Arizona Game Preview

Jon Forbes, Jr., the now far more senior writer known to Booties as "YCF" ("Young Cardinal Fan") is back to provide TheBootleg with a comprehensive preview of this Saturday's climactic clash with the Cats, when one of the two relevance-seeking teams is going to have to claw their way to a big "W". Read on to hear the perspective of a current Tuscon local on which team it's going to be...and why!

A few years ago, there was a team in the Pac-10 that was struggling under a stubborn, disciplinarian coach. He had a previous record of success, but simply could not connect with his players. Before half of his contract had passed, he was out of a job. His replacement had strong name recognition and was enthusiastic but an unproven commodity as a Division I-A head coach. Fans and players alike appreciated how he returned passion to the organization. The question is: Am I talking about the Stanford Cardinal or the Arizona Wildcats?

Mike "Brother of Bob" Stoops became head coach University of Arizona prior to the 2004 season after "Beating" John Mackovic was forced out as head coach. Like Jim Harbaugh, Stoops injected enthusiasm into a moribund program and was well received-by fans. The Wildcats, however, still seek their first winning season under Stoops and are at 2-5 (1-3) in 2007, despite returning 19 (of 22) starters. Dissatisfaction is brewing among Wildcat backers and Stoops may find himself looking for a new job following the conclusion of the season. Perhaps the current condition of the Wildcat squadron is a warning to Cardinalmaniacs™. A dynamic coach's ability to instill passion in his players might be a necessary condition for success. But by no means is it sufficient.

Summarizing Stoops' seasons, Arizona has posted season-highlighting upsets during all three of Stoops' years in Tucson. In 2004, the Wildcats defeated arch-rival and eventual Sun Bowl champion Arizona State, 34-27. The following year, UofA dominated #7 UCLA by a score of 52-14! Last November, the trip to Tucson was too tough for #8 California as they fell short to the Cats 24-20. It was just one of two losses in conference play for their Bears, with their other defeat coming against USC. 

Despite the annual upsets, Stoops is 14-27 and 10-27 vs. Division I-A teams during his three-and-a-half seasons as head coach. The best record a Stoops team has achieved is 6-6, which came last year. Not what was expected in Tucson. In 2006, The Wildcats entered the season-ending Territorial Cup having won their last three games and four of their last five. A win over ASU would have meant 7-5 and a bowl. However, the Wildcats quickly fell behind 21-0 and never recovered, losing by a final score 28-14.

"Stoop-ified": The 2007 Season to Date 

This was supposed to be the breakout year for the Wildcats but the frustrations have continued in the Old Pueblo. Arizona was swept by its Mountain West opponents, BYU and New Mexico and like our Cardinal is just 1-3 in Pac-10 play. The Wildcats' two wins came against Div. I-AA Northern Arizona and Washington State, which is 0-4 against conference foes.

On paper, the Arizona has been competitive with their opponents:

vs. all opponents   vs. Pac-10 opponents
  UA Opponents     UA Opponents
Points 183 189   Points 104 116
Points per game 26.1 27   Points per game 26.0 29
First downs 144 144   First downs 78 87
Total yards 2,612 2,522   Total yards 1,383 1,466
   per play 5.3 4.8      per play 4.9 4.9
   per game 373.1 360.3      per game 345.8 366.5
Rushing yards 538 844   Rushing yards 273 590
   per rush 3.0 3.4      per rush 2.5 4.0
   per game 76.9 120.6      per game 68.3 147.5
Passing yards 2,074 1,678   Passing yards 1,110 876
   per attempt 6.6 6.1      per attempt 6.4 5.7
   per catch 10.6 10      per catch 9.9 9.7
   per game 296.3 239.7      per game 277.5 219.0

After seven games, it appears as if the Wildcat offense has improved compared to last year. In 2006, the Wildcats averaged only 16.6 points per game, 252.8 yards per game, 4.1 yards per play, 2.7 yards per rush, and 5.7 yards per passing attempt. Sound familiar?

