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The top storylines of the Arizona Wildcats’ season-opener against UNLV tonight at Arizona Stadium while wondering what it will be like without No. 25 on the field …
— Taylor Bern of the Las Vegas Sun spent some of his quality time this week researching UNLV’s top upsets heading into the Rebels’ game tonight. Bern listed five upsets, including UNLV’s 23-20 win at No. 15 ASU in 2008. The other upsets included at No. 14 Wisconsin in 2003, at No. 16 Colorado State in 2002, against Arkansas in the 2000 Las Vegas Bowl and at No. 8 BYU in 1981. The Rebels have not defeated a team ranked higher than No. 8. Arizona, meanwhile, has 12 wins against teams ranked No. 8 or higher. UNLV’s upset victims — ASU (5-7), Wisconsin (7-6), Colorado State (10-4), Arkansas (6-6) and BYU (11-2) — finished with a combined record of 39-25 (a winning percentage of only 60.9) in their respective seasons. No wonder a win over an unranked Arizona team is so inviting. …
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— This is the first fall in Tucson without Ka’Deem Carey on a football field for almost 15 years, dating to when he played in the Tucson Youth Football league. Carey, the former Canyon del Oro star, rushed for 3,814 yards and 42 scores the last two years for the Wildcats. The Wildcats bid farewell to their greatest offensive player in program history. Arizona goes from that production to banking on a former walk-on who almost quit because of academics — Terris Jones-Grigsby. Look at it this way: Jones-Grigsby must have won over Rich Rodriguez and the coaching staff significantly to emerge from that kind of humble beginning. …
— Rick Neuheisel discussed Thursday night Rodriguez’s successful history of coaching quarterbacks who thrived in their first season of college football. “Rich Rodriguez has such a great track record with one-year quarterbacks — Matt Scott and B.J. Denker at Arizona — but go back to West Virginia, Pat White, go to Michigan, Dernard Robinson. These guys all flourished in Year One in the Rich Rod system,” Neuheisel said on the Pac-12 Networks set. “I think this young man (redshirt freshman Anu Solomon) will as well.” OK, let’s go back. White was magnificent — on the ground — as a first-time starter his freshman season in 2005. He gained 952 yards on 131 carries, while passing for less yards (828) in West Virginia’s 11-1 season. Robinson was a sophomore at Michigan in 2011, following first-year starters Steven Threet and Tate Forcier — both freshmen under Rodriguez who couldn’t hold the starting job. Robinson was dynamic, however, in his first year as a starter, throwing for 2,502 yards (182 completions in 291 attempts) and rushing for 1,702 on 256 carries. Rodriguez’s record in seasons with a first-year quarterback is a combined 51-37 (affected significantly by the combined record of 8-16 with Threet and Forcier). …
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— After UNLV was routed 58-13 by Arizona last September at Sam Boyd Stadium, the Rebels went 7-4 (including 3-1 on the road) in their last 11 games to save Bobby Hauck’s job. The way the Rebels responded with senior quarterback backup Caleb Herring (who replaced faltering starter Nick Sherry in the third quarter against Arizona) also saved Jim Livengood some grief. The former Arizona and UNLV athletic director hired Hauck. He could have seen his last two football coach hires — Mike Stoops and Hauck — fired within a two-year span. Livengood also hired John Mackovic. Say this much for Livengood: At least he stuck with Hauck when many were calling for a mid-season firing. Livengood should get a lifelong pass for hiring Sean Miller, a move that is climbing the charts as one of the top 10 hires in Arizona history.
