MR: After two games, how would you break down this Arizona team overall?
Ryan Kelapire: They've been who they were expected to be — a team with an explosive running game, major inconsistency at quarterback, and a young defense prone to mistakes.
Most folks projected Arizona would finish 4-8 or 5-7 this year and that looks to be pretty accurate. Losing at home to Houston was a game Arizona probably needed to win to make a bowl game this season.
MR: Who will UTEP see at quarterback Friday?
Ryan Kelapire: Rich Rodriguez said Brandon Dawkins will start, so expect him to be behind center. However, Arizona did mix in Khalil Tate in the fourth quarter vs. Houston, and Rodriguez said he is open to using different quarterbacks on different drives, so you may see a mixture of both Dawkins and Tate when all is said and done.
Tate is a better passer and is nearly as dangerous on the ground, but neither quarterback has played well this season.
MR: Arizona has put up some nice rushing numbers so far, but is this a game where we see the Cats look to sharpen up the pass game?
Ryan Kelapire: You would think that'd be a good idea, but Arizona didn't do that against NAU. That game, Arizona ran for over 500 yards, but only threw for 89, despite winning 62-24.
Arizona usually won't throw the ball unless it has to, even if a game vs. UTEP could provide valuable reps otherwise. That was one gripe fans had about that NAU game.
MR: With plenty of young pieces contributing this Arizona defense has major potential, what’s been the biggest improvement mark?
Ryan Kelapire: Third-down efficiency. Arizona was abysmal on third down last year, as opposing teams converted over 50 percent of the time. That number is down to 40 percent this year and Houston was only 6-15 on third down last weekend.
Arizona is also doing a great job of forcing turnovers, generating five in two games, including two interceptions of Houston quarterback Kyle Allen. The defense is young, but the athleticism is better — and the talent probably is, too.
The biggest issue is rookie mistakes, like blowing a coverage or missing an assignment. Both NAU and Houston were able to rip off some big gains because of that.
MR: Give me two offensive and two defensive players UTEP fans should know about?
Ryan Kelapire: Running back J.J. Taylor is a nightmare to tackle. He's short (5'6"), but is ridiculously quick and agile. He's not that imposing between the tackles, but get him in open space and he's probably going to make a defender or two look silly. He's also a guy that creates yards on plays that looked like they were going nowhere.
Dawkins is the other player to know, because he's Arizona's x-factor. If he's completing simple throws and running well, Arizona's offense likely won't have any issues moving the ball against UTEP.
On defense, there's safety Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles, who already has three interceptions this year. He has a knack for reading quarterbacks, and he might be Arizona's lone NFL prospect.
The other guy to know is Tristan Cooper, another safety. He's not an every-down player, but he's from El Paso, so I think him returning to his hometown for this game is pretty cool.
MR: How important is this game for the Cats to play a complete game with PAC-12 play on deck?
Ryan Kelapire: I think that's probably what Arizona is looking to get out of this game. The defense played well last week vs. Houston, and this game can show that wasn't a fluke.
And getting any sort of rhythm and confidence going in the passing game would be welcomed heading into Pac-12 play, since it's the No. 1 topic surrounding Arizona football right now.
Of course, it's obviously important that Arizona doesn't lose to UTEP either, because then we're potentially looking at another 3-9 season.
Ryan Kelapire: Based on the success Rice had on the ground vs. UTEP, I'm thinking Arizona has no trouble running the ball and putting up points. Who knows, we might see another 400 or 500-yard performance.
Arizona 52, UTEP 21