Any improvements by the Wildcat offense, however, have been offset by a regression by the defense. The defense has allowed fewer yards per play (5.4 in 2006), per rush (3.9), and per passing attempt (6.9) but more points per game (19.6) and more yards per game (326.2). The "all opponents" stats are skewed by the Wildcats' victory over Northern Arizona, where the offense torched the Lumberjacks for 45 points and 490 yards. Even the Pac-10 stats don't tell the full story. Against Washington State, Arizona scored 48 points and picked up an astounding 567 yards. Against the much-tougher California, Oregon State, and USC squads, they averaged just 18.7 points and 272 yards per contest.

The Offense

Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Sonny Dykes is in his first year at Arizona, replacing Mike Canales, who is now the passing game coordinator and receivers coach at the University of South Florida. (Yes, the same USF team that is currently #2 in the BCS standings.) Dykes, described as "passing-attack specialist," was expected to bring the spread-offense to Tucson. "Sonny brings some fresh ideas and new enthusiasm to our program and to our offense," Stoops said of the hire. Results have been mixed. While Arizona has improved its points and yards per game, the offense has remained inconsistent. The running game continues to sputter and the so-called "spread" offense was nowhere to be seen vs. USC as the Cats relied on short dink-and-dunk passes to try to move the ball.

Quarterback: Much-hyped junior quarterback Willie Tuitama has never quite met the lofty expectations placed on him. Yet it is difficult to label him as an underachiever due to the alarming number of injuries he has suffered due primarily to poor pass blocking by the UofA line. Tuitama was dealt a concussion against a superior LSU squad during the second week of the 2006 season. He apparently suffered two other concussions during the season, but medical experts later determined he never fully recovered from the first injury.

In 2007, Tuitama has avoided injury so far and has been a sharp, but not game-breaking quarterback. He has completed 191 of 306 passes (62.4%) for 2,055 yards. His touchdowns to interceptions ratio is 15 to 7 (2.1), an improvement of last year's final figures of 7 to 6 (1.2). Tuitama is a pocket passer and not a particularly mobile quarterback. While he has been hindered by poor blocking, a more agile quarterback might have been able to avoid defenders and perhaps run with the ball.

Running Backs:

The Wildcats have replaced two NFL-quality halfbacks in two years. Their starter in 2005, Mike Bell, was signed as a free agent by the Denver Broncos and ran for 677 yards in 2006. "The Other" Chris Henry, last year's starter, was drafted by the Tennessee Titans in the second round. The current starter, true freshman Nicholas Grigsby, is a fleet 5'10", 178 lbs.. Grigsby earned the starting job before the fourth game of the year, which was against Cal. He has averaged a respectable 371 yards from 75 carries (4.7 yards/carry). By comparison, Henry only averaged 3.5 yards per carry in 2006. Sophomore Chris Jennings (5'10", 210), who lost the staring role to Grigsby, has seen his workload severely reduced since he was demoted to second on the depth chart. Earl Mitchell (6'2", 245), the sophomore H-back, is primarily used as a blocker. Despite some statistical improvements, the running game is still found to be wanting. The Wildcats have only scored four touchdowns on the ground, with three from Tuitama and one by Grigsby. As in years past, I attribute the anemic ground attack to the offensive line, not to a shortage of talent in the backfield.

Receivers:

Receiver Mike Thomas is one of the most dangerous receivers in the Pac-10. The junior is only 5'8, 195, but Cardinalmaniacs™, of all fans, should know full well that shorter receivers can still excel. (Troy Walters, anyone?) Thomas has already gathered in 50 catches for 506 yards and six touchdowns, leading the team in all of those categories. Anthony Johnson (6'2", 210, Sr.) and Terrell Turner (6'2", 190, Soph.) have 27 and 26 receptions respectively. The Wildcats are willing to use their running backs in the passing game as Jennings and Grigsby are fourth and sixth on the list with 23 and 14 receptions respectively. True freshman tight end Rob Gronkowski may only have 10 catches, but he has amassed 217 yards and three receptions. Should the Cardinal defense ignore the tight end, they will do so at their own peril.

