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Know Your Enemy: Previewing the Arizona Offense

We delve into the labyrinth that is RichRod's playbook.

They call me The Count
They call me The Count
Christian Petersen

I have a suspicion that this Saturday Art Kaufman is going to feel much like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.  You see this formation below?  Arizona is going to line up like this over and over and over...

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On roughly 70% of plays under Rich Rodriguez, Arizona has lined up in the above formation.  The QB lines up in the shotgun with 4 WRs, two on each side of the field, and his RB over and slightly behind him.  They will run a wide variety of plays from this set.  Unfortunately for the defense, this means they will not know which play the Wildcats will run until the ball is snapped.  In fact, RichRod will let the defense dictate the plays the offense runs.  Let's hear from the coach himself.

Philosophy: Numbers, Angles, Grass

Here RichRod gives a quick analysis of what he looks for on offense. (Note: this generally assumes Arizona is operating out of its base formation above, which I will call their 2x2 set.)

Did you like the use of the overhead projector?  I haven't seen one of those things used in about 15 years.

Numbers

The first thing Arizona looks for on offense is numerical mismatch.  As RichRod says in the video, he counts the number of DBs covering the receivers.  If Arizona has 2 WRs on one side of the field and only one DB covering them, they will pass the ball there.  If 2 CBs and a safety are covering a pair of receivers, Arizona will be at a disadvantage and look elsewhere on this play.

Next he counts the number of players in the box.  If the defense has 7 or more players in the box, Arizona will be at a numerical disadvantage (or as RichRod says, have "bad numbers").  With 5 O-linemen and 1 RB, Arizona's blockers will be outnumbered 7 to 5.  Arizona will look to pass in this situation.  If the defense has 6 in the box, Arizona will still be at a disadvantage (6 defenders, 5 blockers).  In this situation, Arizona can run its zone read, which leaves one defender (the one being read) unblocked.  Now the numbers turn in Arizona's favor as the Wildcats have 5 blockers against 5 defenders.  Finally, if the defense has 5 or fewer defenders in the box, Arizona will run almost every time.

Angles

When running the ball, the Arizona offense will look at how the defensive lineman position themselves against the O-line.  The D-linemen may be directly ahead of the O-linemen (this is called an "even" technique) or slightly to the left/right (this is called "odd" technique).  Depending on whether a D-lineman is lined up near a center, guard, tackle, or tight end, the technique has a different number.  Bear Bryant originally came up with the numbering system illustrated below.

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via trojanfootballanalysis.com

If a DT lines up directly ahead of the center, he will have 0-technique.  If he's just to the left or right of the center, it's a 1-technique.  If he's ahead of the guard, he's in 2-technique.  If he's in between the guard and tackle, he's in 3-technique.  And so on.

RichRod looks at how the defense lines up to determine where the point of attack will be for the running game.  Let's say the defense lines up 5-1-3-5.  In this case, RichRod would rather attack the gap between the 5-1 defenders than the gap between the 3-5 defenders.  It's easier for the offense to block down on the 1 (in fact, the DL can be double teamed because the guard is not directly responsible for anyone) and the tackle can block out on the 5.  The blocking angles work better here than if they attacked tried to open up the 3-5 gap.

Grass

Finally, we have the grass concept.  If Arizona cannot gain an advantage with the numbers or with the angles, they will generally play towards the open side of the field.  If they are on the left hash, for example, they will run the play to the right, and vice versa.  This gives Arizona's playmakers more room to operate and a greater chance to break free into open space.

Rushing

I usually start with the passing game and then preview the rushing game, but we'll switch them today because Arizona combines some of its running and passing concepts into the same play.   Accordingly, I find it easier to dissect the running game and then see which elements of the running game are also used in the passing game.

