Rockets Open in Tucson Against Arizona

The University of Toledo football team travels to Tucson, AZ on September 6th for a season opening showdown against the PAC 10's Arizona Wildcats. In the only previous meeting between the two schools, Arizona beat Toledo in Tucson 23-10. But how does Toledo stack up against the Wildcats this time around?

Tucson, a metro community of 1,000,000+ and growing, celebrates a diversity of cultures, architecture, and peoples. While its history may date back some 12,000 years, it is one of the "Mega-Trend" cities of the 21st Century: aerospace, bio-industry, environmental technology, optics, software, and telecommunication services are among its major industries.

Tucson is also the premier health services center for the Southwest, home of a premier research institution - University of Arizona, and, for photography fans, the Center for Creative Photography is a must visit destination. For scenery, Tucson is surrounded by five mountain ranges.

But the fact that Tucson bills itself as the astronomy center of the world may have the Rockets shooting for the stars.


Wildcats Habitat

For the last four summers, the Wildcats have been posed to have a break out season and reach a bowl game. These hopes have been squarely placed on the shoulders of former Oklahoma coach Mike Stoops. He has not had a winning season since his arrival in 2004. The highlight of his 21 and 29 record was a .500 season in 2006. But don't let this record obscure the fact that Arizona is a quality football team.

Last year the Wildcats implemented OC Sonny Dykes' wide-open spread offense. The second half of their schedule had the ‘Cats losing at USC by a touchdown 20-13 and winning three of the last four games losing at arch rival Arizona State by a field goal.

My impression is that is a team very similar to the Rockets' opening opponent last year: the Purdue Boilermakers.


Offense

The strength of this team, without question, is the offense. It all starts with the "Air Zona" passing attack triggered by senior QB Willie Tuitama (6-3, 220-pounds). He is positioned to become one of the nation's most prolific passers. Last year he threw for 3,683 yards and a Pac-10-best 28 touchdown throws on 327-of-524 passing (62.4%) with 12 INTs. Tuitama has a cannon of an arm, throws a nice deep ball, and has the experience of a full season of running the spread offense. His only major shortcoming is his lack of foot speed.

Tuitama is on the Davey O'Brien watch list. If the ‘Cats finish in the upper portion of the PAC-10 standings look for Tuitama to challenge for conference Offensive Player of the Year honors.

The Air Zona corp features six returning receivers who caught at least 20 passes last season. They are led by senior Mike Thomas (5-8 and 195 pounds). While small in stature he's a big challenge for opposing defensive backs, and the ‘Cats' top receiving threat for a third straight year. The Pac-10 leader with 83 catches for 1,038 yards and 11 touchdowns, Thomas is also a threat on handoffs and kickoffs. Most dangerous when turning short hitches into long gainers, he's playing small H-back this year. He is still recovering from a groin injury but look for him to be on the field in the Wildcats opener with Idaho.

At the opposite end of the physical scale is TE Rob Gronkowski. Many adjectives have sprung forth to describe this 6-6, 260 pound sophomore, including "freak" and "dangerous". As a true freshman, he caught 28 passes for 525 yards and six touchdowns, showing the versatility to run past defenders or through them. ‘Cat fans are thinking of him as a Mackey Award contender and with good reason based on his fall practices. Gronkowski is catching everything and he is always a load to bring down; he carried safety Anthony Wilcox (6-2, 205 pounds) about 10 yards into the end zone on a 27-yard TD reception in a recent scrimmage.

***Editor's Note - Rob Gronkowski recently suffered an injury and is not expected to play against Toledo on September 6th.

Add in junior Terrell Turner (6-2 and 190 pounds) at "X" receiver who finished second on the team with 50 catches for 575 yards and four TDs. He can create mismatches with his size and has one of the best pair of hands on the team.