Offensive Line: 

The Arizona starting five offensive linemen from left to right are: LT Peter Graniello (6'5", 310, Sr.), LG Colin Baxter (6'4", 295, RS Fr.), C Blake Kerley (6'2", 285, Soph.), RG Joe Longacre (6'3", 315, Jr.), and Eben Britton (6'6", 310, Soph.) The standout star of the offensive line is Britton, who was honored by The Sporting News as a second-team All-American and first-team Freshman All-Pac 10 in 2006. The Wildcats have given up 16 sacks in seven games, or about 2.3 per game. This is an improvement over last year's figure of about 2.6 sacks per game. More importantly, the offensive line has been able to keep Tuitama healthy this year, unlike last season. Half of the sacks came against Oregon State, when the Arizona lost 31-16. The question is whether that single game is an outlier or hints that a relentless defensive attack may overwhelm the Wildcat front five. The running game continues to struggle, which severely hampers the Arizona offense. Just twice have the Wildcats ran for more than 38 yards in a game. The Wildcats ran for 195 yards in Northern Arizona and 221 against Washington State. It's probably not a coincidence Arizona's two wins came in those games.

The Defense

The defensive unit may have returned 10 of 11 starters, but clearly has disappointed in 2007. As mentioned earlier, the Wildcats have given up 6.5 more points per game and 34.1 more yards per game compared to 2006. Not exactly "Desert Swarm". "I don't know how much more exciting it could be than to return that many defensive starters on a team that showed it could compete," said Stoops before the start of the season. "The guys will be able to play freer and more violently across the board." Interestingly, the lack of a clear culprit of the defense's regression only adds to the Wildcats' frustrations. The defense's problems certainly can't be blamed on a lack of talent.

Defensive Line:

Seniors Louis Holmes (6'6", 265) and Jason Parker (6'3", 265) are listed as the starting defensive ends. Holmes, second-team All-Pac-10 last season, is in his second and final year in Tucson since he was a juco transfer. Like Tuitama, Holmes has been a solid performer, but hasn't quite lived up to skyhigh expectations. Regardless, expect him to attract more than his fair share of double-teams. Perhaps the Holmes Hype™ has allowed the lesser-known Jason Parker to be ignored by opposing defenses, freeing him to lead the team in tackles for loss (6.5) and rank second in sacks (4). Junior Jonathon Turner (6'3", 262) has also started at defensive end while freshman Ricky Elmore (6'4", 240) has received ample playing time. Senior defensive tackles Yaniv Barnett (6'1", 315) and Lionel Dotson (6'4", 284) have started in all seven games. Dotson is the team leader in sacks with 4.5 and is second in tackles for loss with six.

The Wildcats have not been able to consistently generate a pass-rush, which has hurt the secondary. The defense has 15 sacks so far this season, seven of which came in their wins over Northern Arizona (4) and Washington State (3).

Linebackers:

All three linebackers are returning starters. The group is headlined by senior weakside linebacker Spencer Larsen (6'1", 240), who is the team's top tackler with 66 solo and assisted stops. Larsen earned second-team All-Pac-10 honors in 2006. Junior middle linebacker Ronnie Palmer (6'3", 245) is second with 45 tackles while strong-sider Dane Krogstad, who is sixth on the squad with 30. Despite their experience, the linebacker corps has struggled with their tackling and their pass coverage. However, opponents should be wary of a possible return to 2006 performance levels.