Fortunately for us, Kadeem Carey and his 4,239 career yards, 48 career TDs, and 5.7 yards per carry have departed to the NFL.  Same with QB B.J. Denker who ran for 949 yards and 13 TDs on an impressive 5.25 yards per carry.  With such strong runners on last year's team, Arizona opted to run on 63% of plays last season.  Arizona is still a run-heavy team, but that number is down to 55% in 2014.  Running for at least 200 yards in every game this season, Arizona's run game will be a tough challenge for our defense.  Let's see how they do it.

Scheme

Arizona relies heavily on inside zone running and the zone read.  They will mix in an occasional option or reverse, but inside zone runs are the bread and butter of Arizona's rushing attack.

Zone Read

Arizona lines up in its base formation.  UW is aggressively playing to defend the run.  Although RichRod has bad numbers for running, he's going to run anyway.

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Below I have illustrated concept of the zone read.  The zone read leaves a defender unblocked while the QB meshes with the RB. The QB reads the unblocked defender. If the defender 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.

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Here the circled UW defender (our good friend Shaq Thompson) has an easy decision. The weakside LB 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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Denker sees nothing but open field and charges ahead for a huge gain. Great closing speed from the corner at the bottom of the screen prevented a TD.  I bet Syd would have contained the QB if he were being read...

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And in motion:

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If you're fortunate enough to have the 2013 season wiped from your memory, you will not remember how badly Arizona tore up our red zone defense with the zone read last year.  The defense always moved inside to defend against a run from Carey and Denker would keep the ball for an easy run.  He scored 3 TDs this way.

Let's relive the horror.  First, the outside linebacker towards the bottom of the screen runs inside to defend against a run from Carey.  At the same time, the safety does the same thing.  This leaves no one to stop Denker.  He could have run all the way to Richmond without being touched.

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Below, a LB bites again on the Carey run.

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And finally we have Arizona's final TD which has been seared into my brain since that game (I remember it from the end zone angle, however).  Kragen is unblocked and bites on Carey's run, which leaves acres of open space for Denker.

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Praise be to all deities that were, that are, and that ever will be that Andy Buh is gone.

Option/Reverse

Next we'll take a look at some other wrinkles Arizona may show on Saturday.  The option and reverse are in the Wildcats' repertoire and this play (almost) illustrates both at once.  Below Arizona lines 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 (same side as the TE) 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 horrible block from Carey, Denker manages to cross the plane of the end zone just before he goes out of bounds.

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And in motion:

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I thought this play as a little bizarre. Carey was not a good run blocker last year, 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.

Stats

The Wildcats had a formidable rushing offense last season.  By some miracle, however, they had their second-worst production on the ground against Cal last season.  Even a broken clock is right twice per day, right?

  • (2013) 264.9 yards per game (11th)
  • (2013) 5.32 yards per carry (15th)
  • (2014) 268.3 yards per game (20th)
  • (2014) 6.19 yards per carry (17th)

Arizona is more productive and much more efficient on the ground this season.  I wouldn't put too much stock into those stats, however, as Arizona has yet to play a single Power 5 team.  They're good at running the ball, but I don't think they're 6.19 yards per carry good.

These are all new faces for the Arizona offense.  Nick Wilson is a true freshman, Terris Jones-Grigsby played on special teams last year, and Anu Solomon redshirted in 2013.

  • RB #28 Nick Wilson (2014): 449 yards, 6.80 yards per carry, 4 TDs
  • RB #24 Terris Jones-Grigsby (2014): 124 yards, 9.54 yards per carry, 1 TD
  • QB #12 Anu Solomon (2014): 121 yards, 5.26 yards per carry, 0 TDs

Terris Jones-Grigsby was originally the Wildcats' starter but missed the last two games with injury.  He and his 9.54 yards per carry are questionable for Saturday.  No matter. True freshman Nick Wilson has been incredibly productive in his two games as starter.  He's currently 6th in the nation in rushing yards and has a Jahvid-esque 6.80 yards per carry.  Anu Solomon has a consistent 8, 8, and 7 carries in 3 games this season.  He does not run often, but he's efficient when he does use his legs.


