Wildcats looking forward to conference play

Is Arizona ready? After rolling through a Downy-soft nonconference schedule the competition level gets raised dramatically as the Wildcats head north to Seattle to face No. 16 Washington. Did the sacrificial trio of Northern Arizona, UNLV and Texas-San Antonio do enough to prepare the Tucson crew for the rigors of the Pac-12?

“Heck, I think we were ready to play a league game the first week,” Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. “Our schedule is what it was. Those teams, even though we were favored to win them all, you still have to go out there and play well and win them. I think San Antonio is going to win games. I think UNLV is going to win games. I think Northern Arizona is going to win league games at their level. We try to prepare for the first game no matter who we’re playing and I thought we were ready then.

“But tough environment against good players and a good coaching staff, it will be a challenge.”

One of the biggest questions surrounding the Wildcats was whether they would be improved on defense. With the entire starting cast back, they are allowing an average of just 8.7 points per game, though the aforementioned trio is hardly considered a suitable measuring stick for what Arizona will face in Pac-12 competition.

And the Huskies should prove to be suitable competition. Through their first three games, which included wins over then-No. 19 Boise State and a road win against Illinois in Chicago, Washington is averaging almost 43 points per game and more than 625 yards of total offense.

“Our season started during week one,” quarterback B.J. Denker said. “There are no pretend games in football, you only get 12. Yes, this is Pac-12 play and we understand this is a bigger deal and this is going to be the best team we will have played. We can only play who is put on the schedule, I don’t think the normal fan appreciates that if they are I-AA (FCS) or you are a lower-tier Division I football team, this game is rough. You can’t just go out on the field and expect a victory because somebody will come and smack you in the mouth.”

The pressure is on Denker to revitalize a passing attack that flourished last year under Matt Scott, but has been a work in progress the first three weeks. The Wildcats average only 108 yards per game in the air -- a surprisingly low number for a Rodriguez-coached team. Denker is completing just 56.4 percent of his throws with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Part of that is a new quarterback getting to know new wide receivers. Another part is 151 carries through three games.

“I don’t think the chemistry was the issue,” Denker said. “Most of the reason the numbers weren’t so good was because we were running the ball so well. It’s not like I don’t know what our receivers are going to do. It’s just being young and not really having to throw the ball every down. We have been working on that since the season started and during this bye week. I feel like it is getting better and as the season progresses, you will see that on the field.”

Rodriguez said improvement in the passing game was his top priority during the bye week. And he seems pleased with the progress.

“It’s gotten better, I have to judge it in practice,” he said. “We really struggled beginning of August; it was a combo of new receivers with a new quarterback. We’ve gotten a whole lot better the last three weeks, particularly in practice. We know we have to throw the ball. Everyone is going to put everybody in the box to try to stop the run game. We’ve worked harder on that than anything else we’ve done offensively.”

The wide receiving corps could also get a boost with the return of David Richards, who has been nursing a foot injury. Rodriguez said he’s been practicing this week and a decision on whether he’ll play will be made either Wednesday or Thursday.

The sidebar to this game is the running backs: Arizona’s Ka'Deem Carey and Washington’s Bishop Sankey. Sankey has one extra game on Carey, who sat out the season opener for disciplinary reasons but is averaging 149.5 yards per game since his return. Sankey averages 148.6. Both have four rushing touchdowns and average 6.9 yards per carry.

While some postseason honors might hinge on who plays better, that’s not even on Rodriguez’s radar.

“I don’t think the players of the coaches on either side look at individual matchups like that,” he said. “We know Sankey has been a huge part of their success and Ka’Deem has been a huge part of ours. That’s going to be the case for the rest of the season. We look at the overall picture.”