No. 46: Arizona
By Paul Myerberg // Jul 19, 2010
Before touching on Arizona’s season after Dec. 5, a quick recap of what occurred during the regular season: eight wins, six in conference play; a Rose Bowl run; a win over U.S.C.; the finest season of the Mike Stoops era. Then came the Holiday Bowl. Mother of God. With little exaggeration, it could not have gone much worse. Offense? Check. Or the opposite of check, if you get my meaning: Arizona mounted 109 yards of total offense, nearly all coming with the game already decided. Special teams? Not pretty. Defense? You don’t want to know. Is it possible that an entire season’s worth of good could have been erased in 60 minutes? We’ll see in September.
14 (10 offense, 4 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 3
- Sept. 11
- Sept. 18
- Sept. 25
- Oct. 9
- Oct. 16
at Washington St.
- Oct. 23
- Oct. 30
- Nov. 6
- Nov. 13
- Nov. 26
- Dec. 2
Last year’s prediction
The Wildcats showed me a lot last fall. Enough, in fact, that despite losing two of its top offensive performers in school history, I believe Arizona will reach bowl play for the second consecutive year. Most impressive was how an overlooked group of defenders gelled into a top-three unit in the Pac-10. With seven of those starters returning, and talented youngsters prepared to take over starting roles in the secondary and at linebacker, I believe the Arizona defense will again rank among the best in the conference. All told, I predict the Wildcats to match last fall’s regular-season win total with seven victories, and with an upset in Pac-10 play — of which the team is certainly capable — to be right alongside Oregon State for the fourth spot in the conference.
In a nutshell Arizona continues to improve. One year after breaking into bowl play for the first time under Mike Stoops, the Wildcats spent last fall making a run for the Rose Bowl. The team fell short, thanks to a narrow home loss to the eventual conference champion, but gained some national recognition for its eight-win finish. Six of those victories came in Pac-10 play: against rival Arizona State, high-powered Stanford and mighty U.S.C., among others. Then there’s that bowl loss. It left a sour taste in the mouths of many, this depressing conclusion to an otherwise laudable campaign. The Wildcats cannot afford a similar misstep in 2010.
High point Winning at U.S.C., a feat Arizona had not accomplished since 2000. (Arizona actually has more wins at the Coliseum, four, than it does in Tucson, three.) The four-point win allowed Arizona to clinch a second-place finish in the Pac-10, sending it to the Holiday Bowl. With disastrous results.
Low point In terms of pure ugliness, no loss can hold a candle to a 33-0 Holiday Bowl loss to Nebraska; that game was old-school, both in terms of Nebraska’s domination and Arizona’s poor performance. How things have changed. In terms of a loss making you cry in your sleep, nothing comes close to a 44-41 overtime loss to Oregon in Tucson. That gave the Ducks the head-to-head tiebreaker in the race for the Rose Bowl. Not to mention the fact that Arizona – its fans, specifically – thought the game was in the bag late in regulation. Let the circumstances that followed serve as a lesson to college-aged fans everywhere: wait until the final whistle to rush the field. Those goal posts aren’t going anywhere.
Tidbit Stoops is now the third-longest tenured coach in the Pac-10, trailing only Jeff Tedford (eight years at California) and Mike Riley (seven years at Oregon State). What did the Pac-10 look like in 2004, when Stoops took over in Tucson? Tedford was entering his third season, Riley his second. Dirk Koetter was at Arizona State, about to post the finest season of his six-year tenure. Mike Bellotti was at Oregon, of course, though about to post the only losing season of his coaching career. And Pete Carroll was at U.S.C., Buddy Teevens at Stanford, Karl Dorell at U.C.L.A., Keith Gilbertson at Washington and Bill Doba at Washington State. Only Riley, Tedford and Stoops remain.
Tidbit (100-word preview edition) Today’s guest writer is loyal reader Zaboo, whose correct answer to a quiz in the Southern Mississippi preview earned him the opportunity to write a 100-word preview of his favorite team. His team? Arizona. Take it away, Zaboo:
After coming within one win of the Pac-10 title in 2009, Arizona seeks its first Rose Bowl berth this year. Despite a disappointing performance in the Holiday Bowl, the offense should provide plenty of firepower with QB Nick Foles and a healthy Nic Grigsby at RB. Its the defense, with 7 lost starters, that will determine how far this team can go. There is reason for optimism—Arizona’s tandem of Ends should be the best in the conference—but the depleted linebacking corps is concerning. This unit could determine whether Arizona finishes first or eighth in what should be a tightly contested Pac-10.
