Arizona Preview

We turn today to our man in Tucson, whose insight on Arizona helps us preview the first Stanford Football opponent in a month where the Cardinal are underdogs by less than a touchdown. The Wildcats have been caught with their own struggles on offense, starting with their front five. Arizona also will start a new quarterback Saturday. Beware however their athletic and dangerous defense.

"Must win."

These two words are being used among fans of The University of Arizona's football team to describe this Saturday's contest between the Wildcats (2-4, 0-3) and the Stanford Cardinal (0-6, 0-3).  Both programs are eager to get any win… against any opponent.

Head Coach Mike Stoops is in his third year at Arizona.  Stoops proved to be popular with the fans after John Mackovic was ousted.  However, fans are becoming increasingly impatient as Stoops has gone 8-20 in his two and a half seasons.  If you take away victories over D-IAA opponents such as Northern Arizona and Stephen F. Austin, the record drops to 5-20.

This match up is one of Stanford's best chances to earn a victory in 2006.  However, Arizona has a significant advantage in talent, even if their respective records do not suggest it.  The Wildcats have been hindered by a poorly performing offensive line and frequent small mistakes such as dropped passes.

The Season So Far

Arizona started the year with a thrilling victory at home, edging BYU 16-13 on a last second field goal.  The following week, Arizona was humbled at LSU with a 45-3 loss.  The Wildcats were uninspiring in their return to the desert, defeating D-IAA Stephen F. Austin 28-10 after leading only 14-10 through three quarters.

The Wildcats started conference play with a tall task, hosting USC.  The Arizona defense kept the team in the game for a while, limiting the Trojans to a 3-0 lead at halftime.  However, USC was gradually able to wear down the Cats, pulling away to win by a score of 20-3.

Seven days later, Arizona lost 21-10 to the greatly improved Washington squad, as the Wildcats continued to sputter on offense.  Their last game to date was a 27-7 loss at the Rose Bowl to UCLA.  The Bruins turned the tables on the Wildcats, who a year ago dashed undefeated UCLA's national title hopes with a 52-14 massacre in Tucson.

The Offense

Arizona has averaged just over 11 points per game so far in 2006.  That number drops to 7.8 if you eliminate the game against Stephen F. Austin.  The Wildcats have scored only seven touchdowns in their six games.  They have found the end zone just three times against D-IA opponents.

Tight ends coach Dana Dimel was promoted to Co-Offensive Coordinator as the running game specialist in an attempt to rejuvenate the anemic ground attack.

Quarterback

Backup Adam Austin will get the start against Stanford as sophomore starter Willie Tuitama suffered his second concussion of the season against UCLA.  Austin is a solid but unspectacular back up for Tuitama, having completed 34 of 67 passes for 342 yards this year.  He has thrown one touchdown and has been intercepted three times.

Austin, a senior, received extensive playing time filling in for Tuitama against LSU and UCLA.  In both games, the offense struggled with both Tuitama and Austin at the helm, making comparison between the quarterbacks difficult.

Austin started against SFA but was replaced by Tuitama in the fourth quarter.  The Wildcats offense sputtered with Austin under center.  Tuitama entered the game and led the offense on back-to-back drives that ended with a touchdown.  It's a small sample size but this does indicate that there is a talent drop off when Austin plays.

One aspect in Austin's favor is that he seems to get rid of the ball quicker than Tuitama, an asset given the Wildcats' porous offensive line.  It's difficult to truly evaluate Austin's talent due to the fact that because Arizona quarterbacks seem to spend more time lying on the ground than in the pocket.

Running Backs

Arizona lost Mike Bell and Gilbert Harris, who accounted for 92% of its rushing yards in 2005, due to graduation (or expired eligibility).  The best surprise so far this season has been the emergence of junior college transfer Chris Jennings as Bell's replacement.  Jennings walked onto the team in the fall after transferring from Arizona Western.

Jennings started against SFA after junior running back Chris Henry was suspended for the game for "violation of team rules."  With the offensive line able to create space against the D-IAA defense (something that doesn't happen when a D-IA team is the opponent), Jennings gained 201 yards on 26 rushing attempts and scored two touchdowns.  Jennings earned a scholarship for the performance.

For the season, Jennings has 316 net yards from 69 total rushes.  The 5'10" 225-pounder is faster and is better at cutting than his 6'0" 233-pound counterpart Chris Henry, who is better between the tackles, similar to Gilbert Harris last year.  Henry has rushed 35 times for 91 yards, 54 of which came on a single play against BYU.  Both backs appear to have talent but seldom have the chance to show it due to poor blocking.

Freshman Earl Mitchell is listed as the starting fullback.  Arizona uses fullbacks for blocking and to serve as outlet receivers.  No fullback on the team has any rushes so far this season.

Receivers

Just as in 2005, Arizona features a balanced aerial attack.  Senior Syndric Steptoe leads the team in total receptions (30) and receiving yards (361).  Sophomore Mike Thomas is second with 27 catches for 328 yards.  Rounding out the top three is junior Anthony Johnson, who has netted 164 yards for his 19 receptions.

The Wildcat receivers have struggled with separation and holding onto passes.  While the separation issue can be excused by the lack of a threat of a running game, the drops cannot.

