UTSA-Arizona Preview

Publish date:

Arizona is seeking to prove its Pac-12 doubters wrong and would appear to have plenty of chances to tune up before conference play begins.

The No. 22 Wildcats, though, aren't taking Thursday night's opener too lightly after last year's competitive game against Texas-San Antonio.

Arizona is returning virtually all of its major skill players on offense, including sophomore quarterback Anu Solomon. Disruptive linebacker and prolific tackler Scooby Wright is also back to anchor the defense, but the Wildcats were picked to finish fourth in the Pac-12 South behind Southern California, Arizona State and UCLA.

Arizona was also selected to finish fourth in last year's preseason poll but won the South title for the first time while finishing 10-4, its first campaign with double-digit wins since 1998.

"There was some expert poll that gave us a 2 percent chance," coach Rich Rodriguez said. "It's like that (line in the movie) 'Dumb & Dumber,' 'What's the chance of a guy like me getting a girl like you ... one in a million. So you're telling me there's a chance?' Two percent? Better than one in a million, right?"

Before opening the conference season Sept. 26 against the 13th-ranked Bruins, Rodriguez's team will face Nevada and Northern Arizona along with UTSA. The Wildcats have 12 games scheduled without a bye week.

In the first, they'll face a team they edged 26-23 on the road last September. UTSA held three-point lead in the second quarter and had three chances to move ahead again in the final 5 1/2 minutes but didn't get past its own 31-yard line.

That's why Rodriguez isn't considering his first three games a version of the NFL preseason.

"Just look at UTSA, last year it went down to the last play," he said. "We just look at the first game and what we have to do to win that one, and then after that one we will look at the next game. I have never looked past or forward to any games."

Nick Wilson, who ran for 174 yards and a touchdown in that win, is back for his sophomore season after racking up 1,375 rushing yards and 16 TDs in 2014. Much of the receiving corps is intact, including 1,000-yard man Cayleb Jones, but it will have a little less depth for at least the first two weeks with Trey Griffey and Tyrell Johnson dealing with foot injuries.

Offensive lineman Carter Wood is out for the season because of an ailing foot, leaving Arizona with three experienced players on a unit that struggled to protect down the stretch. The Wildcats gave up 16 of their 40 sacks in the final three games, including eight in a loss to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl.

While he threw for 335 yards in that defeat, Solomon averaged 195.4 in his final five games with three touchdowns and four interceptions. He averaged 312.9 yards with 25 TDs and five picks in the first nine contests, and totaled 304 yards on the ground.

Solomon was benched at halftime in the Pac-12 championship loss to Oregon in part because of an ailing ankle. The Wildcats were blown out 51-13 on Dec. 5, two months after dealing the then-No. 2 Ducks a 31-24 home loss.

Wright had one of his 14 sacks in that victory and led FBS with 163 tackles, including 99 solo stops and an NCAA-best 29 for loss. He's seeking to add more to his trophy case after winning the Nagurski, Lombardi and Bednarik awards while earning unanimous All-American and Pac-12 defensive player of the year honors.

While its star is back, Arizona must replace four starters in the secondary and linebacker Cody Ippolito is out for these season with a torn ACL.

UTSA finished 4-8 in 2014, its fourth season as a program, after going 15-9 in its first two FBS campaigns.

Led by coach Larry Coker, a 2001 national title winner at Miami, the Roadrunners will follow this contest with games against Kansas State and Oklahoma State. UTSA has won each of its four season openers, but is 0-2 against Top 25 opponents and is returning six starters this year.

Arizona won 38-13 in the first meeting between the schools Sept. 14, 2013, in Tucson.