Former players in the N.F.L.
24 RB Mike Bell (Philadelphia), LB Lance Briggs (Chicago), OT Eben Britton (Jacksonville), DE Copeland Bryan (Detroit), CB Antoine Cason (San Diego), DE Lionel Dotson (Miami), K Nick Folk (New York Jets), CB Wilrey Fontenot (Arizona), TE Rob Gronkowski (New England), FB Chris Gronkowski (Dallas), RB Chris Henry (Houston), RB Chris Jennings (Cleveland), S Michael Johnson (New York Giants), FB Spencer Larsen (Denver), TE Brandon Manumaleuna (Chicago), DT Earl Mitchell (Houston), S Nate Ness (Miami), WR Dennis Northcutt (Detroit), CB Devin Ross (Philadelphia), DE Marcus Smith (Buffalo), WR Syndric Steptoe (Cleveland), WR Mike Thomas (Jacksonville), LB Vuna Tuihalakama (Indianapolis), WR Bobby Wade (Washington).
Arbitrary top five list
Natural wonders of the world
1. Grand Canyon.
2. Great Barrier Reef.
3. Victoria Falls.
4. Mount Everest.
5. Serengeti Migration.
Mike Stoops (Iowa ’86), 33-39 after six seasons in Tucson. His Wildcats have won eight games in each of the last two seasons, with 11 of those victories coming in Pac-10 play. Last fall marked another step forward for Arizona, which was well within the Rose Bowl hunt heading into mid-November. One cannot overstate how big the 2008 season was for Stoops and the Arizona program. After being unable to get over the hump in his first four seasons, Stoops led the Wildcats to an eight-win finish, returning the program to bowl play for the first time in a decade. It took Stoops some time to get Arizona to this point. His teams went a combined 6-16 in 2004 and 2005, his first two seasons in charge, before coming very close to bowl play in both 2006 (6-6) and 2007 (5-7). After taking a slight step back in 2007, Stoops entered 2008 on the hot seat. After leading Arizona to 16 wins over the past two years — a program high since winning 18 games from 1998-99 – he has the program heading in the right direction. This is where the university pictured itself being when it hired Stoops away from Oklahoma late in 2003. He had played an important part in rebuilding that historic program, as the Sooners went 55-11 In his five seasons in Norman, time spent as the associate head coach and defensive coordinator, winning the 2000 national championship. In the five years prior, the Sooners had gone 23-33-1. and through three coaches: Gary Gibbs, Howard Schnellenberger and John Blake. Over all, through three stops as an assistant (Iowa and Kansas State before Oklahoma), Stoops compiled a record of 168-48-2 with 15 bowl appearances and the one national title. He’s come a long way since 2007, when Stoops found himself firmly upon the hot seat.
Tidbit (coaching edition) Stoops and Arizona will move forward without both of last season’s coordinators. Former offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes, whose three-year stint in Tucson went splendidly, is the new coach at Louisiana Tech. Mark Stoops, the younger brother, took the same position at Florida State. So who’s stepping in? Linebackers coach Tim Kish and new defensive backs coach Greg Brown, formerly of Colorado, will share co-defensive coordinator duties. Further, line coach Bill Bedenbaugh and running backs and tight ends coach Seth Litrell will share coordinator duties on offense. For the first time in my experience, a B.C.S. conference program has co-coordinators on both sides of the ball. That’s great. Unfortunately, it’s hard not to view the Wildcats as weaker at both offensive and defensive coordinator.
Players to watch
No Pac-10 team returns as much experience on offense. This starts under center, where the Wildcats return two quarterbacks with starting experience. The first, of course, is junior Nick Foles, an honorable mention all-conference pick in 2009. He started the last 10 games of the year, throwing for 2,486 yards and 19 touchdowns against only nine interceptions. His development, particularly under new quarterbacks coach Frank Scelfo, will be an interesting storyline to watch. While Foles continues to polish his passing skills, fellow junior Matt Scott grants the Wildcats a running option at the quarterback position. He started the first three games of the year, actually putting together some solid numbers as a passer in the season’s first two games before struggles against Iowa allowed Foles to grab the starting nod. As a runner, Scott is dangerous: he rushed for 309 yards on 7.5 yards per carry last fall. He remains a valuable asset in that regard.
