First Down: Quick Hitters
Stats listed Opponent/Stanford/Pac-10 Average. All stats Pac-10 only to control for differences in out-of-conference schedule strength.
Yards Per Game: 377/297/382
Points Per Game: 28.6/16.4/26.7
Rushing Yards Per Game: 73/79/144
Yards Per Carry: 2.7/2.3/3.7
Passing Yards Per Game: 304/218/238
Yards Per Pass: 7.0/5.9/6.7
Returning Offensive Starters: 10/7/6
Yards Per Game: 379/473/382
Points Per Game: 27.7/31.1/26.7
Rushing Yards Per Game: 156/193/144
Yards Per Carry: 3.9/4.7/3.7
Passing Yards Per Game: 223/280/238
Yards Per Pass: 6.1/7.8/6.7
Returning Defensive Starters: 3/9/6.3
2007 Record: (5-7, 4-5)/(4-8, 3-6)
2008 Predicted Points Per Game: 29/23/26.4
2008 Predicted Points Allowed Per Game: 30/28/26.4
2008 Projected Record: (6-6, 3-6)/(3-9, 2-7)
2008 Projected Pac-10 Finish: 6th/9th
Last year's pass D and passing offense were slightly better than average, but the ground game struggled. This year, expect the rush attack to improve, but the defense could take a step back. Arizona should be one of the conferences' highest-scoring teams on both sides of the ball. It's a far cry from the Arizona of just two years ago, when the defense allowed under 20 points per game, but the offense was anemic.
Second Down: Offense
Ten returning starters and a strong passing game makes Arizona's 2008 offensive potential the Pac-10's best-kept secret. The rush attack has to improve, and how much is the biggest question this offense faces.
The starting quarterback, Willie Tuitama, threw for 3,700 yards last year with superb efficiency (62.4 percent accuracy, 28 touchdowns, and just 12 picks). The starting receivers caught for over 2,000 yards last year, led by First Team All-Pac-10 Mike Thomas (1038 yards and 11 touchdowns, despite being listed at just 5'8"). They all return, making this the Pac-10's strongest passing attack.
Tuitama's one weakness is a lack of mobility that contributed to his 31 sacks last year. Still, he's my call to be the All-Pac-10's First Team quarterback because of how much of the load he carries, and how well he handles it. Arizona simply runs their offense through him, passing 44 times and rushing just 27 in their average game last year.
Tuitama was consistent, throwing for at least 200 yards in every game. He rose to the occasion when he had to, going 42-of-62 against Cal and 38-of-51 against Washington. And no one in the conference means more to their team than this guy. The one bad game he did have (16-of-38 with three picks against Oregon State), Arizona lost by two touchdowns.
Thomas, perhaps the most underrated receiver nationally, leads the way at wideout. Terrell Turner (575 yards, four touchdowns last year) creates all sort of matchup problems because he's the team's second-best receiver, but has 4.4 speed. The No. 3 receiver, sophomore Delashaun Dean (418 yards), is the team's biggest at 6'4", 200, and should emerge as more of an end-zone threat after catching just one touchdown last year.
Now we shift our focus to less favorable territory for Arizona fans – the rushing game. To finish the season with just 921 ground yards is pathetic, but what makes it worse is that you take out four of the worst rush Ds Arizona played last year (195 against Northern Arizona, 221 against Washington State, 130 against Stanford and 128 against UCLA) and the story is ugly, ugly, ugly. 32 yards against BYU, 38 against New Mexico, 21 against Cal, nine (on 27 carries) against Oregon State, 22 against USC, 25 against Washington, 56 against Oregon and 44 against Arizona State.
Simply put, rushing the ball against the top half of the Pac-10 was like trying to run through a wall for Arizona. The Wildcats were held under 40 yards in a full half of their games.
So why might the Wildcats be better this year? Well, every starting offensive lineman from last year returns (though perhaps that's a blessing and perhaps that's a curse), save for left tackle. There, All-American JUCO transfer J'Marcus Webb, who was just the second true freshman OL to play under Mack Brown at Texas a few years ago, holds down the spot, marking a significant upgrade (and, Wildcat fans hope, a significant downturn in Tuitama's sack numbers).
With Eben Britton, Second Team All-Pac-10 last year, at right tackle, the tackles will be fine, so the middle of the line is what could keep Arizona from a bowl. Center Blake Kerley is a three-year starter and sophomore left guard Colin Baxter started 11 as a freshman last year, so there's reason for optimism, but, still, last year's numbers don't lie.
There is definite reason for hope at tailback, though. Sophomore Nicholas Grisby started ten games as a freshman last year, averaged 4.4 per carry and ran for at least 50 yards in eight of those starts. (The team rush numbers above are so awful because of Tuitama's 259 sack yards.) With a year of experience under his belt, Grisby will only be better. Plus, this year, he won't have to carry the entire load, with backup Joe Reese, a redshirt freshman with an Oklahoma offer back in high school, figuring to get on the field.
Third Down: Defense
Pac-10 offenses will score their share on a defense that returns just three starters, even though the unit should enjoy the most offensive support it's had in years. The further off the line you are, the better the defense is, with the secondary the D's strength and the line the weakness.
Arizona's rush defense should compete with Oregon State's to see who can take the biggest step backwards.
