A three-game season begins

Now that the Huskies' nightmarish, worst-in-35-years 1-7 season has mercifully concluded, the task of trying to make something out of the upcoming three-game Lame Duck season can be (to pardon the pun) tackled.

Arizona (0-5, 1-7) at Washington (0-5, 1-7)
Husky Stadium
Saturday, November 6 - 12:35 PM (PST) – No TV
Series All-time: Washington leads, 14-5-1
Last Meeting: November 8, 2003 – Arizona 27, Washington 22
Line: Washington by 1


Washington has faced coaching upheaval before. One month prior to the 1993 season opener, Don James resigned in protest over sanctions levied against his program, to be hastily replaced by Jim Lambright. The process was repeated almost exactly 10 years later when Rick Neuheisel was fired over lying and gambling allegations, and Keith Gilbertson was quickly named caretaker – then head coach.

Then there was the three-coach run of 50 years ago –- John Cherberg (1954), Darrell Royal (1955) and Jim Owens (1956).

But never in the University of Washington's storied history has the football program had to face the dreaded Lame Duck. So there is little to draw upon with regard to expected player – or attending fans – reaction.

Generally, fans have been supportive when the change has already taken place. When Lambright was handed the reins he was able to open at home, and have his players point to the press box where James was in attendance before his frenzied Huskies beat Stanford to a pulp. When Neuheisel took over for Lambo, he broke out the old helmets and Marques Tuiasosopo, who executed a thrilling fourth-quarter rally at BYU (albeit in a loss). There was disappointment in the following week's home defeat to Air Force, but with a subsequent emotional win over his old buddies at Colorado, blues turned to purple overnight.

Gilbertson didn't get the break of initial home support upon his sudden elevation, opening with a man-handling at Ohio State to begin his short tenure. He won three straight to follow, but successive hammerings against UCLA and second-tier Nevada left little chance for endearment. With the exception of the three NW victories in 2003, it's been downhill ever since.

It's hard to say just how the crowd will react to Gilbertson's last two home games. But Arizona is expecting a reaction from Gilby's players. Wildcat coach Mike Stoops is expecting a fiery effort.

"It's disappointing any time you see a coach and a staff have to go through that," Stoops told the Arizona Star. "I don't know how it's going to affect their team, but I would expect nothing less than their best shot."

Stoops has his own concerns, currently mired in a seven-game losing streak in his first season while matching Washington for futility at the bottom of the PAC-10. "We're young and immature," he feels. "Until we stop beating ourselves, we won't beat anyone else."

"But we're going to worry about the things we can control, and that will be our attitude when we go up to Washington."

Arizona broke a school-record eight-game losing streak last year in their homecoming game against the Huskies - interim coach Mike Hankwitz' only victory in his six-game tenure. Now, the Wildcats' skein stands at seven for Washington's own homecoming -– as it turns out, a homecoming like none other experienced at Montlake.

For the sanctity of the Lame Duck season, here's hoping history doesn't bear repeating.

ARIZONA OFFENSE
TEAM STATS:  12.2 points, 284.2 yards
              (10th PAC-10, 122.0 rush, 162.2 pass)
             12-19 in Red Zone offense (.631, 9th PAC-10)
             
RUSHING:     Mike Bell 142-655-3 TD (4.6), long 34
             Gilbert Harris 58-256-1 TD (4.4), long 25
                          
PASSING:     Kris Heavner 83-142-4 (.585), 827 yards, 4 TD
             Rich Kovalchek 24-48-3 (.500), 312 yards, 2 TD 
            
RECEIVING:   Syndric Steptoe 19-306-3 TD (16.1), long 47
             Ricky Williams 17-205-0 TD (12.1), long 38
             Mike Jefferson 13-175-1 TD (13.5), long 44


Eerily reminiscent to the Husky troubles at quarterback, Arizona hasn't had any consistency from their signal-callers. The current guy on the chop-block is RS-freshman Richard Kovalchek, who started last week against Oregon State. The San Diego native completed 19 passes for 235 yards -– both Wildcat season highs – but was intercepted twice. He unseated sophomore Kris Heavner, who threw for 151 yards in Arizona's win over Washington last year.

Junior running back Mike Bell gave a Maurice Drew preview against the Huskies in 2003, splicing them for a career-best 222 yards and three touchdowns that featured two long fourth-quarter bolts. The PAC-10's fourth-leading rusher ran for 134 yards against UCLA earlier this season. Freshman Chris Henry had a season-best 55 yards and his first two career scores in the same game. Junior Pedro Limon starts for Gilbert Harris at FB, who is doubtful with an ankle sprain.

Sophomore WR Syndric Steptoe is the Wildcat's closest thing to a game-breaker. The 5-9 speedster missed last week with a bad back, but is probable here. He has three of Arizona's six TD receptions, and averages 16 yards per catch. Wideouts Ricky Williams, Brian Ealy and Mike Jefferson have all enjoyed 100-yard days in their careers. Ealy caught a scoring pass against the Huskies last year, and recorded one last week against the Beavers. Williams is the only Wildcat receiver to register a catch in every game this season. Kovalchek's favorite receiver may be tight end Steve Fleming, with seven catches in two games.