If the Wildcats wished, they could very easily rely upon a bruising ground game to carry the offense. Both of last season’s top rushers return: senior Nic Grigsby’s been through the Pac-10 fire, bringing 28 career starts into his final season; while junior Keola Antolin led Arizona in rushing last fall. Only an injury to Grigsby, however, gave Antolin the opportunity to land significant carries last fall. Prior to being injured four games into the year, Grigsby was well on his way to duplicating his 1,000-yard total of 2008. His injury provided Antolin with an opportunity, and the junior should earn plenty of action even with Grigsby back at full health. The Wildcats also return sophomore Greg Nwoko (273 yards rushing, 3 scores), giving them three capable options. Keep an eye on Grigsby: all he does is produce — when healthy.
The wide receiver corps will be tested by the loss of senior Delashaun Dean, recently dismissed from the program for a violation of team rules. It’s a good thing the Wildcats are deep at the position, even if Dean, one of four receivers to make at least 42 grabs last fall, was projected to play a key role. Look for junior Juron Criner to help pick up the slack. He was Arizona’s most prolific receiving option in 2009, leading the team in receiving yards (582) and touchdowns (nine). Fellow juniors Dave Roberts (43 receptions for 410 yards) and David Douglas (31 for 320) will also hold starting roles in Arizona’s multiple-receiver base set, while another junior, Bug Wright, chipped in with 23 catches last season. The Wildcats will miss Dean, as it will miss departed starter Terrell Turner. There remains enough depth here to keep the passing game rolling.
What a difference a year makes. Last year’s offensive line was a question mark heading into the season, due to a trio of new, relatively inexperienced starters. Now, as Arizona prepares for 2010, only one starter must be replaced: left tackle Mike Diaz. He’ll be replaced by fifth-year senior Adam Grant, who will move over to the weak side from right tackle. His old tackle spot will be filled by senior Phillip Garcia, a two-game starter on the left side in 2009. The rest of the line is intact, with senior center Colin Baxter — a second-team all-conference pick last fall — an all-American contender in his final season. Baxter will be flanked by senior Conan Amituanai and junior Vaughn Dotsy. Additional depth will come from seniors Jovon Hayes and Jack Julsing, giving the Wildcats a deep, senior-laden offensive front.
There’s no doubt that Arizona faces a rebuilding job on the interior of its defensive line. It will help to have two experienced ends, as the Wildcats have with Ricky Elmore and Brooks Reed, both seniors. While Reed was hampered by injuries last fall, Elmore broke out: he finished second on the team in tackles for loss (11.5) while pacing the Wildcats in sacks (10.5), earning all-conference accolades in the process. Should Reed return to full health, watch out. He was extremely effective as a pass rusher in 2008, and could give Arizona a premier pass-rushing duo off the edge.
The interior of the line is a question mark, to be sure. Experience is enough of a concern, in fact, that a redshirt freshman, Sione Tuihalakama — of the football-playing Tuihalakamas — entered the summer atop the depth chart at tackle. Will that stand? Maybe, maybe not. It’s not as if the pair running behind Tuihalakama, juniors Dominique Austin and Jonathan Hollins, bring much more game experience to the table. Arizona does have a past starter to insert at nose tackle, senior Lolmana Mikaele, which will help matters. As a reserve last fall, Mikaele made 12 stops, 2.5 for loss.
The secondary is in good shape, despite losing starters Devin Ross and Cam Nelson, and should be the strength of the Arizona defense. This is largely due to junior cornerback Trevin Wade, a reigning second-team all-conference selection. Were Wade’s numbers (nine pass breakups, five interceptions) due to Ross lining up on the opposite side? Let’s give Wade some credit: the answer is no, and Wade is good enough to dissuade most Pac-10 quarterbacks from taking many chances by throwing in his direction. It will be vital, in this case, that former JUCO transfer Marcus Benjamin step up his game. He’s certainly able: Benjamin, who signed with L.S.U. out of high school before academics forced him to the JUCO route, earned solid feedback during the spring. Should he stumble, Arizona can turn to senior Mike Turner or junior Lyle Brown.
