reads and progressions, he'll think shortest throw, softest coverage. He wants to take the easiest throw--we want completions! With the progression of the route, once the quarterback has determined which side to attack, he'll work inside-out, working off the flat defender.

It really is that simple.

Smash

Next is the Smash. We have seen this many times this season, especially against the Washington schools. From a 2x2 formation the outside receivers run hitch routes while the inside receivers run corner routes. This gives the QB both a simple, short option and a deep option.

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Note that the RB may also get involved as a receiver on this play, as illustrated in the trips smash in the lower frame. RichRod explains how this concept puts stress on the defense.

This concept qualifies as an intermediate to deep throwing play--we have a deep throw with the corner route and an intermediate throw with the hitch route. We want to put a high-low stress on the flat player or the corner versus rolled coverages.

The running back's role in this concept varies from week to week depending on the coverage shown by the opposing defense. Below I illustrate how Arizona gets the RB in open space on a similar play.

Arizona lines up in its usual 2x2 formation.

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Now this isn't exactly a smash. The routes on the field side (top of the screen) are those of the smash, but the routes on the boundary side (bottom) are a crossing route for the inside receiver and the wide receiver cuts in towards the hashmarks before running a deep route.

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The goal here is to get the safety (circled) away from the RB's wheel route. This is an excellent example of how RichRod stretches the defense both vertically and horizontally to open up the field for his playmakers. The WR's deep route stretches the defense vertically by pulling the safety down the field. Meanwhile the inside receiver's crossing route is designed to pull the linebackers horizontally towards the top of the screen.

Everything works to plan. The linebacker is out of position behind Carey while the safety is too far upfield to make an immediate play on Carey. Denker delivers a well thrown ball (highlighted) and Carey makes it inside the 10 before being tackled.

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Spreading the defense vertically and horizontally is the hallmark of a spread offense.

Sprint Crease

While a primary goal of spread offense is to...well, spread out the defense, sometimes they intentionally do the opposite, overload the defense in a confined space. The sprint crease is an example of that. In the play below, the QB rolls out to one side of the offense and forces the defense to defend the three receivers while also keeping the QB from running upfield.

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RichRod explains the goal of the play.

We flood the outside area of the field while putting stress on the defense by changing the quarterback's launch point. We put a high-low stress on the flat defender while keeping a built-in shot or opportunity for an explosive play with the vertical clear route

...

We want the quarterback to be a dual threat, able to run or throw the football. He looks to throw off his fifth or seventh step, throwing no later than his ninth step.

The offense has four options here. Receiver Z runs a go route and is the home run threat. Receiver Y runs towards the hashmark for about 12-15 yards before turning this into an out route. H also runs an out route. And the QB decides which receiver he wants to pass to or if he should run. Some basic math tells us that it requires 4 defenders to cover 4 players in a narrow strip of space.

If Arizona successfully uses this play early, it's tempting for the defense to assign a safety on top of the three defenders. With 4 defenders covering the 3 receivers and a defender covering the single receiver on the right, the defense only has 6 men in the box--this is very dangerous against Arizona's run game. It's not too difficult to see the chess game at work here...Run the sprint crease until they overcommit to stop the pass, then run right down their throats.

Dual Screen

Arizona will also run the dual screen. We saw this against UCLA. This is simply a combination of a jailbreak screen on the left and a RB screen on the right. Considering how much our DBs have struggled to shed blocks, we will probably see this play many times on Saturday.

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Bubble Screen

RichRod will also run the bubble screen, just as UCLA did many times.

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RichRod explains that this is generally a play he uses to keep the defense honest.

The bubble screen is given, not taken. It's thrown against a defense that wants to cheat their alley players into a gray area, looking to be able to play both the run and the pass. They're trying to cheat their alignments over the slot receivers. The bubble screen takes away the defense's ability to cheat the run lanes.

Let's meet the members of this suddenly lethal Arizona offense.

Personnel

*Denotes returning starter

Quarterback

B.J. Denker: 6' 3", 184 lbs., Sr.

First year starter B. J. Denker is a very different quarterback than he was two months ago. After Arizona's loss to Washington, Rich Rodriguez talked about the possibility of making a QB change if Denker continued to struggle. Back then Arizona ran an offense that tried to limit the number of times Denker would pass the ball. He has always been a rushing threat, but his passing game has improved steadily over the season. At this point he's about to transition from a "game manager" quarterback to a "playmaker" quarterback.

Denker now reads defenses more accurately, which helps him make smarter decisions when determining when to hand off to Carey, keep the ball, or throw a pass. He's coming off the best game of his career, where he accumulated over 450 total yards.

He still struggles with accuracy, however. He is prone to missing receivers on easy throws. Fortunately for the Wildcats, his inaccurate passes are uncatchable by anyone, which ensures that he does not throw many interceptions.

