Resurgence in Tucson

The burden of owning the nation's second-worst record of 2-18 since December of 2003 wearing heavy, Washington readily welcomes any ray of hope that their football fortunes will turn for the better sometime before the next Presidential election. That ray may be found in the form of their Saturday evening dance partners, Arizona.

Washington (0-6, 1-8) at Arizona (2-4, 3-6)
Arizona Stadium, Tucson, AZ
Saturday, November 12 - 4:05 PM (MST) - No live TV
Series All-time: Washington leads, 14-6-1
Last Meeting: November 6, 2004 – Arizona 23, Washington 13
Line: Arizona by 13

"There were times we really didn't know how good we really are," second-year head coach Mike Stoops held when asked Monday at his weekly press conference about the Cats' sudden dip into the pool of success. "Beating an undefeated and ranked team the way we did says a lot about our progress."

And just as suddenly, Arizona is seeking their first three-game conference winning streak in six years – and is a two-touchdown favorite to succeed. So what's the magic formula?

"Our mental belief factor has gotten stronger and our confidence has gotten much better," Stoops explained. "Confidence is a big thing in football. You can't have false confidence; you have to truly believe in what you're doing and trust what's happening. Our players believe in what we've been telling them. That's not uncommon when you're trying to change an entire culture of a football team."

"Learning how to win takes a great deal of time and development. We had to change everything about who we were."

Stoops labeled the 52-14 stunner over UCLA a "rebuilding milestone", reminding him of Oklahoma's resurgence during their title run of 2000 while he was the defensive coordinator. "We went through the top three teams in the conference with a team that was kind of searching for an identity," he recalled.

"But (the UCLA win) means nothing if we don't come back and play our best this week", Stoops reminded everyone. "(Washington is) very similar to us in a lot of ways. They do some awfully good things during the course of the game."

"It's been hard for them to get big plays ... they are trying to find their way."

And the Huskies – who have lost two straight to the Wildcats - wouldn't mind it one bit if they were to find themselves a lost piece of their own resurgence hanging about in the Tucson evening air.

TEAM STATS:  24.2 points, 351.7 yards (8th PAC-10,  
             121.2 rush, 230.4 pass) 
             23-29 in Red Zone offense
             (.793, 19 TDs, 6th PAC-10)

RUSHING: Mike Bell 157-798-4 TD (5.1), long 50
         Gilbert Harris 70-274-5 TD (3.9), long 21

PASSING: Willie Tuitama 45-80-1 (.562), 
         721 yards, 6 TD
         Richard Kovalcheck 123-215-11 (.572), 
         1321 yards, 10 TD  
RECEIVING: Mike Thomas 48-726-5 TD (15.1), 
           long 75
           Syndric Steptoe 26-327-0 TD (12.6), 
           long 30  
           Brad Wood 25-291-6 TD (11.6), 
           long 34 

Last Saturday was Arizona's finest offensive effort in Stoops' desert tenure. The Cats' first four possessions resulted in touchdown drives totaling 285 yards. Their 31 first-half points equaled their previous season high set against Northern Arizona, and their 519 total yards were a 25-game high.

By now, the word is out on Arizona's own "Tui" - true freshman quarterback Willie Tuitama. Rated by as the 5th-best quarterback of the 2005 recruiting class, the 6-2 Stockton native turned in his redshirt against Oregon four weeks ago, replacing a turnover-prone Richard Kovalchek and leading the Wildcats back from a 21-point deficit to tie - only to see the Ducks get a fumble return for a score and a 28-21 victory. Since then, he has gone 2-0 as the starter (throwing 76 straight passes without a pick), beating Oregon State in Corvallis before executing the Bruin beheading. Tuitama's future has the Tucson campus actually excited about something other than the upcoming hoop parties at nearby McKale Court.

That's just one half of Arizona's "T'n'T" combination. The other half is true freshman wideout Mike Thomas. The DeSoto, TX native has scored in all three of Tuitama's games – including a team-best 75-yard catch-and-run at OSU. His UCLA exploits included a 48-yard TD reception and a 17-yard reverse for a score. In all, "T'n'T" have ignited 15 times for 337 yards – 22.4 yards per strike. Junior Syndric Steptoe and sophomore Anthony Johnson have combined for 48 catches, and junior TE Brad Wood is a candidate for PAC-10 honors (25 receptions, a team-leading six touchdowns). Steptoe has had concussion issues, missing time against both Oregon schools.

Tailback Mike Bell loves playing against the Huskies. In three games versus Washington, the senior has piled up 358 yards and five touchdowns – with 222 of those coming in the 27-22 ‘Zona win in 2003 some pundits signal as the start of UW's fall into on-field disgrace. Bell also loves it at home, putting a season-best 158 yards on Oregon and another 153 on UCLA. With 87 yards he will become the school's fourth-leading rusher all-time. Another senior, Gilbert Harris, also broke the century barrier against the Bruins with 113 yards rushing.

Up front, the Wildcats are senior-laden. Averaging 295 across the line, they are led by guards Kili Lefotu and John Abramo, and tackle Tanner Bell. Lefotu sat out the two weeks with an ankle injury, and if he's not ready to go then RS-freshman Joe Longacre will get his third career start. In all, the unit hasn't allowed a sack in three out of their last four games.

GAME OUTLOOK: Talk about suddenly finding your stride - 16 of Arizona's 26 touchdowns have taken less that three minutes on the clock, and the Cats are also enjoying a streak of 10 straight scores inside the Red zone (with eight TDs). Arizona ran the ball 25 times on first down last week – and averaged nearly seven yards per try doing so. Bell makes it a tough first starting assignment for Tahj Bomar.

