Arizona Football

Off-the-beaten-path storylines: USC Trojans at Arizona Wildcats


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Random thoughts while wondering what constitutes a hot seat in college football coaching? …

— Arizona director of athletics Greg Byrne was quoted as saying by The Arizona Daily Star’s Michael Lev last week after the loss at Utah that any insinuation of Rich Rodriguez being on the hot seat is “ridiculous” talk. “From time to time, I’ve been asked some ridiculous questions by the media,” Byrne told Lev. “I think that one just went to the top of the list.”

Rodriguez is in his fifth season with a 2-4 record, which indicates the Wildcats are not gaining mileage from their 2014 season in which they won the Pac-12 South title and played in the Fiesta Bowl. That type of problem ultimately claimed Dick Tomey’s career. The Wildcats struggled going 11-12 in the two seasons following the 12-1 record and victory over Nebraska in the 1998 Holiday Bowl. After Arizona and its famed Desert Swarm defense went 10-2 and won the 1994 Fiesta Bowl 29-0 over Miami, the Wildcats fell off the radar going 26-22 in the following four years before the 1998 team made history with its school-record 12 wins.

At least Tomey reached 14 years in his tenure at Arizona, which trails only J.F. “Pop” McKale’s 16 years as the Arizona coach with the longest stint (from 1914 to 1930). In the last 50 years, Arizona has employed nine head coaches. More than half of them — five — had a shorter coaching span than Rodriguez has now. The average length of tenure for Arizona head coaches from 1967 to now: 5.6 years. Rodriguez is at that very threshold now in the midway point of his fifth year in Tucson. Here’s the list:

Yrs Coach Span W L T Pct.
2 Darrell Mudra 1967-68 11 9 1 .548
4 Bob Weber 1969-72 16 26 0 .381
4 Jim Young 1973-76 31 13 0 .705
3 Tony Mason 1977-79 16 18 1 .471
7 Larry Smith 1980-86 48 28 3 .627
14 Dick Tomey 1987-2000 95 64 4 .583
3 John Mackovic 2001-03 10 18 0 .357
8 Mike Stoops 2004-11 41 50 0 .451
5 Rich Rodriguez 2012- 35 24 0 .593

Rodriguez afforded himself more time by attempting to restructure his defense transitioning from Jeff Casteel to Marcel Yates this season. If Rodriguez was defiant keeping his old buddy Casteel, similar to Les Miles choosing his allegiance with offensive coordinator Cam Cameron over his bond with LSU, then we can talk hot seat for Rodriguez. Give credit to Rodriguez for realizing a change had to be made. It’s too quick to pull the trigger now. I say give Yates through 2018 to get his players, implement his system and show that Rodriguez’s move to acquire him shows why the head coach should remain in charge. …


— With Brandon Dawkins questionable with a concussion — the NCAA is much more strict now with concussion protocol than when Matt Scott threw up on the field against USC four years ago — chances are true freshman Khalil Tate will get his first collegiate start today against the Trojans. Anu Solomon remains listed as doubtful with a knee injury. If he starts against USC today, Tate will become the 12th freshman quarterback — fifth as a true freshman — to start for the program since Arizona joined the Pac-10 in 1978.

Here is the list …

ARIZONA FRESHMAN QB FIRST CAREER STARTS SINCE WILDCATS JOINED PAC-10 IN 1978
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Year Quarterback RS/T Date Game Opponent Score C A Yds TD INT
1980 Tom Tunnicliffe T 10/25 6th No.2 Notre Dame ND/20-3 15 26 95 0 2
1987 Ronald Veal T 10/3 4th Bowling Green UA/41-7 9 15 164 0 0
1987 Jeff Hammerschmidt RS 10/31 9th Stanford UA/23-13 1 1 18 0 0
1989 George Malauulu RS 10/28 8th Pacific UA/38-14 5 7 110 1 0
1996 Keith Smith RS 9/14 3rd Illnois UA/41-0 7 14 31 1 1
1997 Ortege Jenkins RS 10/4 5th San Diego St. UA/31-28 17 32 285 3 0
2003 Ryan O'Hara RS 9/20 4th at No.25 Purdue PU/59-7 7 15 39 0 1
2003 Kris Heavner T 9/27 5th No. 19 TCU TCU/13-10 (OT) 14 29 276 1 3
2004 Richard Kovalcheck RS 10/23 7th at No.7 Cal Cal/38-0 13 32 159 0 1
2005 Willie Tuitama T 10/29 8th at Oregon St. UA/29-27 13 22 335 2 0
2014 Anu Solomon RS 8/29 1st UNLV UA/58-13 25 44 425 4 0

