2007 Look Ahead: Arizona

It's a make or break year for the Wildcats and head coach Mike Stoops, who will welcome the Cardinal to Tucson this October. Arizona last had a winning season a decade ago, but they will boast one of the fiercest defenses in the Pac-10 this fall. Can they keep their quarterback and star talent on offense healthy to turn that into wins?

Arizona Wildcats

First Down: Quick Hitters

Stanford @ Arizona – October 20

Last Meeting: Arizona 20, Stanford 7

Side-by-Side Stats: (Arizona/Stanford)
Returning Offensive Starters: 6/8
2006 Points Per Game: 16.6/10.6
2006 Rushing Yards Per Game: 84/65
2006 Yards Per Carry: 2.7/2.1
2006 Passing Yards Per Game: 169/167
2006 Pass Completion Rate: 53.7/52.8
Returning Defensive Starters: 9/8
2006 Points Allowed Per Game: 19.6/31.4
2006 Rushing Yards Allowed Per Game: 120/211
2006 Yards Per Carry Allowed: 3.9/4.9
2006 Passing Yards Allowed Per Game: 207/177
2006 Pass Completion Percentage Allowed: 61.7/60.3
2006 Record: 6-6/1-11
2007 Projected Record: (6-6, 3-6)/(3-9, 2-7)
2007 Projected Pac-10 Finish: 7th/T-9th

Second Down: Offense

This unit's productivity was second-last to Stanford's in last year's Pac-10.  And while it has plenty of reasons – none bigger than the man under center – for optimism next year, this is August, and so does every team.  Still, if the breaks fall the right way, the ‘Cats scoring per game could pick up from 17 last year to the low-20s this year.  With a soft schedule and a killer defense, that could be enough to sneak into a lower-level bowl.

The Wildcats are lucky:  their best athlete on offense touches the ball every play, as he is quarterback Willie Tuitama.  I am really high on Tuitama; I think he is the West Coast's most underrated passer now that Trent Edwards is in blustery Buffalo.  Like Edwards, he is surrounded by subpar talent that kept his stats from looking too beautiful (just 1,335 passing yards in an injury-shortened 2006, seven touchdowns, six interceptions), but no one who watches him week-in, week-out questions what he means to his team.

Whether it will be enough is a major question with the early loss of tailback Chris Henry (second-round draft choice) this April.  Despite all I have read about Stoops' top-notch recruiting (and it shows on the defensive end, to be fair) this offense is not stacked with blue-chip talent, and last year's backup, senior Chris Jennings, will be hard-pressed to match what Henry brought to the offense.

The offense does return eight starters, four of them on the line.  Three are rising sophomores who started last year, so given the growth most players experience between their freshmen and sophomore seasons, there is plenty of reason to think the meager 84 yards per game and 2.7 yards per carry could significantly increase this year – and especially the following two seasons.

The receiving corps is in relatively good shape, even with the loss of top wideout Syndric Steptoe (seventh-round draft pick) and tight end Brad Wood.  Junior Michael Thomas is clearly the top guy: he caught 600 yards last year en route to Honorable Mention All Pac-10 honors.  Opposite Thomas, redshirt freshmen Delashaun Dean and Terrell Reese should push senior Anthony Johnson for playing time.  Junior Bobby McCoy factors into the mix as a deep threat; he was the Pac-10 200-meter champion in 2005.

Third Down: Defense

Simply put, Arizona's defense is the best-kept secret in college football.  They allowed under 20 points per game less year – lower than Pac-10 brethren like California, renown for their defense, and 10-win nationally-ranked Oregon State.

The scary part is nine of Arizona's defensive starters return.  That would make them the class of the Pac-10, except that USC is USC and UCLA returns 10 on the defensive side.  That is not bad company to hold, though, and these three teams should be head-and-shoulders above the rest of the league in the most important aspect of the game.

Fourth Down: Extra Points

At BYU is a tough season opener, but visits from Northern Arizona and New Mexico lighten the non-conference slate.  Throw in home dates against Washington State and Stanford, where the ‘Cats should be favored, and visits from UCLA and Oregon, where the ‘Cats have a shot, and a bowl bid is not a total pipe dream, especially off a 6-6 season with 17 starters.

That is a good thing, because Mike Stoops has to be feeling a lot of pressure to match last year's .500 season after consecutive 3-8 seasons his first two years in Tucson.  Karl Dorrell has (rightfully) received most of the heat in the Pac-10, but a step in the wrong direction could change that in a hurry for the younger Stoops.

Stoops walked into a tough job, though.  The ‘Cats last had a winning season in 1998, and their top talent regularly gets poached by schools like USC and Texas.  The 6-27 Pac-10 home record since 1999 has taken its toll on attendance and morale, but the huge upset of UCLA in 2005 (52-14) was the signature win of the Stoops era.

The Arizona game last year was probably the lowest of many low points for the Walt Harris era at Stanford.  With under two minutes remaining, trailing by the final score of 20-7, Harris elected to punt and save face, rather than try to go for the fourth down and actually try to win the game.  Stanford did win 20-16 in 2005, as the Wildcats coughed the ball over all afternoon.

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