"Monday's With Rich Rod": Focus on BYU loss & looking ahead to G - KVOA | KVOA.com | Tucson, Arizona

"Monday's With Rich Rod": Focus on BYU loss & looking ahead to Grambling St.

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For the first time since topping No. 10 Utah in double overtime last season, the Arizona Wildcats will return to Arizona Stadium to open their 2016 home schedule. The Cats will host Grambling State at 7:45 p.m., Saturday night in the home opener. 
The two teams have never squared off before. 

Some Game Themes: First the Cougars, now the Tigers. Yes, it's another cat fight this weekas Arizona looks to rebound from a heart-breaking last-second defeat when it opens a seven-game home schedule against Grambling State from the Football Championship Subdivision … The Cats may be disappointed in last Saturday's result, but there's no reason to be discouraged. After all, BYU is a proven program that was simply able to limit mistakes and make an extra play or two when needed. While the UA offense struggled to get going early, the re-built defense held its ground and gave the Wildcats a chance into the fourth quarter. Rich Rodriguez and Co. were pleased with how the team fought to the final whistle, now it's about turning it into a 60-minute operation … Indeed there's plenty to clean up. The offense ran only 56 plays, the running game didn't get going until the fourth quarter, and junior quarterback Anu Solomon threw a pair of interceptions (plus another on a two-point try) … Defensively, the improvement was evident, but so too was BYU's ability to run the ball and therefore keep the Cats' defense off balance, setting up some precarious third down situations where the Cougs went 7-of-15 on the evening … Turning attention to the task at hand, this week's foe is as unfamiliar as they come. Arizona has never played a SWAC opponent, so when the band comes marching in this week, there will be plenty of more unknowns … Winning any football game is incredibly hard, as UA and BYU both realized. Quite simply, Arizona will need to focus on itself and improve in all facets of the game … The Wildcats hope their first performance in front of the Arizona Stadium crowd is a good one. Playing well and building confidence will be critical as the final three September contests are on home turf … Take care of business in those clashes and suddenly the Cats will soon be singing a different tune in no time at all.

Arizona Stadium Success: Historically, the Wildcats have enjoyed plenty of success at Arizona Stadium, but the last decade has produced a consistent run of success. Arizona has strung together nine consecutive seasons without a losing home record, accumulating a 41-18 record dating back to the start of the 2007 season. That is a winning percentage of nearly 70-percent, a nice boost over the overall 60-percent winning percentage that dates back 66 years to the 1950 season (245-162-6). In four seasons under head coach Rich Rodriguez, the winning percentage is even higher (.741) as his squads have gone 20-7 heading into the 2016 slate at Arizona Stadium. Most impressive is scoring margin; Rodriguez's teams have outscored opponents 1,095-704 (+391) in four seasons. That averages out to a two-touchdown victory margin (40.5-26.1 points per game).

Belknap Earns the Hard Edge Sword 
Prior to the 2016 season, the Wildcats received a visit from Master Chief Steve Gonzalez of the US Navy SEALS and participated in a unique training session to prepare for the year. The team did various exercises in the pool, beach volleyball courts and football field. The session emphasized team work and mental toughness. In August, Gonzalez sent the team a wooden sword to be presented to the team's Hard Edge Player of the Week, which coach Rich Rodriguez names on Sundays throughout the season. Redshirt freshman defensive lineman Justin Belknap took home Week 1 honors for his effort Saturday night against BYU. Belknap started and had two tackles, including one for a loss. The walk-on from Henderson, Nevada, earned his spot by distributing many of the qualities Gonzalez talked about with the Wildcats. Belknap will keep the sword in his locker this week and then hand off to next week's winner.

A Dane-dy Debut
Cornerback Dane Cruikshank and defensive end Justin Belknap were the only two Arizona defenders to both start and make their career debuts Saturday against BYU. Cruikshank, who started at the boundary corner spot, had eight tackles in his first career game and earned team Defensive Player of the Week honors from the coaching staff. Cruikshank came to Arizona from Citrus College and redshirted last season. He was a Top 100 JUCO prospect and figures to be a strong piece of the Wildcats defense moving forward. Cruikshank became the first junior college transfer to start at cornerback for Arizona since Marquis Hundley in 2008. Hundley had four tackles and two pass breakups in a 70-0 win over Idaho at Arizona Stadium.

Nate the Great 
Redshirt freshman Nate Eldridge made his first career appearance Saturday night, starting at center. The Anthem Boulder Creek HS product had a strong debut, working as the man in the middle of the line. Eldridge didn't have any misfires on snap attempts and also helped pave the way for Nick Wilson to average 8.1 yards per carry on 17 attempts. Wilson did a lot of his damage running up the middle behind Eldridge and guardsFreddie Tagaloa and Jacob Alsadek. Eldridge, a state champion wrestler at Boulder Creek, had more than 30 friends and family members at University of Phoenix Stadium on Saturday. Eldridge played every offensive snap for the Cats and was the only freshman starter on offense for Arizona. He's the first freshman to start at center for the Cats since Blake Kerley in 2006. Kerley's debut also came against BYU. Kerley also started the season opener at center in 2007 and 2008.