If Tate has the kind of performance Solomon had in his first career start as a redshirt freshman quarterback in 2014, the Wildcats will be in good shape against the Trojans at Arizona Stadium. Solomon, a junior, was the last freshman to start a game when Arizona played UNLV in the 2014 season opener. He threw for 425 yards and four touchdowns as Arizona broke a 45-year-old school record with 787 total yards in a 58-13 rout over the Rebels at Arizona Stadium.

After settling down following inaccurate throws early, Solomon broke the school freshman record for passing yards, highlighted by a 92-yard touchdown pass to Austin Hill on the first play of the second half. “I had a little jitters and I think you could see them with some of my bad passes,” Solomon said after that game. “Overall, I felt more anxious than nervous.”

How Tate handles his first career start will be important to the outcome against USC, if he indeed starts. One thing is for certain: Tate must avoid injury or else it becomes panic time similar to Tomey having to use defensive back Jeff Hammerschmidt as a redshirt freshman starter in 1987.

Hammerschmidt was rushed into duty five games into the season — Tomey’s first with Arizona — at Cal because of injuries to SMU tansfer Bobby Watters (in his first year with the program) and true freshman Ronald Veal. Mostly used as a running quarterback, “Hammer”, as he was called, made his first and only start at Stanford, in the ninth game of the 1987 season. Hammerschmidt only passed once in the first quarter, an 18-yard completion, before Veal replaced him in the second quarter. Veal passed for 274 yards and a touchdown in the 23-13 win over the Cardinal (highlighted by Cecil’s four interceptions) and he remained the starter the rest of the season.

You can read about how Arizona’s previous 11 freshman quarterback starters came to be in that position and how they fared in that role by clicking here.

Some would say Rodriguez has already panicked by taking Tate out of his redshirt year. Rodriguez had no option. Zach Werlinger struggled in his snaps at UCLA. The next option is now former San Diego State quarterback Matt Morin, who has evolved into more of a tight end. He was a three-star quarterback in high school who has not thrown a pass in a game since his senior season in 2011. …

— Is Clay Helton no better than those coaches USC used to throw out there like Paul Hackett and Ted Tollner? If the Trojans lose today, which would be yet another road loss for him, you can make that argument. Since Helton became USC’s full-time coach, the Trojans have a record of 3-0 at the L.A. Coliseum but are 0-5 on the road. USC is 2-7 away from home in games dating back to when Helton was interim coach last season. This season, USC has lost on the road against Utah, Stanford and Alabama (the game against the Crimson Tide was in Texas).

“You bring your run game, you stop the run, you play great special teams and you don’t turn it over,” Helton told the Los Angeles Times. “That usually equals a road win. We need one. This is a big game for us. A huge game for us.”

Arizona has won only once in the last seven games played against the Trojans at Arizona Stadium. Tomey coached Arizona to a 3-1 stretch against the Trojans in Tucson from 1991 to 1999. But that competitiveness fell off dramatically since after John Mackovic was hired, leading to this poor strectch against USC (coached mostly by Pete Carroll). Arizona beat Lane Kiffin in 2012 and lost to Steve Sarkisian in 2014. Both games came down to the last possession, the Wildcats winning 39-36 in 2012 and losing 28-26 two years ago.

With the last nine games between Arizona and USC decided by eight points or less count on another close score. A victory for Arizona would follow its trend of achieving a significant victory in the second half of a season after starting 2-4 or worse in its Pac-10/12 existence.

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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.

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