A 7-4 record with a shot at nine victories (ASU and bowl game win) is a step in the right direction for Arizona, and would have been acceptable three months ago. However, after a 7-1 start to the season, a three-game slide is leaving a bad taste in the mouths of Wildcat fans.
While losses to Stanford and Oregon are tolerable, the fact that the Stanford game wasn't close and the Oregon game turned on an offside penalty that kept a Duck scoring drive alive is disheartening. Couple that with losses at home to two teams enduring their worst seasons in years (Oregon State and USC) and suddenly seven wins doesn't feel so good.
The reasons for the record are fairly obvious. Arizona is 10-of-15 in red zone scoring in its last four games with only six touchdowns. Further, in all four losses the opponent has held the ball for an average of 35:22. As good as Arizona's passing game has been, desperation to score in the team's few offensive touches per game have skewed heavily toward Arizona's offensive strength, passing.
This has made the Wildcats one-dimensional in the red zone and as the field tightens, the passing lanes have closed off and scoring has become problematic. When you factor in that Arizona lost to OSU and USC by a combined five points and each game involved an Arizona turnover in the red zone as well as a missed field goal try from inside 30 yards it's yet another season of "what if" for the Cats.
Nick Foles and the team's pass offense were already coming off a very good 2009 season but seem to even elevate their collective game even more in 2010. Can you talk about what led to that improvement?
Depth at wide receiver has been a huge factor. Juron Criner has emerged as a bona fide NFL prospect and Arizona's unquestionable go-to guy. However, he's not alone. Sophomore Terrence Miller has played significant minutes the past two games as a result of William "Bug" Wright's suspension. All Miller has done is caught 15 passes for 212 yards. Nine different receivers or running backs have caught at least 11 passes this season, so distribution has improved from last season.
The biggest factor though has been Foles' improvement as a downfield thrower. He still has room for improvement, but when given time Foles' accuracy on deep balls has opened up the field for the Cats to do what they do best, throw underneath. The good and bad news for Arizona is the Wildcats throw best out of the hurry up offense. They've racked up points in this scheme, but do so generally after they've fallen behind by more than two scores.
Arizona's running game seems to be underrated and less talked about. How do you think this offensive aspect has performed?
Interestingly, Arizona is averaging 4.3 yards per carry in wins and 4.0 yards per carry in losses this season. To your point, Arizona's running game is underrated. The problem is fans are rarely seeing it. In its seven wins, the Wildcats have rushed for an average of 160.1 yards on the ground compared to only 94.0 in losses. The key has been time of possession (and playing from behind) in terms of the large disparity. In Arizona's four losses this season, opponents have held the ball for an average of 35:22. In short, Arizona hasn't had time to run the football.
Overall though, the Arizona ground game has likely underachieved. Injuries have crippled the Cats depth chart the past two years. A season ago, all three atop the depth chart missed significant action, and rarely was there a game when all three were active on the roster, or finished the game healthy. This season, only season-starting backup Keola Antolin has remained healthy from start to finish. Starter Nic Grigsby has been out on two occasions this season, the latest stint resulting in him missing half of the UCLA game, all of the USC game and all but one play against Stanford. Third-stringer, and Arizona's pound between the tackles back Greg Nwoko was injured back in October and hasn't played since.
In short, the ground game has been steady, but not great, and would likely be better with a full stable of healthy horses.
Back when he signed with Arizona, was Juron Criner expected to be the stud wide receiver he is now? Do you expect him to leave early for the NFL?
Criner arrived on campus a 6-foot-4, 195-pound receiver with a ton of credentials so yes, the program expected great things out of him. Criner was named to the Las Vegas Sun All-Decade team in January 2010 for his high school accomplishments, and was a two-time all-state player in Nevada.
However, even the accolades, size and other physical attributes on paper couldn't match the heart Criner demonstrates on the field, and that's what has made him a truly special player at Arizona. This season alone, Criner has been playing at about 80% since mid-September after never truly recovering from a turf-toe injury suffered against Iowa. Add in a nagging shoulder injury and some ankle issues and it's amazing to see the numbers he's putting up this season.
He's known around these parts as "Big Play Juron," and for good reason. To date, 77 of his 119 (65 percent) career catches have resulted in a first down or a touchdown. Further, 11 of his 18 career touchdown receptions have been 20+ yard plays.
In regards to leaving early for the NFL, the jury is still out. Nagging injuries have slowed his initial burst and it remains to be seen if he has true, NFL-elite outside receiver speed. Couple that with a potential NFL lockout and the fact that he'll have a senior in Nick Foles throwing to him next season, the opportunity to graduate from Arizona as its all-time receiver might be the wiser decision for Criner to make so as to boost his NFL stock even more the following season.
