Arizona Preview

Saturday's Duel in the Desert game pits the state's two major universities against each other for the 80th time. The Arizona Wildcats are eyeing a bowl game after winning their last three games. Arizona State is coming off a disappointing home loss to UCLA and must travel south on the I-10 to take on one of the conference's hottest teams right now.

Despite both schools being bowl eligible with six wins under their belts, the game is critical in terms of securing a bowl bid with a seventh victory. As Arizona State head coach Dirk Koetter alluded to earlier in the week with much at stake for both teams, the game does not get much bigger than this.

ARIZONA WILDCATS
2006 Record: 6-5, 4-4 Pac-10
Head Coach: Mike Stoops


Last Week: Arizona crushed Oregon's eight game home winning streak at Autzen Stadium, winning 37-10 with an inspired defensive effort.

OFFENSE
*Projected Starters

WR Mike Thomas, So.
LT Peter Graniello, Jr.
LG Adam Hawes, Sr.
C Blake Kerley, RS-Fr.
RG Joe Longacre, So.
RT Eben Britton, RS-Fr
TE Brad Wood, Sr.
QB Willie Tuitama, So.
FB Earl Mitchell, Fr.
RB Chris Henry, Jr.
WR Syndric Steptoe, Sr.

Three different Wildcat quarterbacks have taken snaps behind the center this season, which has helped lead to some offensive struggles. Despite not returning after leaving in the second quarter last week in Eugene, quarterback Willie Tuitama should be ready for the annual rivalry game. The sophomore has flirted with concussion issues but, if healthy, gives the 'Cats a play maker behind center. Tuitama has thrown for 6 touchdowns and 6 interceptions in nine games this year and is averaging just over 144 yards through the air.

When Tuitama has gone down, Adam Austin has been serviceable in his absence considering several other factors that have stifled the offense early on. The senior has appeared in six games, throwing for 418 yards, one touchdown, and four interceptions.

Boosting the second-half turnaround for the Wildcats this season has been better consistency up front on the offensive line. Better run blocking has allowed running back Chris Henry to find his stride. The junior was named Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Week recently for his 191 yard and three touchdown effort against the Ducks. Henry has teamed with junior Chris Jennings for 994 yards and ten scores on the ground for the Wildcats this year. Freshman fullback Earl Mitchell is a bruiser and appears to be headed for a bright future.

As expected, senior Syndric Steptoe has led the Arizona receiving corps but is followed closely by Mike Thomas. After emerging as a freshman last year, Thomas has caught 45 balls and a touchdown in 2006. Steptoe has also been limited to just a score on 49 catches, partly due to an offense still searching for an identity for much of the season. Junior Anthony Johnson leads all Wildcat receivers with three touchdowns. Tight ends Brandyn McCall and Brad Wood haven't been as involved in the passing game with only a combined 18 catches.

DEFENSE
*Projected Starters

DE Jason Parker, Jr.
NG Yaniv Barnett, Jr.
DT Paul Phillip,
DE Louis Holmes, Jr.
NB Marcus Hollingsworth, Sr.
MLB Ronnie Palmer, So.
OLB Spencer Larsen, Jr.
FS Dominic Patrick, Jr.
SS Michael Klyce, So.
CB Antoine Cason, Jr.
CB Wilrey Fontenot, Jr.

Four of the defense's 15 sacks have come by way of junior college transfer Louis Holmes. The defensive end has also collected 28 tackles for the defense this year. Nose guard Lionel Dotson has been the line's best help in terms of run support. Dotson has one sack to go along with his 31 tackles. Yaniv Barnett and Marcus Smith have combined for 28 tackles and 3.5 sacks on the interior as well.

Wildcat linebacker Spencer Larsen has emerged as a star for the team and leads the defense in tackles with 81. The outside linebacker has also notched two sacks and forced a pair of fumbles. In the middle, Ronnie Palmer has shown flashes of talent that may lead to bigger and better things for the young linebacking group for Arizona. Palmer has 66 tackles and two interceptions as a sophomore. Dane Krogstad and Marcus Hollingsworth have combined for 68 stops and two interceptions.

The secondary is undoubtedly anchored by a pair of junior corners that have 33 starts apiece. Antoine Cason and Wilrey Fontenot give the Wildcat defense consistency, something any team can always use in a pass-happy conference. Cason is third in tackles with 55 stops and leads all defenders with three interceptions while Fontenot leads all with eight pass break ups. Michael Klyce made his first career start at strong safety last week, filling in for senior Michael Johnson. The sophomore made the most of the opportunity with two interceptions on the afternoon. Dominic Patrick has collected 49 stops and six pass break ups at the free safety spot.

SPECIAL TEAMS

PK / P Nick Folk, Sr.
KOR / PR Syndric Steptoe, Sr.

Nick Folk has emerged as one of the Wildcats' most valuable players this season. The senior has connected on 15 of his 20 field goal attempts. His longest conversion was a 52-yard make against Washington. Folk's leg has also been utilized on the punt team. 23 of his 67 punts have been downed inside the 20-yard line. Folk is averaging just over 44 yards per punt.

Return specialist Syndric Steptoe has returned a punt for 67 yards and is averaging 13.4 yards on punt returns. The senior has had modest success returning kicks with a 24.8 yard average. Steptoe left the Oregon game early last week, allowing sophomore Mike Thomas to step in for a 31-yard kick return against the Ducks.

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