Arizona Preview

After missing each other on the schedule the last two years, Stanford and Arizona are anxious to face off on Saturday. The Cardinal and Wildcats both view this Tucson tilt as a must-win for their season. Fresh off a Pac-10 road win in Pullman, Stanford has a new set of challenges, including a balanced Wildcat offense, several defensive playmakers and a pair of potent kickers.

Two Hungry Teams in Tucson

Stanford and Arizona might have the top two men's basketball programs in the Pac-10, but neither school has had much success on the gridiron in recent years.  Gone are the days of the notorious Desert Swarm, and even Stanford's 1999 and 2001 teams are quickly becoming distant memories.

The Wildcats (1-4, 0-2) will welcome a return to the desert, after back to back games on the road against California and USC.  Stanford (2-2, 1-1) surprised Washington State in Pullman with a 24-21 victory last Saturday, coming off the heels of the infamous loss to UC Davis and a 44-20 defeat against Oregon.

UA sandwiched an easy win over Northern Arizona between tough beats against Utah and Purdue.  After a bye week, they were blanked by the Bears at Memorial Stadium.  Following the 28-0 loss to Cal, Arizona found themselves as overwhelming underdogs again, having to play USC on the road.  The offense had more success against the top-ranked Trojans, trailing 28-21 early in the fourth quarter.  Although the USC pulled away to win 42-21, the fact that Arizona refused to quit and played competitively against the top ranked team in the country for more than three quarters was encouraging.  Even though second year head coach Mike Stoops is 4-12 since the helm in Tucson, Arizona seems headed in the right direction.

The situation coming into Saturday's match up in Tucson can be compared to the WSU-Stanford game in November 1998.  In the second to last game of the season the conference cellar dwellers met, neither team owning a win in Pac-10 play.  Stanford made up a 14-point deficit in the second half to win 38-28.  Stanford upset Cal 10-3 the following week, with those two season-ending wins catapulting the Cardinal to an 8-3 regular season in 1999 and first Rose Bowl since their win over Michigan on January 1, 1972.  WSU continued their struggles after dropping that Stanford game, posting a record of 3-9 in 1999.

Saturday's contest between the Card and Cats might be another barometer game, giving both programs an indication of where they are headed.  Fans of both teams are still puzzled over what the future might hold and see this game as a must-win to keep bowl hopes alive.

Arizona Breakdown by Position

OFFENSE

- Quarterback

Sophomore Richard Kovalcheck gained the starting job with four games remaining in the 2004 season.  His best outing came in the upset over Arizona State, throwing 17-of-31 for 239 yards and three touchdowns.  So far in 2005, Kovalcheck has completed 58% of his passes and averages 228.6 yards per game.  He has thrown 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions.  Two of those interceptions came on Arizona's final drives against Utah and Purdue, when Arizona utilized the hurry-up offense to try to tie the game.  Trailing by 14 points with 12:38 left in the game against USC, Arizona drove the ball 59 yards to the Trojan six-yard line.  On 4th & 2, Kovalcheck attempted to force a pass down the middle in double coverage to tight end Brad Wood.  The ball was then tipped and intercepted.  Kovalcheck overlooked a receiver that was open on an out pattern to the right.

While Kovalcheck makes up for a lack of great arm strength with a high completion percentage, he needs to continue to develop his playmaking skills.  With added experience, Kovalcheck will likely improve his ability to read the entire field and find open receivers.

- Running Backs

Running back Mike Bell

Senior halfback Mike Bell averages 17 carries a game for 72.4 yards.  While those numbers are not spectacular, Bell adds a consistent running attack when he is not hampered by injuries.  At 6'1" 218, Bell can run between the tackles or to the outside.  6'2" 223 Gilbert Harris is more than capable of providing good runs while Bell rests on the sidelines.  While the size difference between the two backs is nothing too significant, Bell can be compared to Anthony Bookman while Harris is more like Mike Mitchell.

- Receivers

Arizona's offense owns a balanced aerial attack.  Wideouts Michael Thomas, Syndric Steptoe, and Michael Jefferson are all capable of coming up with big catches.  Thomas, a true freshman, has already made a large impact with 23 receptions and 337 yards, leading the team in both categories.  Steptoe, a junior, is second on both lists with 18 catches for 237 yards.  Jefferson, also a junior, has produced 15 receptions for 171 yards as the third receiver.