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— When UNLV offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Timm Rosenbach played his last game at Arizona Stadium — in 1988 with Washington State — he led the nation in passing efficiency. That did not matter in Arizona’s 45-28 drubbing of the Cougars behind four touchdown runs by Ronald Veal. Rosenbach threw three touchdown passes for the Cougars, who led the country with a total-offense average of 567 yards under Dennis Erickson. Rosenbach, who played with the Arizona Cardinals from 1989-92 and later coached at Wazzu (2003-2007), is now tutoring former Mesa Mountain View and Scottsdale Community College quarterback Blake Decker, who like Solomon makes his major-college debut tonight. Rosenbach almost quit the coaching profession after the 2009 season when he was fired by New Mexico State following two years as the Aggies’ offensive coordinator. He was hired by Montana as offensive coordinator in 2012, moved to Weber State in the same capacity in 2013 for 45 days before Hauck hired him last year. He could be on the move again if Hauck does not last beyond this season, although UNLV extended his contract this January amid controversy through 2016.
— Fitting that in the 100-year anniversary in which Arizona became the Wildcats, because of how the school’s Varsity played at Occidental, that Arizona is opening with a freshman quarterback tonight. In J.F. “Pop” McKale’s first game as Arizona’s coach in 1914, he started true freshman Richard Meyer, a former Tucson High standout, against the Douglas Y.M.C.A. McKale immediately instilled the belief that those who practice the best start, not those who have more experience.
— UNLV defensive end Josh Shirley, a senior who transferred from Washington after gaining admittance to UNLV’s graduate program, had one tackle, stopping Carey from behind on a short gain, last year in Arizona’s 31-13 loss in Seattle. One player from a Pac-12 institution lost on UNLV’s roster is walk-on running back Eugene Johnson, who attended Arizona in 2010 but did not play football for the Wildcats. He is only 5’6″ and 145 pounds but he led UNLV in rushing in a recent scrimmage. Others from Pac-12 schools on UNLV’s roster: Former Oregon State receiver Maika Mataele and UCLA defensive lineman Brandon Willis. In 2012, Willis returned a fumble against Arizona 38 yards to set up a UCLA touchdown in the Bruins’ 66-10 win. Willis started last year for UCLA in the showdown game with ASU with the Pac-12 South title on the line. UNLV is Willis’ third school. He attended North Carolina out of high school and transferred to UCLA after one season. He graduated and is playing one year for the Rebels.
— Greatest opening-game memory in Tucson: Vance Johnson returning the initial kickoff for a touchdown against Oregon State in a 38-12 win in 1982. That was a fitting way to kick off that season, the most memorable in Arizona history. The Wildcats beat No. 9 Notre Dame and No. 6 ASU that year and tied No. 8 UCLA. They also played a classic game against No. 16 USC, losing 48-41 at Arizona Stadium. Only 35,599 fans attended the Oregon State game at Arizona Stadium mostly because of the Beavers’ ineptitude at the time. According to Arizona Daily Star columnist Greg Hansen, Jimmy “The Greek” made a comment about Oregon State being “a girls team” on the eve of the game. Oregon State coach Joe Avezzano responded by calling Jimmy The Greek “a fat slob.” Oregon State finished 1-9-1.
— Arizona’s worst opening-game experience at Arizona Stadium: Losing 27-22 against Fresno State in 1984 after the Wildcats went as high as No. 3 in the polls the previous season. John Conner, a senior starting his first game as a quarterback for Arizona, was lost for the season with a knee injury in that game. To make matters worse, Conner hurt his knee while trying to make a tackle after he threw an interception late in the first half.
— What to look forward to the most tonight: Austin Hill’s return and Solomon’s performance. And also who will have the most receptions? That should be a fun question to ask all season. Hill, who will attract the opponent’s top cornerback, has a lot of competition in that regard.
— Arizona is favored by 24 points tonight. That is a bit high given the circumstances of Solomon’s first start and Arizona’s coaches likely keeping the play-calling conservative while also attempting to establish a running game with Carey gone. UNLV’s turnaround last year shows the Rebels believe in Hauck so they will play with a purpose, especially after they had a bowl ban lifted in June because of an improved Academic Progress Report grade. Final score: Arizona 31, UNLV 14.