Junior Robert Golden has found a home. I won’t say “finally,” but it was nice to see this gifted athlete make plays at strong safety in 2009, his first season of extensive action. He was penciled in at cornerback heading into last season, but a move to safety allowed Golden to serve in the starting lineup. Now a year wiser, Golden will be a leader at safety. There is a hole at free safety, but senior Joe Perkins (25 tackles, 1 interception) is expected to step into the starting lineup.
Position battles to watch
Linebacker On a defense facing rebuilding jobs on each level, no group is a larger question mark than the Arizona linebackers. The entire corps brings zero career starts into the 2010 season. Perhaps the starting lineup was decided during the spring; until the new starting trio steps on the field, the Wildcats cannot feel confident about what they’re going to get from linebacker. An unsettled roster — and a group of unproven returning contributors — has allowed a pair of JUCO transfers to make claims to starting roles. The first is middle linebacker Derek Earls, a certain starter come September. The other is Paul Vassallo, who spent the spring mired in a competitive battle with sophomore R.J. Young on the weak side. That leaves the strong side to sophomore Jake FIscher, who is as equally inexperienced as the rest. What do we know about the Arizona linebacker corps? Absolutely nothing. No proven track record, no meaningful experience, nothing more than work on the practice field. Sometimes an open two-deep becomes an opportunity, however. Maybe Earls and Vassallo are immediately productive; Fischer takes to the strong side; or players like Young, Trevor Emo, Cordarius Golston and C.J. Parrish step up. It remains to be seen.
Game(s) to watch
The three most important Pac-10 games, in ascending order: U.C.L.A., Oregon State, Oregon. And that list doesn’t include hated Arizona State; the Wildcats have taken two straight in the series. The entire conference schedule is littered with must-see action, to be honest. The September rematch with Iowa — the Hawkeyes won by 10 points last fall — this time in Tucson, is one of the better non-conference games of the year.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell What would this offense be capable of if Dykes had returned, joining a depth chart littered with experience on this side of the ball? It doesn’t help to consider such scenarios, of course: Arizona has what it has, which despite losses among the coaching staff and on defense remains enough to propel the Wildcats to a third consecutive bowl appearance. Before going any further, a question: Can Arizona win six games in Pac-10 play, as it did a year ago? The Wildcats would have to so in order to post another eight-win finish. I’m not sure if this team can do so. Part of this is due to a stacked conference, one that might not have a viable national title contender — no offense to Oregon, of course — but has eight very clear bowl teams. Where does Arizona figure in that mix? Quite easily ahead of Washington State, Arizona State and Washington, in my opinion. This program has turned a corner, and doesn’t deserve to have its bowl chances even questioned. However, I don’t think the Wildcats have what it takes to play with Oregon or U.S.C. — I’m still including the Trojans in the conversation — and even lags behind Oregon State, whose final record, due to a tough non-conference slate, won’t reflect how good it can be. Instead, Arizona is stuck in a logjam in the middle of the Pac-10, whose denizens include the Wildcats, U.C.L.A, California and Stanford. I’ll hedge my bets by saying Arizona is certainly capable of finishing ahead of that latter trio; even as high as third, should the defense round into form. With their questions, however, this is a logical spot.
Dream season The improvement continues: 10-2, 8-1 in the Pac-10, in the Rose Bowl.
Nightmare season Call it a Holiday Bowl hangover. The Wildcats are unable to recapture last season’s momentum, and slide below .500 for the first time since 2007.
In case you were wondering
Where do Arizona fans congregate? Take a trip to GoAZCats.com and Wildcat Scoop, the two big boys among Arizona fan sites. Don’t sleep on UASports.net, a fine independent Web site. For a blog’s take, check out Arizona Desert Swarm and Wildcat Sports Report.
Who is No. 45? Our next university’s home state is site of the nation’s first round courthouse. I heard another one was built in the 1960s in Ohio, but I can’t get any confirmation.
Tags: Arizona, Mike Stoops
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