Pros

  • Shifty, elusive runner
  • Improving steadily as the season has progressed
  • Takes care of the ball

Cons

  • Bouts of inaccuracy, even on simple throws

Running Back

*Ka'Deem Carey: 5' 10", 207 lbs., Jr.

Daniel Jenkins: 5' 9", 194 lbs., Sr.

Running is the strength of the Arizona offense. Last year Kadeem Carey ran for 1,929 yards, the third-highest single season total in Pac-12 history and the most since Arrington's 2,018 yard season in 2004. During that season, Carey set the Pac-12 single-game record with 368 yards against (who else?) Colorado. That season earned him a wealth of postseason honors. He was named to the All-Pac-12 first team member, earned 8 All-American honors, and won the CFPA National Running Back of the Year Award. Carey's incredible production has continued this season and he is currently riding a 10-game streak of 100+ yard games.

Carey's elusiveness and vision have contributed to his incredible rushing totals. He does not have the raw strength to break through multiple defenders at once, but he is shifty enough to prevent defenders from taking him down in the open field. Once he breaks through the front seven, he is very difficult to bring down. Carey is also a durable player. The coaches do not usually run him more than 30 times per game, but he is capable of carrying the entire offense on his back, as he did in a 40 carry, 236 yard performance against Utah this season.

Carey's backup Daniel Jenkins ran for 293 yards as the backup RB last season. He is very fast and is difficult to catch if he breaks into the second level.

Pros

  • Carey is the best running back in the nation
  • Great elusiveness, vision, and decision-making

Cons

  • Carey is a lackluster blocker
  • Carey still has one more year of eligibility

Wide Receivers

Garic Wharton: 6' 0", 169 lbs., Jr.

Samajie Grant: 5' 9", 173 lbs., True Fr.

The Wildcats lost their most productive receiver Austin Hill to an ACL injury during spring practice. Between his absence and Dan Buckner's graduation, Arizona is missing two players who caught more than half of the team's receiving yards in 2012. Arizona's receivers had been underperforming until the USC game, when the Arizona passing game suddenly began to click. The receiving unit is getting better overall: they are no longer struggling against press coverage and the WRs are more consistently getting separation from DBs. Best of all, Denker is not nearly as inaccurate as he once was.

Garic Wharton has field-stretching speed and easily gets behind defensive backs. In fact, he is the fastest player on the team behind backup RB Jared Baker. True freshman Samajie Grant has been one of the team's most reliable receivers. Though listed as a wide receiver, he will often line up in the slot. His 24 receptions lead the team.

Although the Arizona WRs don't have much size, previously injured WR David Richards is healthy again and adds some height (6' 4") to the team.

Pros

  • Fast, reliable
  • Finally have opportunities to catch passes

Cons

  • Vertically challenged

Inside Receivers

*(TE) Terrence Miller: 6' 4", 233 lbs., Sr.

(Slot) Johnny Jackson: 5' 10", 180 lbs., So.

(Slot) Nate Philips: 5' 7", 177 lbs., True Fr.

Like the wide receivers, the inside receivers generally lack height and have not been very productive until the last three games. Tight end Terrence Miller is back after some unfortunate injury issues last season limited him to only 143 yards and 2 TDs. He lacerated his kidney during the 2012 spring practice, injured his shoulder early in the season, and missed the final seven games with foot and ankle injuries. He is listed as the starter in both the tight end and slot roles, so look for him at both positions.

Johnny Jackson started the 2012 season as a walk-on and impressed his coaches enough to earn a starting role in the sixth game of the season. He was injured during that game and was not a factor in the offense during the rest of the season. He finished the year with 187 yards and a touchdown. Fellow slot receiver Nate Philips is a true freshman who leads the team in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns this season. He's a surprisingly reliable receiver out of the slot who also has the ability to get behind the defense.

Pros

  • Philips is impressive as a true freshman
  • Miller is a big, physical receiver

Cons

  • Limited production in 2012
  • Lacking height

Offensive Line

*(LT) Mickey Baucus: 6' 8", 305 lbs., Jr.

*(LG) Cayman Bundage: 6' 2", 267 lbs., So.

(C) Steven Gurrola: 6' 2", 291 lbs., Jr.

*(RG) Chris Putton: 6' 4", 284 lbs., Sr.

*(RT) Fabbians Ebbele: 6' 8", 311 lbs., Jr.

A strong offensive line last year is now under the tutelage of Coach Michalczik. The line returns four starters and collectively has more than 100 starts. In 2012 the line paved the way for 228 rushing yards per game while allowing only 1.39 sacks per game. That is a terrific number, considering that the Wildcats passed the ball more than 40 times per game last season. Despite last year's strong performances, the line was inconsistent during the first few games of the season. They were not sustaining their blocks and their fundamentals could use improvement. Coach M has ironed out some of the wrinkles, as the line has improved over the past few games. Denker now has more time in the pocket and this has contributed to his recent improvement.

