Great weather, nice stadium that seats over 56,000, great hoops program.....but a football team that hasn't been to a bowl game since 1998?? What is it with Arizona's football program that they just can't seem to put it together? It's a hard thing to put your finger on. You would think from a distance anyway that they should be successful, but for whatever the reason, it's been a long, dry spell without success.
Maybe part of the deal has been their choice of coaches since Dick Tomey was relieved of the job. Tomey had a strong run of success, racking up a 95-64-4 record and seven bowl games in 14 seasons before losing his job with a 5-6 record after the 2000 season. John Mackovic anyone?? DISASTER, going 10-18 and a mid-season firing, where things got so bad he nearly had a player revolt on his hands. They turned to the hot young assistant in Stoops from Oklahoma beginning in 2004, and it has been an uphill climb ever since.
I don't know about you, but when I think of Arizona, I think of the fantastic desert swarm defenses led by Tedy Bruschi. I also think of that heartbreaking 1994 loss, where the Palouse Posse and the desert swarm went toe-to-toe for 60 minutes. Speaking of toe, I will always remember watching Tony "The TOE" Truant slowly setting up for a field goal, while the play clock was winding down 3....2....1. I'll never forget looking over at the WSU sideline, and the ENTIRE FLIPPIN' TEAM was going APE, screaming TIME OUT! TIME OUT! But the players on the field never called it in time, delay of game penalty was called, and the next play Truant's kick was wide left and 10 yards short from the moment toe hit leather. What a sad ending to a hell of a defensive fist fight.
I also think of Ortege Jenkins flipping the ball over his shoulder (illegally, I might add) in overtime, a thrilling 35-34 WSU win in 1997.
By the way, in that game, if you were there or watching on TV, does anyone remember Jenkins complaining to the ref about crowd noise during the 4th quarter and overtime? To the point the ref warned the crowd to be quiet?? I was there, and there were MAYBE 30,000 fans in the stands that day. First of all, I never knew a crowd noise rule existed in the Pac-10, let alone college football in general. If it does or did exist, it certainly was never enforced. But for the refs to actually stop play to ask the Martin Stadium faithful to be quiet?? UNBELIEVABLE. Granted this happened in 1997, long before blogs that waste your time like this one were even thought of. If something like that happened today, it would be all over ESPN, Sportline, Cougfan, AOL Fanhouse, you name it! Whatever.
Anyway, I also remember a great 12-1 season in 1998, beating Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl and finishing #3 or #4 in several polls. Since then? Not so much. Not only do they have this bowl drought going on, but did you know they are the only Pac-10 team that hasn't yet won the conference title? Granted they haven't been in the conference too long, just since 1978, but still, it hasn't been easy.
Which brings us to the coach that has redefined the hot seat - Mike Stoops. Over the last three or so seasons, Stoops has his name firmly planted on top of the annual "hot seat" lists. Win now, or else! But these last two years have seen a major escape by Stoops, who lives on to see yet another season. In 2006, they started out a miserable 2-4, and the clamour was rising that the time had come to pull the plug. But in somewhat-Oregon-State fashion, the 'Cats circled the wagons, going 4-2 to finish the year at a bowl-eligible 6-6. Stoops was saved, the program was heading in the right direction, he finally had a non-losing season in year three of the rebuilding job. But then 2007 happened, and they were right back in 2006. This time they started out a lousy 2-6, and the obituary was being finalized in all the local rags. THERE WAS NO WAY HE'LL SURVIVE THIS ONE! But Arizona once again finished strong, winning three of their last four to finish 5-7. And Stoops, again, survives.
So, is this the end? 17-31 in four years would get you fired in a lot of places. After all, Doba took the fall with a much stronger 30-29 record. Yet here we are. Read on to see what 2008 looks like for the Mildcats:
2007: 5-7, 4-5 in the Pac-10. 3-1 finish to the year saves Stoops from the chopping block. Also ruined Oregon's BCS hopes by beating down the Ducks, 34-24 in Tucson, where Dennis Dixon tore his ACL. Ouch.
OFFENSIVE SCHEME: PASS! That's pretty much it. Spread 'em out and throw, throw, throw. It's the Dykes offense, led by OC Sonny Dykes, who came from the Texas Tech Red Raider offense in 2007 to completely overhaul the snooze-fest that was the Arizona offense. QB Willie Tuitama had a fantastic first year in the new scheme, leading the conference in TD's with 28, and second in the league with over 3600 yards passing. Overall, Arizona's offense went from scoring just 16 points per game in 2006 to 28 points per game in 2007.