TEAM STATS:  25.4 points, 404.2 yards (4th PAC-10, 
             173.9 rush, 230.3 pass)
             25-31 in Red Zone defense 
             (.806, 20 TDs, 4th PAC-10) 

TACKLES/TFL:  Darrell Brooks 74/1.0
              Michael Johnson 46/4.5
              Antoine Cason 43/2.5

PASSES DEF/INT:  Antoine Cason 8/3
                 Michael Johnson 6/3
                 Marcus Hollingsworth 5/1

SACKS:       Copeland Bryan 7.0
             4 tied, 2.0 each

Not to be outdone, defensive coordinator Mark Stoops' unit has also been on the improve, forcing seven Oregon State turnovers two Saturdays ago and holding UCLA to well under 300 yards (including a season-best nine tackles-for-loss) until a ‘so-what' 91-yard 4th-quarter drive against the second unit inflated the numbers. They held Maurice Drew to 66 all-purpose yards, and the defense has scored a touchdown in two straight contests. Recall the Wildcat defense scored in Seattle last year, too.

They haven't exactly returned to Desert Swarm in Tucson, but they do have the PAC-10's third-leading sacker in senior DE Copeland Bryan. After missing a pair of games early, Bryan chipped into the Bruin kitty with a pair of sacks, and had a season-best three versus California. RS-freshman Johnathan Turner has a pair of sacks off the opposite end, and the interior is manned by sophomores Yaniv Barnett and Lionel Dotson.

Arizona has had injury issues all season at linebacker. Dane Krogstad is the Cats' fourth-leading tackler – and he's played just four games. Krogstad isn't listed again this week, either (knee injury). RS-freshman Ronnie Palmer recently returned to the lineup after missing time with a foot injury – Palmer has 30 tackles in four contests. Sophomore Spencer Larsen has had knee and hamstring issues, but was in full force against the Bruins, recording 17 stops.

Safeties Darrell Brooks and Michael Johnson are both enjoying stellar years. Johnson was named the National Defensive Player of the Week for his nine-tackle, three-interception day (one returned for a TD) at Oregon State; while Brooks leads the team in tackles with 74 – including 14 at USC and 13 more against the Beavers. Sophomore corner Antoine Cason also has three INTs, while Wilrey Fontenot returned a fumble against the Huskies for the decisive score in 2004.

GAME OUTLOOK: Run, Isaiah, Run!! The weather is conducive for it, so why not throw caution to the wind – especially after last week's O-line debacle (and figuring in Arizona's newfound success). Washington also ran it well at Arizona State. Neither team is adept as chewing up clock minutes – could be that the one who owns time-of-possession wins it.

PLACEKICKING:  Nick Folk 5-8 FG (long 51), 
               27-29 XP, 2 blocked

PUNTING:       Nick Folk 13-41.9 (long 56), 
               .462 inside the 20 

KICK RETURNS:  Syndric Steptoe 15-24.7 (long 76), 
               0 TD               
               B.J. Dennard 6-21.2 (long 32), 
               0 TD

PUNT RETURNS:  Syndric Steptoe 18-11.1 (long 63), 
               1 TD

Dual kicker Nick Folk was idly handling his place-kicking duties until three weeks ago when Danny Baugher – averaging nearly 50 yards per punt while having an All-American season – was lost for the season in a bizarre sequence, injuring his knee while racing with his own blocked punt 39 yards against Oregon. On 4th-and-40.

Folk, while attempting a league-low eight field goals in nine games, has taken well to his expanded role, averaging nearly 42 yards per punt. The junior does have an outstanding leg, hitting a 51-yard FG against Purdue and sending 33 of his kickoffs through the end zone. For his career, Folk is just 13-of-24 putting it through the uprights.

Syndric Steptoe returned from his concussion outage with a bang against UCLA, breaking off a 63-yard TD punt return as the Cats just piled it on the Bruins every which way. The junior from Bryan, TX also took a kickoff a career-best 76 yards earlier against USC.

The weak chink in Arizona's special-teams armor is kick-blocking. The Wildcats have had two punts and three kicks blocked, and the Cats are still seeking their first as a unit.

GAME OUTLOOK: Washington might as well forget about returning anything. Not only do the Huskies have the worst return teams in the league (if not the nation), Arizona puts most of their punts inside the 20 and most of their kickoffs through the end-zone. Knudsen is a more accurate that Folk, but what kind of advantage is that at this point in the season. Steptoe's expertise gives the Cats an edge.


Only Temple's 2-19 record is worse than Washington's since the end of 2003 ... Arizona is 3-0 when leading at the half, and 0-6 when trailing ... The Wildcats are also sporting new unis this year – and have worn five different combinations doing so ... While next week's Apple Cup will be for cellar supremacy, stat-wise it's clear who will be favored to walk the final plank – the Huskies are ranked last in the PAC-10 in rushing offense, passing efficiency, passing defense efficiency, scoring, scoring defense, and third-down conversions. But hey, they are the league's least-penalized team ... Isaiah Stanback is the conference's second-leading QB rusher. His 214 ground yards are 14 shy of leader Kellen Clemens ... Freshman TE Adam Grant (Puyallup) and junior WR Robert Long (Tacoma Foss) are the only Washingtonians on the Arizona roster ...

Rick Samek can be reached at RSAMEK1@COMCAST.NET Top Stories