The Beavers return no starters in their front seven (though, as Stanford's season opener nears, the ringing in my ears from OSU fans telling me that doesn't matter because the backups are relatively experienced, the team rotates through the two-deep in games, and it's all the scheme anyways is insufferable). For Arizona, meanwhile, the only returning starter is middle linebacker Ronnie Palmer, though end Johnathan Turner did start six last year. Uh oh…
A key metric I use to evaluate position groups is when the coaches move a perfectly productive player from one position to another. The move is the coaches' way of saying this unit is in serious trouble –why else bother to burn the two years the kid spent practicing at fullback and halfback and transfer him to nose tackle? And the coaches see these guys every day, so when they're saying our line is so poor than a converted halfback could make the switch and immediately contribute, it's wise to pay attention.
Sure enough, I see junior Earl Mitchell, a fullback his freshman year and a halfback his sophomore year, not only made the switch to nose tackle, but he could well start! Now, why you'd put a 6'2", 280 kid at halfback to begin with is beyond me, but that move speaks volumes. Plus, the other two starters on the line could well be sophomores, Ricky Elmore and Kaneila Tuipulotu. Team Stoops does not a lot of faith in the upperclassmen who should be anchoring that front.
To add insult to injury, the two best defenders in the front seven, All-Pac-10 Second Team tackle Lionel Dotson and First Team linebacker Spencer Larsen, were both taken on the NFL Draft's second day last April. So, after Palmer, linebacker is another question, though there is more reason for optimism there than on the line. For one thing, Arizona often plays a 4-2-5, and so a little linebacker depth goes a long way. For another, junior college transfers Sterling Lewis and Vuna Tuihalamaka, a probable starter, add much needed depth.
Still, only two of Arizona's top eight tacklers from 2007 return, Palmer and strong safety Cam Nelson. Starker yet, only 5.5 of Arizona's 27 sacks return. The ‘Cats allowed 3.6 yards per carry on 138 rush yards per game in 2007, good enough for sixth in the league. Those numbers could drop to ninth or tenth this year.
The secondary won't be last year's lockdown unit, but will still lead this defense.
Antoine Cason, the national cornerback of the year, was a first-round draft choice, and fellow corner Wilrey Fontenot went in the seventh round this past April – two major losses for a school that doesn't exactly recruit like a USC. Still, strong safety Nelson and free safety Nate Ness, a junior college transfer, are returning starters who can help ease in the corners.
Those corners should be Devin Ross and Marquis Hundley, both upperclassmen who've had plenty of time in the system behind Cason and Fontenot. Ross, a junior, was a top-ten national cornerback recruit who saw the field as a true freshman and was the kick returner last year. He might make mental mistakes, but he's as athletic as anyone in Tucson city limits. True frosh Robert Golden, Scout.com's No. 4 corner nationally, might not start, but figures to make an immediate impact in nickel and dime situations.
Arizona's going to be the Stanford of old – score a ton, but give up a lot too, especially up front. It will be up to this secondary to break up or intercept enough late-game passes for the Wildcats to win their share of the shootouts – and save their coach's job.
Fourth Down: Extra Points
More important to Arizona's fate, given how well they move the ball between the twenties but how weak they are pounding it in a goal-line set, is their field-goal licker. Luckily, senior Jason Dondzio is a good one, hitting 21-of-26 last year, including 8-of-9 in the 40-49 yard range. Two-thirds of the NFL would take that in a heartbeat. Dondzio's 22 touchbacks on kickoffs also placed in the top-ten nationally.
It's no secret to Pac-10 fans that Mike Stoops is on the hot seat. Conventional wisdom says he probably needs a bowl bid to save his job…
…But with Arizona's schedule, forget just getting six wins for bowl eligibility, there's a real shot the Wildcats start 6-0. Idaho, Toledo, at New Mexico, at UCLA, Washington and at Stanford take the ‘Cats through Oct. 11, and come Oct. 12, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see them tied for the Pac-10 lead, and ranked in the top-25. It will all be reminiscent of Arizona State last year, which started 8-0…
…only for the Devils to lose three of their last five because the schedule was horribly back-loaded. Arizona isn't as good of a team, so they could fade faster yet down the backstretch of Cal, USC, at Washington State, at Oregon, Oregon State and Arizona State. Toledo's the only team in the front half likely to finish the season with a winning record, and Washington State's the only team down the back half likely to finish with a losing record.
Bottom line: don't overhype Arizona when they come into the Stanford game 5-0 or 4-1; it's a function of their schedule. It might also mark Stanford's best shot at upsetting a top-25 team this season.
This year's matchup should be a case of strength-on-strength when the Arizona offense matches up with the Stanford defense. Conversely, coaches might not want to show the tape of Stanford's offense battling Arizona's defense to too many recruits.
The teams have split their last three, with Arizona winning 20-7 in 2006, a game Walt Harris detractors remember all too well for the then-Cardinal coach electing to punt with under two minutes left. Better to cover the under than try to win, I guess. Stanford, meanwhile, prevailed 20-16 in 2005, and 21-20 last year. For my money, last year's victory didn't have the stakes of the USC or Cal game, but in terms of the actual football, it was Stanford's most exciting win featuring a spread of less than 41.
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