For all their offensive futility, Arizona's experience lies in the front five. Senior center Keoki Fraser leads the way with 37 career starts, and tackle Chris Johnson has 28. Junior guard Kili Lefotu has 26 career starts, but now shares time with John Abramo, coming off injury himself. Overall, the line has allowed 16 sacks in eight games. Senior tackle Brandon Phillips was granted an injury-induced sixth year of eligibility ala Oklahoma's Jason White, even though he had contact with an agent and had to miss the first three games. However, he hurt his leg against Oregon and has been out since.

GAME OUTLOOK: In a word, futile. Husky fans might delight in seeing another club with similar offensive woes. The Wildcats haven't turned the ball over like Washington, though –- heck, nobody has. Mike Bell torched the Huskies last year, and he figures to give another healthy dose, considering it will be Kovalchek's second start (and first on the road). Arizona ended a 103-minute scoreless streak against the Beavers -– two minutes longer than the one Washington ended at Oregon last week.

ARIZONA DEFENSE
2003 STATS:     23.2 points, 348.4 yards
                (5th PAC-10, 119.6 rush, 228.8 pass)
                26-33 in Red Zone defense
                (.788, 8th PAC-10)
                
TACKLES/TFL:    Darrell Brooks 57/4.5
                Lamon Means 53/4.0
                Antoine Cason 42/3.5    

PASSES DEF/INT: Darrell Brooks 8/1  
                Antoine Cason 7/3
                Marcus Smith 5/0
                
SACKS:          Andre Torrey 2.0
                Paul Phillip 2.0
                Marcus Smith 1.5


After years of Desert Swarm, this edition –- coordinated by coaching brother Mark Stoops - is a bunch more basic. They don't sack a lot, and they don't blitz as much. But their numbers are solid and they've been particularly tough against the run.

Senior Andre Torrey is one of the PAC-10's better rush ends. His two sacks lead the team, and he registered three TFL last week against Oregon State. Marcus Smith tore up the Huskies a year ago from the other end, sacking Cody Pickett twice to go with his career-best eight tackles. Senior tackle Carlos Williams had his best day against Wisconsin with six stops and a pass-breakup.

Senior Kirk Johnson heads the Wildcat linebacking corps, racking up a career-best 10 tackles against California and seven solo stops versus Oregon. Patrick Howard and Sean Jones have 72 tackles between them -– Jones has three fumble recoveries on the year.

Freshman corner Antoine Cason made a huge splash in his first collegiate game, being named the PAC-10's Defensive POW for his 12-tackle, one-interception performance in UA's only win, a 21-3 win over Northern Arizona. Cason has three of Arizona's five interceptions. Another freshman, Wilrey Fontenot, mans the other corner. Junior safeties Darrell Brooks and Lamon Means are the ‘Cats leading tacklers with 57 and 53 respectively -– Brooks has eight breakups to lead the Arizona secondary.

GAME OUTLOOK: In another feather vs. feather match-up, Arizona ranks dead last in the PAC-10 in pass efficiency defense while Washington is dead last in the universe in pass efficiency offense. The Wildcats aren't exactly sack-happy (11 on the year), and have had trouble with mobile quarterbacks (hint hint) and maintaining contain. But they are strong up the middle and against the run.

ARIZONA SPECIAL TEAMS
PLACEKICKING:  Nick Folk 5-9 FG (long 41), 11-11 XP
                             
PUNTING:       Danny Baugher 50-41.1 (long 60),
               .220 inside the 20
               
KICK RETURNS:  Syndric Steptoe 11-22.5 (long 44), 0 TD
               B.J. Dennard 4-22.2 (long 29), 0 TD

PUNT RETURNS:  Ryan Eidson 10-10.6 (long 35), 0 TD


The special teams have been anything but special for Arizona.

Sophomore place-kicker Nick Folk took over the duties at the end of last season, but missed his only three FG attempts. It's been hit-and-clank this season, with only one make from beyond 40 yards. He's missed his last two -– including one that would have given the ‘Cats an early lead against OSU, and hasn't hit one since his career-best 41-yarder four weeks ago at UCLA. He has never missed an extra point, however.

Junior Danny Baugher is a career 41-yard punter. Now in his third season, Baugher has a career-best 62-yard effort. And he has attempted a pass from punt formation.

Injuries are hampering the Wildcat return game. Syndric Steptoe is Arizona's big burner, but his back could limit him, and Gilbert Harris won't be returning kicks with his ankle problems. Backup corner B.J. Dennard and freshman Anthony Johnson will possibly assume the return duties.

GAME OUTLOOK: Both have a league-worst five field goals, though Knudsen nailed his two last week. The Wildcats are the league-leaders in kickoff-return coverage, and neither team is adept at breaking the big one. The Huskies have rocketed to sixth in net punting, Arizona is ninth. The ‘Cats have had two punts and one field-goal attempt blocked.


KIBBLES AND BITS

Washington's minus-14 turnover margin is the third-worst mark in the country. Their 30 turnovers are – by three over Nebraska – the nation's highest total. Washington State has been almost as giving, coughing up 25 baddies, good for fourth-worst ... Arizona has been outscored 79-3 in the first halves of their last four games ... The Wildcats wear an "MC" decal on their helmets, in honor of McCollins Umeh, one of Coach Stoops' first recruits. TheSuperPrepAll-American collapsed and died during a voluntary summer workout on the Tucson campus in June ... It figures to be close. The last six games in the series have been decided by a combined 26 points ... Not a single Arizona player hails from the state of Washington ... only Southern Methodist has scored less points per game than the Dawgs and the Cats ...
Rick Samek can be reached at rsamek1@comcast.net

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