Another incredible weekend of sports was yet again spoiled by a head-scratching Arizona loss on the gridiron. The Wildcats have suffered some tough defeats this season but the setback to Stanford on Saturday afternoon saw this team hit a new season low.
Just a year ago, Arizona played the majority of the game in Palo Alto with their third string quarterback. They not only beat Stanford, they physically dominated the Cardinal in holding them to a staggering 52 yards of total offense. With very little attrition and turnover by both schools, what has happened in the past 12 months that suddenly enabled Stanford to turn the tables?
It's a question everyone is asking and so far the answer hasn't been provided. Regardless of what the answer is one thing is for certain, Arizona's coaching staff would be unwise to leave it up to the fans and the media to speculate on their own.
It's time for this staff to start providing us with real answers to questions surrounding the program. At 2-6, this is a team that is underachieving. That's painfully clear. What's not clear is why are they underachieving?
Following Saturday's loss, Mike Stoops again held a press conference where he spoke but literally said nothing. Outside of throwing his place kicker under the bus and insinuating that he's not sure how to fix the problems, what he thinks he's saying and what we're actually hearing are two entirely different things.
The worst part in all of this is Stoops and the rest of his coaching staff are really great people. By all indications, they've acclimated themselves to the Tucson community and have done a downright impressive job in resurrecting a program that was literally in shambles four years ago.
To see them suffer through this is almost insufferable.
While the losses are frustrating and disappointing, this is hardly a disheartened football program. Similar to the Dick Tomey Era, you can literally point to two or three things in every game that if the opposite had happened, the Wildcats could easily have won. Against Stanford the Wildcats played inspired defense for the second straight game. Had Willie Tuitama not rushed his throw and overthrown a wide open Anthony Johnson who was running free inside the 15-yard line, the Wildcats' would have scored to go up by 14 points which most likely would've put the game out of reach. Similarly, had kicker Jason Bondzio not missed a chip shot field goal midway through the fourth that would've extended the lead to 23-14 I'm pretty confident in saying that Stanford didn't have the needed two scores in them to win that game.
Unfortunately, those two things did happen and Arizona did lose.
I'm happy that long gone are the days of the 30 and 40-point blowouts. What Stoops has done in his first three and a half seasons is indeed a start to a better football program. The games are at least close now and for that he deserves a ton of credit.
He's also worked successfully, and tirelessly I might add, to make Arizona a player on the national recruiting scene. Three Top 25 recruiting classes with records of 3-8, 3-8 and 6-6 is quite an amazing accomplishment. He and his staff have sold student athletes on their vision for the future. They've also upheld their promise to these athletes that if you're good enough to play as a freshman you will.
The area they've failed in, simply put, is winning games. I feel for these coaches because I know how hard they work and how much they care. I feel for our players because I know how bad they want to succeed. I feel for our fans because I know how much they bleed red and blue. I feel for our media because no one wants to cover a losing team and more importantly, no one wants to have to question a coach or a player after a tough loss.
Arizona needs to find ways to win games. Looking at the schedule and taking into consideration that this team has already lost to New Mexico and Stanford at home, it's almost impractical to think that there's another win left on the schedule. While Washington shares in Arizona's misery near the bottom of the conference, the Huskies are a team that's had the Wildcats' number the past two seasons. Add to that the fact that Seattle is one of the most intimidating conference venues to play in and it's difficult to like Arizona's chances on Saturday. The Homecoming Game against UCLA is probably Arizona's best chance of getting their third win of the season but after watching the Bruins dispose of Cal this weekend, I think Tuitama will have a difficult time completing any passes down the field against UCLA's unbelievably talented secondary. As for Oregon and Arizona State, to even think that Arizona can compete with legitimate top 10 teams right now is looking more and more like a pipe dream.
Three weeks ago, I had every confidence in Arizona. But then two troubling things happened. Following the blowout of Washington State, Arizona went on the road and lost to Oregon State. The loss was not as troubling as the fact that again Arizona came out flat following a big win.
The failure for this program to sustain momentum from game to game is sadly becoming the hallmark of Arizona football under Stoops. Whether the label is deserved or not, or even fair for that matter, is irrelevant because it's true.
The second troubling event occurred Saturday night against the Cardinal. After playing the Trojans well in the Coliseum and nearly winning, Arizona failed to capitalize on offense time and again which kept Stanford in the game long enough for them to finally find a way to punch one in the end zone and win. Not being able to capitalize on or cash in a gift like an opponent turning the ball over is a hallmark of a bad team and that's what Arizona was last Saturday. Unlike the Oregon State game, the Stanford loss was just plain bad. Really bad. And practically indefensible.
Because of these two troubling things, the remaining four games are the most important four games in the young careers of Stoops & Co.
What happens between now and Dec. 1 will most likely set the stage for what happens between Dec. 2 and Mar. 1, 2008. Will the team find a way to play more consistent and disciplined football or will they continue to make silly mistakes that stall drives or result in points for the opponent? Will the coaches be frank with the public and reveal new strategies they're employing to try and improve the team or will they continue to remain coy about what's going on behind the scenes?
Most importantly, will they try and build for the future by playing fresh faces and underclassmen who have played well thus far or will they remain stubborn in playing those who are making the costly mistakes game after game.
The season itself is such a disappointment that salvaging it with a win or two is of little concern to me right now.
What does concern me is how the program plans to use the final four games to build for the future and what, if any, actions the university will take if progress is not made.