Personnel

We have seen the stars of the Arizona running game, but the he unsung heroes of Arizona's rushing attack are its offensive linemen.  Arizona returns 4 of 5 starters from last year (only replacing the right guard) and these linemen have 72 starts combined.  The O-line is coached by our old friend Jim Michalczik and looks every bit as good as the lines he developed in his first stint at Cal.

The leader of Arizona's running game (unless Jones-Grigsby comes back from his ankle injury)  is the 5' 10", 199lb Nick Wilson.  He's a true freshman and four-star recruit from the Fresno area.  Although he began the season sharing second team duties, he has become the undisputed leader of the rushing game.  His 66 carries are more than the rest of the team combined.  Despite his lofty yards per carry statistics, he's not a speedster.  He is a powerful runner with impressive cutting abilities.

It does not sound like we're likely to see him, but Terris Jones-Grigsby is a tough, 5'7", 195 lb back.  He has a good burst of acceleration and an impressive ability to cut.  He puts all that weight to good use and can churn through a pile of defenders.

Finally, Solomon rounds out the main threat in the rushing game.  Again, he does not run often, but he's reasonably adept when he does.  He looks a bit careless when running the ball--he has a tendency to hold the ball away from his body which makes him susceptible to fumbles.  He is not particularly fast and he looks a bit awkward when running.

Passing

Despite breaking in a new QB, Arizona is passing more often than they did last year.  They are passing on 45% of plays, up from 37% last season.

I'll break up the following section into three subsections to highlight three main concepts of the Arizona passing game.  First is the simple passing game to get ~10 yards at a time, then we have a look at how Arizona uses space (or lack thereof) to get its receivers open, and finally we look at their screen game.

Scheme

Simple Passes

Much of the following material comes from the authority on this offense: Rich Rodriguez himself (between this and his numbers-angles-grass video he certainly has made this preview easier!). 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 will see this over and over this season from teams like Arizona, Wazzu, and Oregon. 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.

Below you will see how the receiver's sudden stop can catch a DB flat-footed and unable to adjust.

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Smash: Next is the Smash, which mixes the hitch route with a deeper corner route. We will see this again from Washington State in a few weeks. 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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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.

Next we will examine how Arizona will overload one side of the field with more receivers than defenders.

Flooding the field

Arizona lines up in its usual 2x2 formation.  UW has two CBs and a safety on the field side (top) receivers and a CB and a safety on the boundary side (bottom) receivers.

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The field side receivers intersect and run a hitch route and go route.  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.  The RB will run a wheel route, but who is going to cover him?

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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 CB down the field. Meanwhile the inside receiver's crossing route is designed to pull the linebackers and safety horizontally towards the top of the screen.

Everything works to plan.  The outside receiver pulls the cornerback downfield.  The safety follows the inside receiver horizontally across the field. The linebacker hesitates for a second as the inside receiver runs past him, which allows the RB to run wide open down the field.  The only defender who can make a play is the CB, who breaks free from the outside receiver. Denker delivers a well thrown ball (highlighted) and Carey makes it inside the 10 before being tackled.

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And in motion:

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

One of the reasons these kinds of plays can be so successful is that they exploit potential miscommunication and mistrust from the defense.  If defensive players get their coverages mixed up, receivers will be free to run in open space.  In the above play the boundary side safety covers the inside receiver during the whole play, but the linebacker briefly believes he is responsible for him.  This kinds of confusion is easy to create when multiple WR routes intersect.

Take a look at this, for example:

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Routes on both sides of the field intersect.  The inside receiver on the bottom of the screen ends up being double-covered because both the LB and CB defend him.  This leaves a seam in the defense for the outside receiver, who is wide open for a moment.  Had Denker delivered a better pass, this could have been a touchdown.

We have one more example of how Arizona floods the field, the sprint crease.

