So Arizona lost a football game Saturday night.
Arizona's been losing football games with tremendous regularity since 1999 – victors in only 35 games while dropping 60 over the past eight plus seasons.
This team has its problems. That's obvious. They also have a tremendous amount of potential and that's what's so easily forgotten after yet another disheartening loss to, at least on paper, an inferior opponent.
Arizona has talent, and anyone who disagrees is only reading the box scores and not actually watching the games.
Arizona has speed. Just look at Terrell Turner burn up the sidelines untouched for the Wildcats' first score against New Mexico. Arizona has size. Just look at big Colin Baxter pulling from his left guard position to all but pancake opponents while clearing holes for tailbacks. Arizona has a quarterback. Yes, a quarterback. Just look at Willie Tuitama who has thrown for nine touchdowns and only two interceptions while averaging 315 yards per game in the air. Arizona has perhaps the best Special Teams in the Pac-10. Just look at young Devin Ross fearlessly fly up the field on kick returns, or watch in awe as Keenyn Crier booms punts with amazing hang time.
Arizona has a kicker, a bona fide playmaker in "Money" Mike Thomas and an all-over-the-field linebacker in Spenser Larsen. Arizona has a lot.
What Arizona doesn't have is an identity?
Unfortunately, for Arizona, and especially for Arizona under head coach Mike Stoops, no opponent is inferior anymore because Arizona football under Stoops lacks an identity. Actually, the closest thing they have to an identity is that Stoops' teams have gained a not so positive reputation for finding ways to make the most untimely mistakes.
From penalties to turnovers, Arizona has been plagued by bad timing. It's as if they are afraid of their own success. How else do you explain offside penalties on key Fourth and short distances, fumbles near the goal line, dropped passes, poor use of timeouts, broken coverages, conservative play calling when aggressive play calling is working, and missed tackle after missed tackle from a defense that returns 10 starters and was considered one of the stingiest in the nation last year.
As a fan, Arizona's games are tough to watch. As an analyst, watching Arizona's games is excruciating.
It's as if Arizona is the missing fourth character who didn't make the final cut in the movie Wizard of Oz. "If I only had a brain" or "if I only had a heart" sounds a lot better in a musical than "if I only had an identity."
If Arizona and their head coach had an identity for being fearless, then Arizona would've mass protected on first down when they were pinned at their own 2-yard line late in the third quarter, ran play action, and thrown a momentum-changing strike down the field. After all, Tuitama was connecting on the long ball all night and the offensive line was doing a great job of protecting their quarterback. Instead, Arizona calls for back-to-back, conservative running plays that then put the Wildcats in an obvious third and long situation that enabled the Lobos to blitz and force Tuitama into throwing the ball away for a safety.
If this team had an identity for being aggressive, then the Wildcats defense would be on the attack from the very beginning of the game. They'd be stunting and blitzing because they could afford to take chances up front while leaving the experienced and very capable cornerbacks Antoine Cason and Wilrey Fontenot on an island. Instead, Arizona plays a soft, bend-don't-break defense that allows offenses to control the ball and the game.
Opposing quarterbacks have had all day to pick apart the Arizona secondary on key plays. It's as if the bigger the situation, the more conservative defensive coordinator Mark Stoops gets. Unlike New Mexico's defense that blitzed on nearly every down and long distance situation, Arizona backed off in similar situations and allowed New Mexico's quarterback Donovan Porterie plenty of time to set his feet and connect on several deep passes that kept drives alive.
I'm convinced if Arizona could establish an identity they would begin to win games. Fearfully, without one though, instead of playing to win this team is playing not to lose.
Have you ever tentatively reached out to touch your car door because you were afraid to get shocked? Do you remember what happened?
You got shocked right?
Well, Arizona is afraid to get shocked right now and because of it, the Wildcats and their fans have been shellshocked after two hard to swallow losses to Mountain West Conference teams.
Those who want to compare the Stoops Era defenses to the Desert Swarm defenses of the early- to mid-90's are crazy. Those earlier defenses were fearless. They were reckless. They hit like mack trucks and freight trains. If you told Teddy Bruschi, Rob Waldrop, Tony Bouie, Brandon Sanders and Heath Bray to run through a tree, they'd find a way to get it done.
When Stoops arrived on campus, the stories of his passion, commitment and ability to motivate were legendary. In fact, the whole convincing others to run through a tree even though they knew it was impossible but tried anyway reference made above was exactly what people said about Stoops' ability to inspire others.
That, right there, is an identity. The belief in yourself that you can achieve anything is an identity. The knowingness that you are only limited by your own imagination is an identity.
That's the identity Arizona needs.
Right now Arizona is the little train that could but for some reason just can't.
With the right attitude adjustment, Arizona could become the locomotive that rolls into opponents' towns and steamrolls everything in its path.
Dick Tomey used to call these key conference road games "Commando" missions. Arizona would fly in late Thursday night under the cover of darkness, conduct early morning practices before disappearing to their hotel until game time, only to catch the first flight out of dodge once the game had ended.
That was an identity, and a winning identity at that.
I'm not convinced by those who say Stoops is not the answer for Arizona. What head coach Stoops has done in terms of resurrecting Arizona from the Seventh Layer of Hell that was Mackovic's Inferno is nothing short of amazing. The fact that he's been able to recruit unbelievably talented athletes to Arizona despite having losing seasons is also nothing short of amazing.
Under Stoops, Arizona has seen its finest collection of athletes assembled on the same field – ever. Stoops has brought talent to Tucson in the form of speed and size. For the first time in a long time, Arizona looks the part of a quality Division I football team.
It's now time for the Wildcats to play the part.
I remember when Arizona tied a horrible Oregon State team in 1992 to start the season 1-1-1. That was an incredibly low point in the Tomey Era. Instead of sulking, Tomey spent the entire next week meeting individually with every player to ask for their commitment to the program.
The door to leave was wide open for anyone who wanted to quit.
No one did and Arizona went into the famed Orange Bowl and played like Wildcats the next week, narrowly losing to the then #1 Miami Hurricanes on a missed 51-yard field goal as time expired. The team's attitude remained positive despite the close loss and their belief propelled them to five straight victories, including an incredible upset of the #1 Washington Huskies in Arizona Stadium weeks later.
It's time for Stoops to become that same leader. It's time for Stoops to take a long look at himself and start leading by example.
Arizona is plays away from winning football games. They are decisions away from winning football games. Stoops has proven during his tenure that he is capable of leading his team to upset victories over ranked opponents. He's also proven that he can lead his team to key victories on the road.
All is not lost unless of course the ability to believe is gone.
I refuse to believe that hope is gone but unfortunately I'm not the one leading this team. From what I know of Stoops, his belief is undying. The key is for him to channel that belief in a way that motivates his players to run through that tree that so many of his ex-Iowa Hawkeyes teammates and former Oklahoma players speak so fondly of.
He'll get that chance in Northern California this weekend.