Starting this year at the "Z" receiver will be sophomore Delashaun Dean (6-4, 198-pound) sophomore. As a part-time freshman starter, he pulled in 37 passes for 418 yards and a score, making catches in traffic and good use of his height advantage.

The Rockets linebackers and secondary will have their hands full with this bunch. The pass protection improved dramatically last year with an OL featuring four returning starters led by junior RT Adam Grant (6-6, 308 pounds). The challenge for this group is to establish a respectable running game finishing 114th nationally in rushing last year. The backs rarely got enough room to get untracked, often taking first contact at or near the line of scrimmage.

The RBs are lead by short-fused sophomore Nic Grigsby (5-10, 180 pounds). He averaged 4.7 ypc last year but has already been relegated to running the stadium steps after coming up swinging in the ‘Cats first scrimmage.


Defense

With three of Tucson's top five employers being Raytheon Missile Systems, U.S. Army Intelligence Center and Fort Huachuca, and Davis Monthan Airforce Base, it's a bit surprising the defense is a huge challenge for Coach Stoops. Returning only three starters from last year's defensive unit, it will be a work in progress going into the season. Two of those returning starters are safties, junior Cam Nelson (6-1, 200 pounds) and senior Nate Ness (6-1, 190 pounds), which should be the best of the defense.

The third returning defensive starter is LB Ronnie Palmer (6-3, 245 pounds). A fourth-year starter for the Wildcats, Palmer has been rock solid against the run making 83 tackles last year.

Look for true freshman cornerback Robert Golden (5-11, 190 pounds) to get playing time against the Rockets. This 5-star recruit has been playing with the first- and second team defenses during the first two weeks of fall training camp.

The single most improvement on the defensive this year is speed. From coaches to players, offensive and defensive, everyone says the Wildcats are appreciably faster on the defensive side of the ball. One of the best examples is junior OLB Xavier Kelley (5-11, 215 pounds). "He's going to shock a lot of people," says Ronnie Palmer. "People are going to look at his size and think he is not going to fit the bill, but he'll fill those shoes (for departed Spencer Larsen who signed a four-year contract with the Denver Broncos) really well. He is going to be everywhere across the field. Everywhere. You'll see him on every play." The front four has no returning starters. In addition to lack of experience, their biggest rap is lack of bulk to stand up to physical offensive lines of the PAC-10 top teams.


Special Teams

Arizona boasts one of the most solid special teams units in the nation. Senior K Jason Bondzio (5-9, 165 pounds) made 21-of-26 field goal attempts and was 8 for 10 outside 40 yards. On kickoffs nearly one-third of his kickoffs couldn't be returned.

Sophomore punter Keenyn Crier (6-1, 200 pounds) averaged 43.7 yards earning his a spot on the All-Pac-10 First Team as a freshman. Crier enters this season as one of the nation's top punters.

Arizona features the combination of senior Mike Thomas and junior Devin Ross, who shared the duties on kickoffs returns. Last year, Thomas averaged 23.7 yards a return compared to 21.3 for Ross. Coach Stoops is looking for a punt returner to replace departed Antonie Carson.


Keys for the Rockets

It's no secret the Wildcats are a pass first program and a proven program at that. The rebuilt Rocket defense will be tested by an outstanding QB with top drawer receivers. Containing the run and putting periodic pressure on Tuitama are musts. This unit is capable of averaging more than 30 points per game including playing against every PAC-10 team.

The young Wildcat defense needs to be exploited by a balanced Toledo attack. The Rockets are very capable of moving up and down the field against Arizona on the ground and in the air. Stupid penalties and turnovers must be avoided. Keeping Tuitama and company seated is paramount. Special team play favors the ‘Cats requiring the Rockets special team players to focus and contain, contain, contain. Look for Arizona to have the better of field location.

A season opening win on the road would be HUGE for the Rockets. But, like the topography of Tucson, it will be an uphill climb. That said, look for stars to shine in the Arizona skies and on the turf of Arizona Stadium.

GO ROCKETS!



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