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. 1) Receiver Z runs a go route and is the home run threat.  2) Receiver Y runs towards the hashmark for about 12-15 yards before turning this into an out route. 3) H also runs an out route. And 4) the QB decides which receiver he wants to pass to or if he should run. RichRod's numbers lesson tells us that it requires 4 defenders to cover 4 players in a narrow strip of space.  With so many bodies in a small space, defenders could easily mix up their assignments amid the traffic.  If one of the players defending H, Y, or Z bites on the QB run, the QB will throw a pass for a big gain.

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.  Remember what RichRod said about 6 defenders in the box?  It can easily be turned to the offense's advantage with a zone read. We can begin 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.

We have one final concept for the Arizona passing offense, screens.

Screens

This game could be a good preview of how we will perform against the UCLA passing attack.  UCLA runs screens constantly, more than any other Pac-12 team.

Dual Screen: As the name implies, this is a combination of a jailbreak screen on the left and a RB screen on the right.

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The jailbreak screen is useful for burning a team that blitzes often.  It's risky however, as the QB will need to deliver a pass with defenders quickly bearing down on him.  I have a clip below of a dual screen play.  Notice how the offensive linemen at the top of screen quickly move downfield to start blocking.  With 4 Cal defenders charging towards him, Denker delivers the pass for a big gain.

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Bubble Screen

RichRod will also run the bubble screen.

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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.

Bonus: All together now!

In case you're not sufficiently horrified by the variety of the Arizona offense, I have one more surprise for you.  Arizona will combine concepts from the zone read and the passing game into a single play. Instead of reading an unblocked linebacker or defensive end, Arizona may read a defensive back and determine whether to run or pass.  If the DB being read (usually a safety) bites on the run, Arizona will pass.  If he drops back, they will hand the ball off.

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I'm glad the team had last week off because there is clearly much to learn about this Arizona offense.

Stats

Despite a wide variety of passing plays, the Arizona passing attack was neither ferociously productive nor efficient last season.

  • (2013) 193.5 yards per game (99th)
  • (2013) 6.6 yards per attempt (91st)
  • (2013) 126.15 efficiency rating (77th)

These stats are all quite pedestrian.  Of course, this partly hinges on the fact that BJ Denker was not a particularly adept passer.  His replacement has looked strong, however...

  • QB #12 Anu Solomon (2014): 934 yards, 9.2 yards per attempt, 62.7% completions, 8 TDs, 1 interception.

Through three games (again, against a somewhat weak OOC schedule) Solomon has looked great twice and mediocre once. Despite throwing 102 passes, he only has one interception.  It was a terrible interception, however.  As he was getting spun around and sacked, he lobbed a wobbling pass into traffic and it was intercepted by Nevada.

Solomon has a wide but somewhat inexperienced group of receivers to pass to on Saturday.

  • WR #6 Nate Philips (2013): 696 yards, 13.65 yards per reception, 7 TDs
  • WR #10 Samajie Grant (2013): 373 yards, 7.94 yards per reception, 1 TD
  • WR #10 Samajie Grant (2014): 205 yards, 14.64 yards per reception, 1 TD
  • WR #29 Austin Hill (2012): 1,364 yards, 16.84 yards per reception, 11 TDs
  • WR #29 Austin Hill (2014): 136 yards, 19.43 yards per reception, 1 TD
  • WR #1 Cayleb Jones (2014): 289 yards, 18.06 yards per reception, 3 TDs

In part due to Arizona's reliance on the run and in part due to Denker's inaccuracy, Arizona's returning receivers were not particularly productive last season.  Further hampering the AZ receivers was that Austin Hill was out with a torn ACL.  Whether the Arizona passing game can match its 2012 production depends on Solomon.

Personnel

The passing game will be directed by QB (#12) Anu Solomon, a 6' 2", 198 lb redshirt freshman.  The four-star recruit won four state titles in high school.  He's a decent passer who is most accurate on short routes.  His downfield accuracy was missing until last week against Nevada.  We'll have to see if that accuracy was a fluke or an omen.