In 2005, Brad Wood caught 27 passes for 304, fourth in both categories.  Wood led the team in touchdowns with six.  Wood's production this year has dropped, most likely from a combination of a knee injury that required surgery and the need to play "max protect" due to the porous offensive line.

Wood has been limited to five catches for 46 yards and no touchdowns.  Wood splits time with Brandyn McCall, who has 80 yards from nine catches.

Offensive Line

"The only time an offensive lineman gets attention is when he does something wrong."  Unfortunately, if that expression is true, the Wildcat offensive line has received too much attention in 2006.

As stated earlier, running backs Chris Jennings and Chris Henry rarely have anywhere to run and are consistently first hit in the backfield.  Quarterback Willie Tuitama has suffered two concussions.  Tuitama and Austin have been sacked 19 times for a loss of 159 yards to go along with countless hurries and hits.

As of the Washington game, the listed starting lineman are Peter Graniello (junior left tackle), Adam Hawes (senior left guard), Blake Kerley (redshirt freshman center), Daniel Borg (redshirt freshman right guard), and Eben Britton (redshirt freshman right tackle).  Seniors Erick Levitre and Tanner Bell both started in 2005 and are listed on the second level on the depth chart.  Sophomore Joe Longacre has also received significant playing time.  It appears as if there have been a lot of personnel changes, as the coaching staff struggles to find a successful combination of linemen.

There have been many instances where the offense has driven past midfield, only then to lose momentum with a sack, a run for loss, a holding penalty, or a false start.  While the rest of the offense has been far from flawless, it is the opinion of the writer that the brunt of the offense's struggles originate with the inability of the line to run block or provide pass protection.

A damning statistic: Arizona has rushed for negative rushing yards in each of its three last games.  In the three outings, the Wildcats have rushed for a combined -36 yards.  Mike Stoops claimed that the offensive line is "playing well" in a recent press conference, which contradicts what the numbers suggest.

The Defense

Just as in Stoops' previous two seasons in Tucson, the strength of the team lies within the defense.  Considering the amount of time they have to spend on the field and the advantage opponents get in field position because of the ineffective offense, the defense has played remarkably well.

However, defenders have the tendency to allow the runner to gain two to five yards after he is initially hit.  Many situations that should have been 2nd & 7 have been 2nd & 4 because the defender went in too high or failed to wrap up.

Defensive Line

The Wildcat defense lost second team All Pac-10 defensive end Copeland Bryan to graduation.  Juco star Louis Holmes, transferring from Scottsdale Community College, was brought in to replace Bryan.

The junior Holmes is tied for eighth on the team in total tackles with 21 and is second in tackles for loss with three, all sacks.  Holmes has not put together any single overpowering performance but has been an adequate replacement, drawing his share of double teams.  In a recent press conference, Stoops said that Holmes sprained his knee against UCLA and played against the Bruins while injured.

Sophomore Johnathan Turner plays at the other defensive end spot, while senior Marcus Smith and junior Lionel Dotson are the starting tackles.

Linebackers

Junior weakside linebacker Spencer Larsen emerged as a force in 2005 after missing 2003 and 2004 to serve on a Mormon mission.  Larsen was tied for third on the team in total tackles last year. This season, he leads the defense in total tackles (48) and tackles for loss (4.5).

Middle linebacker Dane Krogstad and strong side linebacker Ronnie Palmer are also returning starters.  Krogstad has 27 tackles and Palmer has 36.

Secondary

Cornerbacks Antoine Cason and Wilrey Fontenot, both juniors, have been starting since their freshman seasons.  Senior free safety Michael Johnson earned the starting job last year after the Oregon State game.  The least experienced member of the secondary is junior Dominic Patrick who played in eight games and made no starts in 2005.

Arizona plays mostly zone defense and rarely gives up the "big play."  However, opposing offenses have been successful completing short passes underneath the zone.

Special Teams

Kicker Nick Folk was the hero of the game against BYU, connecting from 48 yards out to give the Wildcats the victory.  The senior has excellent leg strength and 16 of his 19 kickoffs have resulted in touchbacks.  However, he has lacked consistency on his field goal attempts as is only 6-of-11 on the year.

Folk also serves as the punter and has averaged 45.4 yards per attempt.  However, kicker is his primary position and Folk does not have great touch on his punts.  From 35 punts this season, four have sailed for touchbacks and nine have been downed inside the 20 yard line.

Syndric Steptoe is the primary kickoff and punt returner.  Although Steptoe has not broke a long return so far in 2006, he did return a punt for a touchdown against UCLA last season.

Keys to the Game

Take Away Arizona's Running Game

Arizona has struggled to run the ball all throughout 2006, and the Cardinal defense needs to keep it that way.  By limiting Jennings' and Henry's yards on the ground, Arizona's play action threats can be neutralized.

Don't Sit Back on Defense

The Wildcats struggle to protect the passer.  Frequently blitzing will allow the defense to dictate the tempo and put pressure on Adam Austin.

Complete Short Passes

Arizona's zone defense is vulnerable to passes underneath.  Complete short passes to gain easy yards and keep pressure off Trent Edwards.


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