The running game, however, was brutal. 76.7 yards per game, #114 in the nation! They do have a talented sophomore tailback in Nic Grigsby, who had over 700 yards rushing (and he shredded our Cougs to the tune of 262 total yards, including 186 yards rushing and 76 yards receiving. Double-Ouch.).
TOP OFFENSIVE PLAYER: It has to be Willie Tuitama. The senior (wow, he's a senior already?) took to the shotgun passing offense better than many thought he would. His numbers were great last year (3683 passing yards, 28-12 TD/INT ratio, 62% completion percentage, and a QB rating of 134.24). He's got excellent size at 6-3, 220, and stayed healthy for the first time in 2007 after battling concussion problems in '05 and '06. He is the perfect fit in a quick-hitting passing attack. He should not only be an all-conference candidate, but he is a serious threat to the offensive player-of-the-year award in the Pac-10.
Sorry to do this...but...2007, Tuitama had his greatest game vs. our Cougs. 346 yards, FIVE TD's, zero INT's in a 48-20 rout in the desert.
The biggest concern for Pac-10 defenses? Arizona welcomes back a conference-high TEN starters on offense this fall. The only new starter is left tackle James Tretheway, but even he's an experienced senior. Otherwise they are all back. They return at least six players who caught 20 or more balls last year, including the top WR in the conference in Mike Thomas. Thomas had 83 catches and 11 TD's, but, clearly you can't just focus on Thomas to slow them down.
The one to really keep an eye on is rising TE Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski had a huge game vs. WSU last year (then again, who on Arizona didn't have a big game against us last year?), with 115 yards and two TD's. The true frosh had over 500 yards receiving last year, and the 6-6, 260-pounder is a future all-everything performer who should be a force this season.
DEFENSIVE SCHEME: A 4-3 attack. They had been somewhat conservative on D, but this spring they have already stated they will blitz more than ever. An emphasis was placed on blitz packages, and a renewed focus on gang-tackling and everyone flying to the football.
TOP DEFENSIVE PLAYER: While senior free-safety Nate Ness led the team with five INT's last year and returns as the leader of the secondary, the honors go to linebacker Ronnie Palmer.
Palmer was number two on the team with 83 tackles. He's a big, 6-3, 245-lb physical force against the run and will compete for all-conference honors this year as the leader of the Arizona defense.
TOP SPRING QUESTIONS:
1) Yes, they will score points and rack up yards against pretty much everyone. But with only three starters back, can they stop anyone?
It is a daunting proposition to only have three defensive starters back. But the new focus this spring on blitzing and energy on defense was important. And, new faces might not be a bad thing in the grand scheme. Last year they returned an impressive nine starters on defense, but they underachieved for most of the season. They were 59th in scoring defense, and a disappointing 71st against the pass, despite having two NFL prospects with corners Antoine Cason and Wilrey Fontenot. Cason will especially be missed, a four-year starter who was a first-round pick in April. But again, fresh bodies could be the best thing to happen to the defense. Apparently there were issues last year, where some bad apples were rumored to spoil the whole thing.
2) They couldn't run last year. Does it matter in their offense?
No matter how many yards and TD's Tuitama hangs on people this year, you do at least need some semblance of a running game. 114th in the nation last year isn't going to cut it this year, and could be the most underrated key to their offense this year. An aerial assault is fun to watch, but at times you have to have the ability to move the chains, or more importantly, devour some game clock if/when you have a late lead. Live by the pass, but you can die by the pass just as well. They do have the talent in Grigsby, who could be a 1,000-yard threat now that he has a full season under his belt. So it's not like they don't have the ability to run. They just need to figure it out.
WSU Football Blog Bottom Line: WSU will be getting Arizona on November 8th. Hope for the November chill and swirling winds to whip through the Palouse. Otherwise it could be a tough one. That said, we might be getting them at just the right time. They will be coming off a bye, but before that, they'll be finishing a tough two-game home stretch vs. Cal (10/18) and the monster, USC, on 10/25. Also, the game after WSU, Arizona is set to go to Oregon on 11/15. Depending on how their season is going, it could be a serious trap game.
Why would I call WSU a "trap game" for Arizona? Because, well, I'm calling it right now - Arizona has the look of a real surprise team of 2008. Senior QB with a ton of starters back, a fresh look and new energy on defense, and most of all, the schedule?? CUP-CAKE CITY. How does Idaho, Toledo and New Mexico sound for an out-of-conference schedule to begin the year? With 12 games on the schedule, if they start out 3-0, as they should, they are halfway to bowl-eligibility.
At least Stoops better hope they are the surprise team. With all these factors in their favor, if they get ANOTHER non-bowl season?? It's Good night, and good luck!
ENJOY YOUR TUESDAY!