The line is anchored by tackles Mickey Baucus and Fabbians Ebbele, each of whom has more than 30 starts in his career. Guards Cayman Bundage and Chris Putton were starters last season, although Putton has switched from the left side of the line to the right this season. The lone new face is junior college transfer Steven Gurrola, who is replacing Arizona Cardinal Kyle Quinn. Per RichRod's custom, he may rotate second team members in and out of the line throughout the game.

Pros

  • One of the most experienced lines Cal will face all season
  • Pass protection has improved considerably
  • Great run blocking

Cons

  • Interior is somewhat undersized
This is an offense that has the potential to put up some ridiculous statistics. Let's see just how ridiculous they are!

Statistics

Individual Stats

Passing

  • B.J. Denker: 1,241 yards (57.1%, 6.3 yards per attempt), 8 TDs, 3 interceptions, 120.74 efficiency rating
While Denker is (was?) an inaccurate, inefficient QB, he rarely throws interceptions. Only twice has he surpassed 200 passing yards in a game, but he has done it twice in his past three games. Although Denker averaged only 18 pass attempts per game in non-conference play, he's throwing the ball 35 times per game in Pac-12 play. His passing game is clearly playing a stronger role in the Arizona offense in recent weeks. I would not be surprised if he has a breakout game against the nation's worst passing defense.

Rushing

  • Kadeem Carey: 924 yards (5.89 ypc), 10 TDs
  • B.J. Denker: 516 yards (5.80 ypc), 8 TDs
  • Daniel Jenkins: 367 yards (6.93 ypc), 1 TD
Arizona's three-headed rushing attack puts up 280 rushing yards per game. While Denker is the primary ball carrier, Denker runs the ball about 13 times per game and Jenkins gets about 7-8 carries per game.

Receiving

  • Nate Phillips: 17 receptions, 268 yards, 3 TDs
  • Garic Wharton: 12 receptions, 214 yards, 2 TDs
  • Terrence Miller: 13 receptions, 195 yards, 0 TDs
  • Samajie Grant: 24 receptions, 177 yards, 1 TD
  • Ka'Deem Carey: 18 receptions, 131 yards, 0 TDs
Arizona spreads the ball around well among both its inside and outside receivers. Even the RBs receive several targets per game. Not surprisingly, these receivers do not often individually tally more than 50 yards in a game.

Team Stats

Scoring

  • 36.3 points per game (30th)
  • 465.3 yards per game (35th)
Despite a (formerly) sub-par passing game, the Arizona offense is very productive. They are saved by one of the most productive rushing attacks in the nation.

Passing

  • 177.3 passing yards per game (109th)
  • 6.3 yards per passing attempt (98th)
  • 119.52 pass efficiency (89th)
Arizona's shortcomings through the air had been issues of both productivity and efficiency. They average almost 30 passing attempts per game, so the passing game is (in theory) a respectable portion of their offense.

Rushing

  • 288.0 rushing yards per game (11th)
  • 5.93 yards per carry (10th)
The Wildcats average just under 50 rushing attempts per game. Unfortunately for us, they are a high-volume, high-efficiency rushing team. This offense has run for 300+ yards four times this season and has tallied 705 yards over the past two games.

Conversions

  • 48.72% third down conversions (23rd)
  • 40.00% fourth down conversions (84th)
  • 62.07% red zone touchdowns (68th)
They have a great third-down conversion rate, but they struggle to turn red zone opportunities into points. As we have seen, a one-dimensional offense generally struggles to score in the red zone.

Ball Management

  • 8 turnovers (12th)
  • 28:07.71 avg. time of possession (99th)
  • 21.96 seconds per play (pace: slightly fast) (Cal avg. 19.70)
The Wildcats take excellent care of the ball, but they do not hold onto it for very long nor do they run their offense at a noteworthy pace.

Negative Yardage

  • 1.29 sacks allowed per game (30th)
  • 3.43 tackles for loss allowed per game (2nd)
  • 41.1 penalty yards per game (25th)
This team does not have a habit of generating negative yardage. Our good friend Jim Michalczik is doing great things with the Arizona offensive line. Their sack numbers are down slightly from last year (1.39 per game) while the TFLs are substantially lower (5.31 per game). It is unbelievable that a Pac-12 team is in the top-25 for fewest penalty yards.

Conclusions

It's hard not to have a bad feeling about this game. This is an Arizona offense that finally has a solid passing game to balance out its incredibly productive rushing game. Arizona stretches defenses both vertically and horizontally to get its best playmakers in space. It has enough team speed to threaten a TD on every play. Their QB, RB, and top WRs are all extremely dangerous in open space. Fortunately for the Bears, we have already seen everything this offense has to offer. However, we have struggled mightily to stop each concept of the Arizona offense. Arizona will not telegraph its plays like Oregon or UCLA does. Cal's players will need to be quick and decisive as they diagnose Arizona's plays as they unfold. Cal needs to gang-tackle Carey, defeat blocks from WRs, and avoid biting on a run every time Denker escapes the pocket. Sounds simple enough, right?

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