Call it another case of the dreaded Sports Illustrated cover jinx.
Arizona was riding high coming into the 1999 campaign. They were coming off an 11-1 season in which they finished #5 in the final polls. To cap it all off, they convincingly beat Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl. UofA had 16 starters returning and was poised to further solidify its place in national prominence.
Then SI decided to end all the fun by putting the Cats on their college preview edition and proclaiming Dick Tomey's squad the top team in the land. The Cats did nothing but choke on this hairball of unrealistic expectations, and floundering to a disappointing bowl-less finish. It was the second time in six years that the SI jinx ruined Arizona. What was supposed to be a Rose Bowl for the Desert Swarm SI cover-boys in 1994 ended up being a Freedom Bowl loss to Utah.
Two years and another losing season later, Coach Tomey is history and new coach John Mackovic is in his place to try to breath life into a program that is in obvious upheaval. UofA won each of its first three games against a bunch of cupcakes (San Diego State, Idaho, and UNLV), but then proceeded to drop five consecutive Pac-10 games, a record for such futility for Arizona since they joined the Pac-10 in 1978. Of course the Cal Bears proved a worthy antidote for the Wildcats Pac-10 ills in a 38-24 blowout (it was 38-3 at the end of the third quarter). Arizona does possess some quality players at skill positions, but the fact is not anywhere near the team Stanford fans feared throughout the last decade.
Arizona has never really been known for its runners. Vance Johnson, arguably one of its finest tailbacks, ended up as a fine wide receiver in the NFL. However tailback Clarence Farmer is definite force in the UofA backfield. With 930 yards, he is currently second in rushing in the conference behind probation-ridden DeShaun Foster of UCLA. Farmer averages six yards every time he carries the ball. He rushed for over 100 yards against the Cardinal last year and will be looking to build on his career days against Cal last week -165 yards rushing, including a 65-yard TD run.
Farmer's skills are complemented by a solid offensive line that would be better if not not for a recent rash of injuries. The big meats include Kevin Berry, Steven Grace and Nakoa Freitas. While Arizona can run the ball, they also have the knack for coughing it up. The Wildcats have turned the ball over 26 times this season, an embarrassing stat which places them 113th nationally in that category.
Arizona fans probably didn't expect much this season from quarterback Jason Johnson, an inexperienced junior who had only thrown a total of 11 passes in his career coming into 2000. Johnson however is putting together a solid season, throwing for almost 1,900 yards and 16 touchdowns, while completing 57% of his throws. He also hails from Puyalup, Wash., the same town that produced the Huard brothers. He can be erratic at times, as evidenced by his four interceptions thrown against U$C, the last of which was returned for the game-winning touchdown. If he goes down to injury, as he did against Washington, look for freshman John Rattay (16-37-230 yards) to replace him.
Like Stanford, Arizona likes to spread the ball around to wide variety of receivers: Fifteen different players have caught passes this season. The best of the group is junior Bobby Wade. The native of Phoenix leads the team with 44 receptions for 594 yards and seven touchdowns. Three of those scores came against Cal last week a performance that tied the school record. Other targets to watch include Malosi Leonard (35 catches, 480 yards), as well as deep-threat Brandon Marshall. He only has 17 receptions this season, but they've been good for almost a 21-yard average and four TD's.
Tailback U. is of course officially history at USC. While it's hard to compare any defense to a unit as dominating as Desert Swarm was, no one would confuse this Arizona bunch to the likes of Teddy Bruschi and Rob Waldrop. Opponents are scoring an average of 34 points-per-game against the Wildcats this season. Six times in 2001 opposing running backs have gained over 100-yards against the Arizona defense. The maligned 1995 Stanford rushing defense was nowhere near as porous, even though they seemed to put a different back on the Heisman ballot each week.
The Wildcat defense has shown improvement in its last two games, and for the season is only giving up about 3.4 yards-per-carry. They still are among the league leaders in sacks, as opposing quarterbacks have gone down every 12 times they've dropped back to pass. The team's best defensive lineman is Anthony Thomas. He's 6'2" and 290-pounds, and might himself be called the "A-Train" if it wasn't taken by his namesake - the former Michigan star and current Chicago Bear.
Linebacker Lance Briggs is second in the conference in tackles with 80. He most likely will be an all-conference selection, and he was also a Football News preseason All-American. Ray Wells can play either the outside or inside linebacker position. True freshman Kirk Johnson, a Skyline High (Oakland) product, should start Saturday at the inside linebacker slot.
Arizona has some talent in the secondary, but they tend to give a lot of yards through the air. "Broadway" Joey Harrington lit them up, while Cody Pickett threw for a school-record 455 yards. Michel Jolivette (10 interceptions in the last two years) is a playmaker at cornerback, but his most important play in 2002 was for all the wrong reasons. With Arizona nursing a 28-24 late in the game against the Huskies, Pickett lofted a floater into the endzone and in the direction of Jolivette. All he had to do was catch the poorly thrown ball and the Cats would have come away with the shocking upset. Instead he batted it to the turf, and two plays later Pickett scored the winning touchdown. What was Jolivette thinking? Obviously, not much.
Placekicker Sean Keel is 6-for-11 in field goals in 2001. His leg doesn't match that of recent Cardinal opponents' kickers, as evidenced by a career-long of only 46-yards. Senior Chris Palic will handle the punting duties. It's been ten years since Arizona last allowed an opponent to score a touchdown on a punt return – Luke, are you reading this?
A key for Stanford to win this game is to control Farmer, the same way the defense neutralized DeShaun Foster a couple of weeks back. Johnson however is a better passer than Cory Paus, so the Cardinal secondary will have to do its job. Stanford also MUST capitalize on turnovers the way Arizona's opponents have done all season.
PREDICTION-This game makes the final home game for 19 Arizona seniors. Arizona Stadium hasn't been kind to Stanford teams, as the Card have come away victorious only twice there since their first meeting in 1979. This will be the first Arizona senior class to NEVER beat Stanford at the "Litter Box." Casey Moore comes alive and reminds UofA fans of their nightmare from 1999 (the 50-22 Cardinal rout). 35-27 STANFORD