Junior tight end Brad Wood is flourishing in his second year wearing red and navy.  After playing one year at Pima Community College in Tucson, Wood transferred to the U of A.  In 2004, he had seven receptions for 48 yards.  Through only five games in 2005, he has 16 receptions for 232 yards, putting him third on the list in both categories.  Wood has the strength to be a favorite target in short yardage situations but also has the speed for large gains after the catch.  He leads the team in touchdown receptions with five.  Against Purdue, he caught a ball in stride for a 42-yard touchdown in the first quarter and found an opening in the end zone from eight yards away with time running low in the first half.  Wood's versatility as a receiver will be a difficult assignment for the Stanford linebackers and secondary.

The Cardinal defense must also be prepared for receptions out of the backfield.  Harris has caught 13 passes for 59 yards, and Bell has contributed nine receptions for 58 yards.  While these aren't Darrin Nelson numbers, both backs can be attractive outlet options for Kovalcheck.  Bell has been effective in block-and-release screens.

- Offensive Line

Peter Graniello, Adam Hawes, Erick Levitre, Kili Lefotu, Tanner Bell form the starting front five for the Wildcats.  They have done well protecting Kovalcheck so far in 2005, allowing nine sacks in five games.  However, the Wildcats were not able to effectively dominate a weaker NAU squad on the ground in the second half, giving cause for concern.  The ground attack struggled against Purdue, Cal, and USC.  Arizona has averaged 38 yards per game in that span.  The offensive line must do a better job of creating openings up the middle for Bell and Harris, if Arizona wants to contend for a bowl.

DEFENSE

- Secondary

Free safety Darrell Brooks

Don't let the fact that Arizona gave up 387 yards through the air against USC (724 yards total) fool you.  The Wildcats have a talented secondary, which might be the strongest aspect of the team.  The two starting corners might only be sophomores, but both already have lots of experience.  Antoine Cason started in 10 games last year, and Wilrey Fontenot started in all 11.  Strong safety Lamon Means and free safety Darrell Brooks are both seniors.

The secondary has been hampered by a lack of a pass rush.  A perfect example of this was Dwayne Jarrett's touchdown reception in the third quarter in the USC game.  Jarrett was double covered, but a lack of pressure on Matt Leinart allowed Jarrett to run a drag pattern from the left side all of the way to the right pylon.

- Linebackers

Arizona's defense took a blow last Saturday when star linebacker Dane Krogstad injured his knee.  He will be out of commission against Stanford.  Senior Randy Sims will also be limited due to injury but is listed first on the depth chart.  Juniors John McKinney and Akin Akinniyi are expected to start at the other two linebacker positions.

At the last press conference, head coach Mike Stoops had this to say about the plague of injuries that has affected the linebackers: "It has been frustrating.  That is how it is.  We just have to keep getting guys ready to play.  Our substitutions have really stepped up and done a nice job."

- Defensive Line

The line will also have to play without one of its starters, as senior defensive tackle Marcus Smith is out due to injury.  However, the Cardinal offensive line will get a formidable challenge from senior defensive end Copeland Bryan.  Bryan drew three holding penalties against USC and has four sacks from only three games in 2005.  Still, the defensive line must create a stronger pass rush to bring some relief to the secondary.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Kicker Nick Folk is 3-of-5 in his field goal attempts so far in 2005, with the longest make coming from 51 yards out against Purdue.  He has great leg strength, and kickoff returns have been rare.  There is a good chance Stanford will take touchbacks on every kickoff.

Punter Danny Baugher is a legitimate weapon for Arizona, averaging 48.4 yards per punt, which places him second among all Division I-A punters.  His ability to pin opponents deep in their own territory kept Arizona in the game against Purdue and USC.

Keys to the Game

  • MAKE ARIZONA PROVE THAT THEY CAN SCORE POINTS
    Arizona has trailed at halftime in all of their losses this year and had a comfortable lead at the break in their lone victory.  If Stanford can make an early lead, they will have a significant advantage against a team whose strength lies on their defense.
     
  • EXPLOIT THE INJURIES
    Walt Harris took advantage of Will Derting's injury against WSU and should look to do the same against Arizona.  If Stanford can run the ball like they did against the Cougars, they can then look to open up the passing game through play-action passes.
     
  • DON'T GET IN A FIELD POSITION BATTLE
    With a punter as talented as Danny Baugher, a field position battle could be a losing one for Stanford.

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