Arizona 101: Rested 'Cats come to Pullman

Arizona was the sleeper pick of many preseason Pac-10 prognosticators. But at 3-5, that looks to have been so much wishful thinking. UA has done little in the Mike Stoops era to indicate overall improvement is imminent. They've won three ballgames each of the last two years and won't be favored in any of their remaining four games in ‘06. But they do have a defense, one with a whole lot of speed.

Much of the hype surrounding this season was the emergence last year of phenom-labeled quarterback Willie Tuitama. But a sophomore slump combined with a string of injuries has all but dashed any hope he provided. In his absence, Arizona has turned offensive ineptitude into an art form, ranking with at or near the bottom in league and D-IA offensive statistical categories.

But they've had two weeks off to try and remedy the woes, and Tuitama appears set to return to the starting lineup this Saturday against the Cougs. Or does he? Only Stoops knows, and he won't say.

Cougars (6-3) vs Wildcats (3-5)
AT A GLANCE
KICKOFF:
2:00 pm Pacific Time

WHERE:
Martin Stadium (35,117)

TELEVISION:
None

RADIO:
The Cougar Sports Radio Network covers much of the West. Click here for listings.

THE LINE:
WSU by 16

LAST MEETING:
2004, WSU won 20-19 forcing a UA fumble and scoring the winning touchdown in the final two minutes.

THE SERIES:
Arizona leads all time 20-13

CF.C PREDICTION:
Cougars 27, Wildcats 10

THE WILDCATS ON OFFENSE

Players to Know
Willie Tuitama, QB: Tuitama missed the last two games after suffering a second concussion in one month. He has been medically cleared and it would seem a foregone conclusion he'll get the nod but Stoops says he won't name a starter until game time. Senior Kris Heavner, who appeared the likely alternate, has been demoted to No. 3, with Adam Austin to get the start if Stoops doesn't think Tuitama is game ready. Austin returned to practice Monday after injuring the MCL in his left knee in a start against Stanford three weeks ago.

Syndric Steptoe, WR: Arizona lacks threatening receivers, but Steptoe remains a threat. He has enjoyed success this year as a kick return specialist.

Chris Jennings, RB: The Arizona running backs have been plagued with fumbilitis throughout the Stoops regime and this year is no different. The Wildcats have managed, however, to recover all but four of their 16 fumbles this season.

Overview
The Wildcat offense has been mostly inept, and losing Tuitama didn't help. Arizona has a small and inexperienced line that has neither protected its quarterbacks, nor opened any holes for the running game. The Wildcats average just 2.4 yards per rush attempt and 5.6 yards a pass. They've also hurt their defense with 15 turnovers, three of which were returned for touchdowns. Arizona quarterbacks have thrown just four touchdowns this season against 11 interceptions. UA also averages a league worst 28 percent on third down conversion attempts and ranks ninth in red zone offense .

Strategy
The script pretty much writes itself. Arizona's offense has been inept. WSU leads the Pac-10 in sacks, and although the 3-4 defense, which the Cougs have run with frequency this season, doesn't necessarily lend itself to big sack numbers, only winless Stanford has surrendered more than UA. The Cougars are concerned about their defensive line injuries, but the Wildcats could be helpless to exploit them. Washington State should continue to look dominant defensively so long as they contain UA's mediocre running game. The Arizona offense simply doesn't function without it. Wildcat quarterbacks have been orphaned on third and long plays.

THE WILDCATS ON DEFENSE

Players to Know
Antoine Carson, CB: Solid shutdown corner and stout in run support too. Leads the team with two INTs, third in tackles with 44.

Spencer Larsen, LB: Linebackers are the heart of this years defense. Larsen has led the team with 5.5 tackles for a loss.

Overview
Mike Stoops hasn't delivered on many of his promises, but he has returned Arizona's defense to respectability. The Wildcats surrender about 20 points per game, but if you subtract the interceptions by the offense returned for touchdowns, Arizona actually averages a league best 17.6 points per game. Whether their statistical success can be chalked up to the fact that they haven't faced four of the top five Pac-10 offenses remains to be seen. In a dominating win over Stanford, Arizona surrendered just 52 total yards! As hapless as the Cardinal is this season, that nevertheless is simply superb. Stanford's longest drive in that game was six plays for nine yards.

Strategy
Attack when going to the air, but the Cougs also can't get careless with the football. Alex Brink and Co. should be mindful of how lousy the Arizona offense is, and not to try and force things. That said, Arizona is completely incapable of competing in a shootout, so stay aggressive, just smartly so. The Wildcats are just 2-20 under Mike Stoops when opponents score more than 14 points.

THE WILDCATS ON SPECIAL TEAMS
Arizona ranks at or near the top in every special teams category. Kicker/Punter Nick Folk leads the conference in punting average at 45.2. His kicking is only accurate inside of 40 yards but he has the leg to kick in the 50's

INJURY REPORT
WASHINGTON STATE
Out - Fevaea'i Ahmu (9/30 stress fracture, foot), Ropati Pitoitua (10/21 MCL sprain, Courtney Williams (10/28 knee sprain), Derrell Hutsona (10/28 ankle sprain)
Questionable - Loren Langley (10/28 quad strain), Andy Roof (10/21 heel bruise/right ankle sprain).
Probable - Mkristo Bruce (10/28 knee bruise), Mike Graise (10/14 hamstring strain), Aaron Johnson (10/21 elbow sprain), Chris Jordan (9/22 knee surgery), Ben Woodard (10/7 MCL sprain).

ARIZONA
Out – none reported
Doubtful – none reported
Probable –Willie Tuitama (QB, concussion)

FINAL THOUGHTS
Arizona's rest after a week off is the biggest concern here. No other way to say it, this team was playing horrible football leading up to their bye week. And Stoops' teams always seem to put together one shocking victory per season. In 2004, they beat a nine-win Arizona State squad to finish the season on a high note. Last year, they enjoyed another November rebound when they embarrassed a 10-2 UCLA team by a score of 52-14. If history counts for anything, this team is due. Given that the Wildcats have had two weeks to game plan, the Cougars should expect a strong challenge.

At the same time, the Wildcat fan base is losing faith in rapidly increasing numbers. So far the Stoops era has yielded two straight 3-8 seasons with a third seemingly in the works. If he doesn't generate some wins quickly, he could enter 2007 on the hot seat. Some Wildcat fans have already written off the 2006 campaign as a failure, and are counting the days till basketball season starts.


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