By Gary Randazzo
Raiding Ricky Fowler’s golf wardrobe, getting a hole-in-one at Pebble Beach, morphing into Shailene Woodley’s dog for a day to get a steady dose of belly rubs in between naps from the Divergent Series actress, and winning the lottery aside, here’s my top 10 wishes for Arizona football in 2017:
- Be competitive. Let’s be clear. I’m not talking about competing. An athlete can compete and still not be competitive. I can give it the old college try and still fumble the football if the wind suddenly changes direction. A season ago, Arizona battled injuries, shuffled through a ton of players, and competed day in and day out. However, the team was not competitive on the field outside of a handful of games. The Wildcats suffered six losses by three or more touchdowns, allowed the opponent to score 40 or more points five times, and got routed at Washington State 69-7.
- Stay healthy. Remember, this is a wish. All teams battle injuries, but if there is a team that has suffered more injuries to first and second stringers over the past two football seasons than the Wildcats, I’ll tattoo an Arizona “Block A” on the side of my head.
- Beat ASU. This is a given, but still worth wishing for. As incredibly painful as last season was, Arizona’s 56-35 home win over the Sun Devils was like applying aloe to a sunburn. It didn’t entirely cure the problem, but did help Wildcat fans keep the previous day’s Thanksgiving dinner down.
- Execute in the Red Zone. In 2016, the red zone was more like a gray zone for the Wildcats as execution on both sides of the ball was questionable. Arizona converted red zone trips into points 77% of the time a season ago, while opponents were significantly better at 88%. More troubling is the Wildcats only converted 57% of its trips into six points compared to opponents who scored touchdowns on 42-of-56 trips (75%). Those statistics need to level out in 2017 if the team expects to improve upon its 1-8 conference record.
- Play unpredictable. I’ll be brutally honest here. Last season was boring. Forget about the three total wins. That was bad enough. Worse was the predictability of Arizona’s offense. Injuries undoubtedly served to shrink Arizona’s playbook, but there was no need to shrink it down to Pop Warner size. The screens, hitches and bubble curls were out the window, misdirection was limited to the initial read option between the quarterback and running back, and if the Wildcats weren’t attempting to complete long and drawn out passes, Brandon Dawkins or Khalil Tate were tucking the football and running. Although circumstances dictated much of this, 2017 is a fresh start. My wish is for Arizona to play to its strengths, which includes Rich Rodriguez thinking outside the box and returning to the offensive innovator we all know him to be regardless of who is blocking, throwing, or running the football.
- Stop arm tackling. The arm tackling that began to surface in 2014, increased in 2015, and reached its peak in 2016 must stop in 2017. Cornerbacks diving at ankles in the open field, linebackers and defensive lineman extending their arms in the trenches like those flapping cloth-like things at the car wash, and opposing ball carriers flat-out breaking ankles on cut-back moves is, by far, the most infuriating thing to watch as a Wildcat fan old enough to remember the Desert Swarm Era. A year ago, Defensive Coordinator Marcel Yates preached fundamentals. My wish in 2017 is the emphasis on fundamentals has finally taken hold and Wildcats begin to put their face masks back into the chests of the opponent.
- Take the points. The Wildcats need to get every possible point they can. If that means settling for a 22-yard field goal in the first quarter rather than going for it on fourth and short in the red zone, kick the field goal. Arizona only averaged 24.8 points per game in 2016, which is borderline unfathomable for a Rodriguez-coached offense. Opponents outscored the Wildcats by two touchdowns last year, which cannot be repeated. While I fully understand that college football is nothing like the NFL, the professional teams always take the three points until a moment in the game where three points won’t be enough to win. On Thursday, Indiana stopped second-ranked Ohio State twice inside the red zone in the early going as the Buckeyes “settled” for field goals of 27 and 19 yards to trail 14-13 at halftime. OSU went on to win 49-21. The lesson here is take the points, stay “competitive”, and give yourself a chance to take advantage of winning opportunities in the second half.
- Avoid stumbling out of the locker room. Not so surprisingly for a team that went 3-9 in 2016, the Wildcats were outscored by the opponent in every single quarter last season. As troubling as that is, third quarter performance was stunningly bad as all 12 opponents combined to outscore Arizona 114-54. To state the obvious, in order to avoid another 3-win season, games can’t be decided with a full 15 minutes remaining.
- Don’t fix it if it’s not broken. My wish is Arizona learned something from the Arizona State game last season when the Wildcats literally ran the ball down ASU’s throat the entire second half. Arizona will enter 2017 with 89 career starts along its offensive line, a stable of talented running backs, and two quarterbacks who can elude tacklers and breakaway from a defense. I’d like to see Arizona play to its strength and use the running game to set up the passing game. If they do, those 2016 passing windows that were no bigger than the gopher holes at Randolph North should open up for UA signal callers to throw through.
- Bring the fun back. Win or lose, I don’t think anyone can handle another 2016 season. That includes the coaches, the players, the media, and the fans. Somehow, someway, Arizona made me reevaluate my purpose on college football Saturdays. Last year, I’ve never felt more punch drunk watching games. In fact, midway through the season I all but stopped watching college football in general, if for no other reason than to avoid the reminder that the Wildcats were not even close to competing with a Top 25 team. From schemes to size and speed, watching top tier Pac-12 and upper echelon national teams was night and day to watching Arizona. The experience, as a whole, simply was not fun. I don’t think I’m asking too much here when wishing for a little more excitement, a little more thrill, and a little more hope – even in loss – that Arizona is beginning to work its way out of a combined 4-14 conference record the past two seasons.
Gary Randazzo served as publisher of Wildcat Sports Report on the 247 network until August of this year. A University of Arizona grad, he appeared briefly in the At All Costs documentary and has also had his work appear on PhilSteele.com, ESPN.com, and Scout.com. Gary may be best known for his Friday Fizz columns, and will also provide analysis and cover recruiting in California.