Tigers, Wildcats ready for duel in the desert

John Mackovic can only hope the third time is the charm. <br><br> Entering his third year as the head coach of the Arizona Wildcats, Mackovic is coming off a 2002 season that saw his team go 4-8, including 1-9 in Pac-10 play. <br><br> Asked to revive a program that has not seen a winning season since going 12-1 in 1998, the former Texas coach compiled a 9-14 record his first two seasons in Tucson.

The Wildcats got back on the winning track last week in their season opener. Behind 120 yards rushing by sophomore Mike Bell, Arizona beat UTEP 42-7. The Wildcats get set to host No. 13 LSU Saturday night at 7 p.m. PDT. Fans in Baton Rouge can catch the game on TBS at 9 p.m. CDT.


On offense, the Wildcats return seven starters from a squad that put up 333 yards and 19 points a game.


At quarterback, the duo of sophomore Nic Costa and redshirt freshman Ryan O'Hara must replace the departed Jason Johnson and all of his 3,327 yards and 16 touchdowns. Both quarterbacks played in the season opener against UTEP and were efficient as O'Hara completed 8-of-15 passes for 109 yards and a touchdown while Costa was 6-of-10 for 109 yards and another score. The more mobile of the two quarterbacks, Costa also had three rushes for 33 yards and a touchdown.


"We wanted to get our quarterbacks trained," Mackovic said coming out of fall workouts. "The quarterbacks have developed a feel for many of the things we do, and in strategy situations, they're coming along. I'm comfortable but not satisfied."


First year offensive coordinator Mike Deal, along with Mackovic, feel the main area of focus heading into 2003 was the running game as Arizona looks to improve on a attack that averaged just 43.8 yards-a-game on the ground last season.


"We set off in spring ball to get our running game back together," Mackovic said. "We shifted to more downhill running plays and made a lot of strides. You're never too old to learn, and we changed one or two things on power plays that helped."


The changes were evident against UTEP as the Wildcats rushed for 234 yards. Bell had 120 yards on just 13 carries to go along with a touchdown. The return of senior Clarence Farmer, who ran for over 1200 yards two seasons ago, should also bolster the Arizona rushing attack.


Arizona returns four starters on the offensive line and hopes to stay healthy after an injury-plagued 2002 campaign. In only three games were the Wildcats able to start the same front five.


Senior right tackle Brandon Phillips leads the Wildcat O-line and along with junior left tackle Chris Johnson; who earned the Most Improved Player award for spring practice; gives Arizona a solid foundation up-front.


Starting 10 games in 2002, senior Andrae Thurman returns as the top returning receiver for the Wildcats. Thurman took advantage of playing on the other side of record receiver Bobby Wade a year ago hauling in 61 catches for 915 yards and three touchdowns.


With Thurman now the top wideout, senior Lance Relford and sophomore Brien Ealy will be looked to for immediate contributions. Relford and Ealy both got off to good starts as Relford had three catches for 88 yards and a touchdown. Ealy recorded four catches for 46 yards in the Wildcats season opener. Sophomore Ricky Williams rounds out the receiving corps as he had 47 yards receiving on three catches and a touchdown against UTEP.


The Arizona defense was horrible a year ago. As a unit, the Wildcat defense allowed nearly 400 yards and 26 points a game. To try and build on last season's poor showing, Mackovic brought in Mike Hankwitz to take over as defensive coordinator.


Hankwitz's began his overhaul of the Wildcat defense by switching to a 3-4 defensive alignment; something Mackovic said will benefit Arizona in Pac-10 play.


"It's a better match versus the Pac-10," Mackovic said. "We see a lot of three- and four-receiver alignments, and with the flex, that stretched us and put our run defense in trouble. The 3-4 gives us two linebackers in the middle of the field and two safeties in the middle of the field.


"We can roll coverages and match up. I felt that opposing quarterbacks could ‘read' us too easily. This kind of defense hopefully will help."


Arizona returns just one starter on a defensive line that gave up 161.8 rushing yards a game last season. Junior Carlos Williams, who had 27 tackles and a sack last season, is the leader up front for the Wildcats. Junior Vince Feula and sophomore Brad Brittain fill out the rest of the Wildcat defensive line.


Having only one returning linebacker from last season, the Wildcats must rely on several young players.


The one returning linebacker, senior Joe Siofele, is coming off a career year in 2002. Siofele is the leading returning tackler for the Wildcats (66 stops in 2003). He also led Arizona in sacks last season with five and a half.


Sophomore Copeland Bryan and Marcus Smith will man the outside linebacker position while junior Patrick Howard will play alongside Siofele inside.


Perhaps the most experienced position on the Arizona defense is the secondary as the Wildcats return three players who started at least seven games in 2002. The secondary should also be bolstered by the return of senior Michael Jolivette, who missed 10 games last season due to a knee injury.


Jolivette, along with Gary Love, are penciled in as Arizona's starting cornerbacks. Love had 39 tackles in 2002 and led the team with five pass break-ups.


At free safety, sophomore Lamon Means is coming off an impressive spring that saw him named outstanding defensive player. The emergence of Means has allowed Clay Hardt to move over to free safety after playing three years at the strong safety spot.

On special teams, senior Bobby Gill is back after a 2002 season in which he connected on 63-percent of field goals with a long of 47 yards. Sophomore Danny Baugher and senior James Molina will share the punting duties.

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