Ippolito's Return
For the first time in 611 days, linebacker Cody Ippolito suited up for the Cats. The redshirt senior missed the 2015 season with a knee injury. Before Saturday's season opener, his most recent game action was at the 2014 Fiesta Bowl, where he started and had a pair of tackles. Ippolito started Saturday and was a key contributor for the Cats out of his middle linebacker position. The Fiesta Bowl was also held at University of Phoenix Stadium, the site of Saturday's game. In that matchup, Ippolito squared off against Boise State and his current defensive coordinatorMarcel Yates, who was with the Broncos at the time.

Mighty Mariscal
Safety Anthony Mariscal saw his first game action for the Wildcats after redshirting last season as a freshman. Mariscal was inserted in the secondary once senior Tellas Jones left with an apparent injury. Mariscal made his impact felt instantly and finished with six tackles, which tied for third most on the team. He also had a pass breakup and a tackle-for-loss. Mariscal was one of two redshirt freshmen to notch at least one tackle Saturday. Justin Belknap, who had two, was the other. Mariscal, from Bakersfield, California, was a three-star recruit out of Liberty High School, where he played both defensive back and running back.

Miller Mania
Redshirt junior DeAndre' Miller started at the STUD position Saturday in coach Marcel Yates' new defense and continued his strong play from the end of the 2015 season. Against BYU, Miller had a pair of tackles-for-loss and six tackles overall. Dating back to last season, Miller has had multiple tackles-for-loss in three straight games. Miller had three TFLs at Arizona State in last year's regular season finale and then posted two more in the New Mexico Bowl. His seven tackles-for-loss in a three-game stretch are the most since Scooby Wright had 9 ½ against USC, Washington State and UCLA in 2014. Miller, who was born in Anchorage, Alaska, before moving to Buckeye in the Phoenix area, has played three career games in the Phoenix area. In those three games, Miller has 12 total tackles and five tackles-for-loss. 

Red Zone(d) Out: There will be plenty of points to ponder when finding the difference between winning and losing an 18-16 contest on a last-second field goal. One of the many: red zone conversions. The Cougars were 4-for-4 in the red zone, splitting the trips between a pair of touchdowns and field goals. Meanwhile, the Wildcats trekked into the scoring zone only twice, coming up with a 15-yard Nick Wilson touchdown run. The other was a missed 52-yard field goal forced by a 16-yard loss on a preceding sack. Red zone efficiency was a troublesome area for UA a season ago. Offensively, the Wildcats converted 83.1 percent of their drives, which ranked 10th in the conference. Defensively, the unit allowed a 93.1 conversion rate, 12th in the conference.

Out of (Field) Position: Another advantage for the Cougars last Saturday? Field position. It's not a trendy stat to discuss, but it's notable, especially considering BYU had nearly a first down advantage throughout the game based on where drives started. The Cougars average drive started at their own 29-yardline. Arizona? Try its own 20-yardline. Making matters worse for the Wildcats, BYU punter Jonny Linehan, placed punts at the 1-yard and 2-yardlines, respective. The Cougars' offense started only two drives the entire game inside the 20.

Pollack Does it All
One of the biggest question marks heading into the 2016 season was the state of the kicking game for the Wildcats after losing kicker Casey Skowron and punter Drew Riggleman to graduation. Josh Pollack, a redshirt freshman from Highland Park, Illinois, solved a big part of the problem, handling both punting and place kicking duties in Arizona's opener versus BYU, while Edgar Gastelum took over kickoff duties for the Cats. Pollack had four punts, averaging 47.5 yards per attempt with a long of 55. He landed one inside the 20-yard line. He converted on his only extra point attempt and was 1-for-2 on field goals, with his miss coming from 52 yards right before halftime. His make was from 46 yards out with 5:59 remaining in the third quarter. The distance of Pollack's make is notable. It's the longest field goal by an Arizona kicker for his first make in at least 20 years. The previous high belonged to Jake Smith and John Bonano, both of whom converted from 41 yards out.

Name Distance (Yards) Year of First Career Make
Josh Pollack 46 2016
Jake Smith 41 2013
John Bonano 41 2011
Alex Zendejas 37 2009
Jason Bondzio 36 2007
Nick Folk 35 2004
Sean Keel 33 1999
Mark McDonald 33 1997
Casey Skowron 28 2014
Jaime Salazar 27 2011
Bobby Gill 26 2002

Up Next: Arizona wraps up non-conference play when it hosts Hawaii on Saturday, Sept. 17, at 7:45 p.m. on the Pac-12 Networks. Thereafter, the Wildcats open conference play and close a three-game homestand at Arizona Stadium by hosting Washington on Saturday, Sept. 24. Game time and kickoff information is still to be determined as part of 12-day and 6-day selections by the Pac-12 television partners. 

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