The undisputed star of the AZ passing game is slot receiver (#29) Austin Hill.  The 6' 3" 215 lb Biletnikoff Award semifinalist was an All-Pac-12 second teamer in 2012.  He tore his ACL in spring of 2013 and missed the season.  His knee seems to be in good shape, as he has retained his excellent ability to make quick lateral cuts.  He has good acceleration and can pull away from slower DBs, but is best at making space through lateral movement.  His size can be an issue and he will dominate smaller corners.

Fellow slot receiver (#6) Nate Phillips is a returning starter who was named an All-Pac-12 honorable mention last season.  At 5'7" 177, he is rather undersized for a receiver.

Outside we have (#10) Samajie Grant who is also rather undersized at 5' 9", 177.  He reportedly sat out practice this week and may be questionable for Saturday.

The offense will also feature a couple new transfers.  Texas transfer (#1) Cayleb Jones is a big, physical receiver at 6'3", 215 lbs.  He's not particularly fast and his big frame makes it look like he runs in slow motion.  He also reportedly has a mean right hook.

Fellow transfer DaVonte Neal is a 5'10", 177 lb receiver from Notre Dame.

Finally, the passing game will be anchored by a solid offensive line.  Again, four of the five starters return and collectively they have 72 starts under their belts.  This group's pass protection is solid.

Miscellaneous

And now for the hodgepodge of stats that did not fit elsewhere.

  • (2013) 33.5 points per game (35th)
  • (2014) 39.7 points per game (35th)
  • (2013) 458.5 yards per game (30th)
  • (2014) 582.7 yards per game (8th)

Again, take Arizona's weak schedule into consideration when looking at those 2014 stats.  The offense was strong in 2013 and could be on its way to another impressive year.

  • (2013) 47.17% third down conversions (19th)
  • (2014) 44.44% third down conversions (60th)
  • (2013) 66.06% red zone touchdowns (39th)
  • (2014) 50.00% red zone touchdowns (93rd)

A sign of a team that relies heavily on young playmakers, third down conversion and red zone touchdown numbers do not reflect well on Arizona this season.

  • (2013) 18 turnovers (31st)
  • (2014) 1 turnover (5th)
  • (2013) 1.23 sacks allowed per game (16th)
  • (2014) 1.33 sacks allowed per game (38th)
  • (2013) 4.39 tackles for loss allowed per game (15th)
  • (2014) 2.67 tackles for loss allowed per game (6th)

An underrated aspect of the Arizona offense is how well they take care of the ball.  That stellar O-line limits the number of sacks and tackles for loss.

  • (2013) Avg. time of possession 28:30.08 (96th)
  • (2014) Avg. time of possession 27:34.67 (107th)
  • (2013) 21.58 seconds per play (fast)
  • (2014) 21.21 seconds per play (fast)

Arizona moves very quickly when they have the ball.  As a result, their time of possession is usually rather low.

Conclusions

And there you have it, 4,500 words on the Arizona offense.  Arizona follows a numbers-angles-grass philosophy.  They will count the number of players defending the WRs and the number of players in the box.  If Arizona has a numbers advantage it will attack that part of the field. If Arizona opts to run the ball the Wildcats will identify how the defensive linemen are positioned over the offensive linemen and generally run towards the location where they have the best blocking angles.  If the numbers and angles give no advantage, Arizona will the play towards open field.

Arizona runs behind a strong, veteran offensive line.  When running the ball Arizona will rely heavily on inside running and incorporate plenty of inside zone read.  They may run option or an occasional reverse.  Arizona has an extremely diverse passing offense.  They have a variety of short routes (hitches, etc.) to give Solomon some easy passes.  They will get their playmakers in open space by flooding parts of the field in an attempt to take advantage of miscommunication in the defense.  Finally, Arizona will negate pressure and blitzes by employing a variety of screens.  Although Arizona is largely inexperienced and lacking top-end speed, it has several athletes who have excellent lateral speed and acceleration.  No one on the Cal defense will have an easy assignment on Saturday.