Secondary:

Senior cornerback Antoine Cason (6'0", 185) earns top billing on the defense. Last year, Cason earned first-team All-Pac-10 and second-team All-American honors. He was also a Jim Thorpe Award semi-finalist. He should once again compete for many awards at the conclusion of the season. Cason leads the team with three interceptions for 93 yards. Wilrey Fontenot (5'9", 174), also a senior, starts at the other cornerback position. Hopefully 6'7" Evan Moore can eat him up. Sophomore Cam Nelson (6'1", 200) has started all seven games at strong safety. Dominic Patrick (6'1-210), started the first five games at free safety before suffering an injury. He has returned to the starting position on the depth chart.

Special Teams

Despite losing kicker/punter Nick Folk to graduation, the Wildcats retain a strong kicking game. Impressive junior Jason Bondzio (5'9", 165) has made 12 of his 15 field goal attempts and is 4-4 from 40-45 yards. Redshirt freshman Keenyn Crier has assumed punting duties, averaging an outstanding 44.4 yards a punt. Crier is this week's Pac-10 Special Teams Player of the Week for his outstanding performance vs. USC. Against the Trojans, Crier made seven punts for 336 yards, including one that went for 85 yards. Five of his seven kicks were downed inside the 11-yard-line, including one on the USC four, one at the two and one on the one-yard-line (the 85-yarder). Antoine Cason has also been dangerous as a punt returner, with 99 yards on 10 yards, including one that went for 70 yards. Devin Ross, a 5'11", 170-pound sophomore cornerback, has the longest kickoff return, having brought back a kick for 52 yards. The other kick returner is wide receiver Mike Thomas.

Stanford's Three Keys to the Game:

  • Limit the Deep Ball, But Be Sure to Tackle!

USC effectively limited the Arizona deep-threat, forcing the Wildcats to make many short passes. While this strategy worked for the Trojans, it certainly won't for the Cardinal if they duplicate their poor tackling effort against TCU.

  • Utilize Tavita Pritchard's Mobility!

The Wildcat pass rush may not be playing consistently, but the defense has weapons which will test the Stanford offensive line and put pressure Tavita Pritchard. By using Pritchard's mobility, the Cardinal will take some heat off their young quarterback and give their receivers more time to get open vs. a solid secondary.

  • Limit Mistakes!

Sorry if I sound too much like Walt Harris on this one. But I do believe this will be a low-scoring game and field position and turnovers could determine the winner. Minimizing mistakes will boost's the Cardinal's chances of leaving the Old Pueblo with a victory.

YCF Prediction:

An aggressive, play-making Stanford defense forces Arizona to commit turnovers early in the game, giving Stanford a 13-3 advantage at halftime. The Wildcats scrape back within three points at 13-10 early in the second half before Stanford puts the game away with a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter. Final score: Stanford 20, Arizona 10. We smoke these guys!

Kibbles and Bits: (or for this game should it be "Meow Mix"?)

The Last Time They Met Last October: Arizona defeated Stanford by a score of 20-7 in a serious snoozer at Stanford Stadium. The Wildcats started backup quarterback Adam Austin with Willie Tuitama out due to injury. Austin was injured during the game, forcing the Wildcats to then play third-stringer Kris Heavner. The two quarterbacks attempted just 13 passes, completing 10. The Stanford offense was shut out during the game as the Cardinal's only points came on a sweet 73-yard interception return by Wopamo Osaisai. With Walt Harris's uninspiring game plan and the LSJUMB unable to perform on the field due to suspension, there was simply no offense to be found from the Cardinal.

Ten Years Ago, on a Frustrating Night, Rose Bowl Hopes were Killed 'neath the Arizona Lights: The last time Stanford lost in Tucson was in 1997, losing 28-22. The Cardinal, who entered the game at 4-1 (2-0), ranked #17, and with Rose Bowl hopes, lost their next four games.

Road, Sweet Road:  Since 1997, Stanford has gone 3-0 at Arizona Stadium, winning 50-22 in 1999, 51-37 in 2001, and 20-16 in 2005. In fact, the road team has won six of the last seven games these two teams have played against each other. The one exception came in 2002, when Buddy Teevens' sputtering Stanford squad played "less poorly" than John Mackovic's Arizona Mildcats.


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