Many thought the Arizona defense was going to take a major hit this year, but up until the other week they were tops in the Pac-10. Do you think they overachieved and what were the keys to their success?
The same keys for success early in the season have led to their demise of late. In Arizona's wins, the defense has wrapped up well, sacked the quarterback and basically shut down the opponents running game. In three of the four losses, opponents have rushed for over 200 yards (Oregon rushed for 389) while physically dominating the Cats at the point of contact.
Arizona's safeties have never quite figured out their roles in the passing game this entire season and the entire team has struggled when switching from man to zone coverage throughout the games. Overall, the defense has likely overachieved when you consider it had to replace seven starters from a year ago, including both safeties and its entire linebacker corps, yet still ranks third in the Pac-10 in points allowed (20.8) and 32nd nationally.
The senior duo leads by example, and it starts in the weight room and on the practice field. Neither was heavily recruited so all of their success has been the bi-product of hard work. Each plays with a mean streak and possesses middle linebacker "attack mode" tendencies. Elmore uses his hands well, and is excellent at the up-and-under, outside-in move to get into the backfield while Reed relies on brute strength and an above-average first step to get to the quarterback. Elmore's colorful hair and face paint, and Reed's flowing locks remind many of WWE wrestlers and each has the motor of a wrestler who's not afraid to chase an opponent into the crowd.
Put two guys like this on the field at the same time and you've got a decent shot at collapsing the pocket.
ASU fans always joke about Mike Stoops' antics on the sidelines, but how does the Wildcat nation truly feel about his behavior? Embarrassed or oblivious?
It really depends on who you ask because Stoops' sideline behavior has been the topic of much debate since day one of his arrival on campus. For every Wildcat that loves Stoops' passion, there's another who despises it. The best way to answer this question is to give you the facts and then let Sun Devil fans draw their own conclusion.
Stoops' naysayers will argue that he's uncontrollable at times, and his "antics" have gone so far as to cost the Wildcats a sideline penalty or two in his first few seasons in Tucson. The truth is that Stoops is a perfectionist, and I'm not just referring to how he expects his players to perform. One source with knowledge of the situation said that "nothing gets by Mike" in a game. What this means is Stoops wants excellence from his players and coaches, but he also demands excellence from the officials, the game clock operator, the PA announcer and the hot dog vendor. If the game clock ticks a second too long, Stoops is on it like a spider monkey in a bar fight. If there's a face mask he's usually the first person on the field to spot it.
In Stoops' defense, the Wildcats have been on the wrong end of far too many bad calls in the past seven years so I don't blame him for not trusting anyone, especially the officials. I'll add that the biggest misnomer about Stoops from opposing fans is he does treat all of his players with the utmost respect and the yelling and fire they see is rarely, if ever directed at his players. And if it is, he's the first one to tap them on the helmet and encourage them once the storm passes.
How much of a talent hit is Arizona going to take with losing 20 seniors and overall how is the 2011 class shaping up so far?
Losing guys like Brooks Reed and Ricky Elmore will hurt, there's no doubt about it. However, the Cats have a stockpile of young talent ready to take on bigger roles, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Names like Adam Hall and Marquis Flowers will become namesakes at the safety spots, and will actually serve to improve Arizona's back seven that will return all three of its top cornerbacks and all of its linebackers next season.
Offensively, Colin Baxter and Adam Grant will be the biggest losses along the offensive line and the Cats again will enter a second-straight season with question marks surrounding its OL. However, the depth is there and it's really a matter of starters creating some separation from their backups. The Cats should return all of its key skill players, and will actually get a boost at receiver when Texas transfer Dan Buckner (6-4, 210) becomes eligible. Overall, Arizona will be more talented at all 22 starting positions than they currently are today.
The Class of 2011 looks solid with at least 8 scholarships still to fill. Linebackers Rob Hankins and Jabral Johnson are the real deal, and dual-threat quarterback Daxx Garman gives the Cats another thrower to mold while Foles, Matt Scott and Bryson Beirne play out their eligibility. Current verbal commit Ka'Deem Carey would give Arizona its most dynamic running back recruit under Mike Stoops. As usual, a major focus for Arizona has been recruits along both lines and they'll have at least four offensive lineman taking official visits for the ASU game.
What does ASU need to do in order to win this game?
The Sun Devils need to do what those opponents who've beaten Arizona have done, keep the ball out of Foles' hands. Foles has thrown for nearly 2,700 yards this season while missing two-and-a-half games. In the past two games alone he's thrown for 800 yards, 6 TDs and only 1 INT. ASU has a distinct advantage in the kick return game so if they can win the battle for field position and play with a lead, a big return could be the difference in what should be another exciting rivalry game.
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