Probably – as it always seems to be with these two teams – a barnburner. Certainly last year's 59-point, 930-yard battle will attest – a feast not digested until Cody Pickett sprung his own leap-on-the-lake for the game-winner with 0:13 left.
This one will be all about survival. Say what you want about it still being "early" – the bottom line is that neither team can afford to lose. With all the landmines still ahead for both elevens, going 0-2 in conference could toll the death bell on the season. Even bowl consideration – unless one of these teams was to suddenly get hot - could be at risk.
Four days ago, that was an unfathomable thought for Husky fans.
After getting hammered 31-10 by Wisconsin, Arizona gave a lackluster performance against lowly North Texas. The Wildcats were out-yarded 431-310 by the Mean Green, and only two scores in 150 seconds at the end of the second quarter – a 14-yard drive and a blocked field-goal return – saved Arizona from complete embarrassment. However, the ‘Cats showed signs of life last week in their loss to Oregon. Without Clarence Farmer, Lance Briggs, and five other starters, Arizona struck quickly for two first-quarter touchdowns. They wouldn't score again, and the Ducks eventually wore them down. But the attitude was much different than it was for North Texas – and Wildcat head coach John Mackovic thinks his ‘Cats are due a charm for their third straight visit to Seattle.
"We have played pretty well for the last two years up there," Mackovic says. "Last year's game up there was one of our better efforts of the whole year. And it was at that point that we started playing our best football.
"If we want to be in the race, we can't afford to lose two games in a row, especially the first two games. In this league, if you lose the first two games, you still have six more hard weeks to play after that."
Mackovic also thinks his much-maligned defense is starting to rise to the challenge. "We had a lot of people flying to the football more (on Saturday night)," says Mackovic. "We definitely had more tackles on near or behind the line of scrimmage than we've had in any other game this year."
Both head coaches mirror each other in ruing the lack of a ground attack. Mackovic muses, "We haven't run the ball very well, and we haven't been able to run with power. You can't pass all of the time.
"We are just not strong enough physically to run the ball in terms of power running and power blocking."
Husky coach Rick Neuheisel is just as direct with regards to needing even a semblance of a running game. "We got one-dimensional (against Cal)," understates Neuheisel. "We can't let Cody throw 59 times under the duress he was under and expect him to last, much less flourish. We just have to find some balance with the running game."
"Losing at Washington – even if it's just one time, and now two times – is a crisis situation. But we can't over-react, and we can't under-react. We have to have a balance, and a plan – and then go out and implement that plan."
Make that three times. The NCAA notified Neuheisel yesterday that he would not be allowed any in-home visits until May 2003 in the wake of recruiting improprieties at Colorado – a ruling he does not plan on appealing. "This has been a long and arduous process," Neuheisel replied in a prepared statement. "I want to move on and concentrate my efforts with my football team."
Certainly, it renders new meaning to his comment made at the Monday press conference. "We're days away from fighting for our lives," the embattled coach said. "Hopefully, we'll be much happier on Sunday."
Concentration. Survival. Fighting for their lives. Sounds like a plan, coach.
TEAM STATS: 19.6 points (10th PAC-10), 380.6 yards (9th, 90.2 rush, 290.4 pass).
RUSHING: Mike Bell 56-202-1 TD (3.2), long 18 INJ-Clarence Farmer 84-309-2 TD (3.7), long 70.
PASSING: Jason Johnson 96-166-3 (.578), 1417 yards, 7 TD.
RECEIVING: Bobby Wade 40-581-4 TD (14.5), long 52, Andrae Thurman 20-310-1 TD (15.5), long 44, Lance Relford 8-117-0 TD (14.6), long 29.
Puyallup native Jason Johnson (6-2, 215) threw for the second-most TDs by any Arizona quarterback in his first season as the starter. At the rate he is throwing it this year, he will obliterate Tom Tunnicliffe's 1983 Wildcat standard of 2,520 yards. Johnson suffered a concussion early in last years' visit home, and so is especially looking forward to returning. "We feel like we're so close," says Johnson. "Everyone in this locker room is positive we can get it done." Backup QB Nic Costa is fighting a groin injury, so should Johnson go down for any reason, true freshman Ryan O'Hara could get the call.
Like his Husky counterpart, Johnson may not have any choice in setting aerial records. The biggest obstacle for Arizona is the absence of RB Clarence Farmer, out for season after having surgery to repair torn knee cartilage. Additionally, Farmer will not be able to apply for a medical redshirt, having played in four games. With Gainus Scott also out with a broken ankle, the running chores fall to RS-freshman Mike Bell (6-0, 210). Bell found the going tough against Oregon in his first start. With such a thin corps of running backs, Johnson has a suggestion – one Cody Pickett would enjoy hearing. "Let's throw it 70 times a game, I don't care." Bell's backup is sophomore Chris Harris, who has zero carries in his career. Fullbacks Sean Jones (5-11, 230) and Joey Willrodt (6-1, 240) have two carries between them – and Willrodt has missed two games with a troublesome shoulder.
No such problems exist at the wide-outs, where Bobby Wade (5-11, 185) rules the roost. The senior is the PAC-10 leader in receptions (8.0 per game), yards (116.2), and all-purpose yards (155.6). He busted a 60-yard punt return for a score against Washington two years ago, and caught a touchdown pass in last year's shootout. Junior Andrae Thurman (6-0, 185) had his best day against Utah, hauling in nine receptions for 165 yards. Tight ends James Hugo and Justin Levasseur both average over 18 yards per reception.
It's also been a bit of revolving-door on the offensive line, also due to injury. Darren Safranek has been unable to practice all season recovering from knee surgery; and center Keoki Fraser (6-3, 200), guard Makoa Freitas (6-4, 295) and John Parada have all missed games. Parada remains out, so true freshman Kili Lefotu (6-5, 298) is learning on the job. Big Brandon Phillips (6-8, 330) has been a consistent performer at the tackle spot.
TEAM STATS: 18.2 points (3rd PAC-10), 338.3 yards (4th, 175.4 rush, 162.9 pass).
TACKLES/TFL: Lance Briggs 35/5.0, Joe Siofele 31/3.0, Ray Wells 30/0.0.
PASSES DEF/INT: Jarvie Worcester 3/1, Darrell Brooks 2/0, Gary Love 2/0.
SACKS: Joe Siofele 3.0, Young Thompson 1.0, Lance Briggs 1.0.
Husky fans can relate – Wildcat supporters are yearning for the days of Desert Swarm. There has been more bend than break in the defense – for example, it gave up 431 yards to North Texas, but allowed only two field goals (even though the Mean Green was inside the Wildcat 20 six times). They weren't so fortunate against Oregon, who simply wore them down with a – you guessed it – a superior ground attack. Washington could find the aerial yards tougher, though – Arizona only allows 163 passing yards per game.
Injuries to starting corners Michael Jolivette (knee) and Darrell Brooks (back), DT Brad Brittain (knee) and DE Andre Torrey (hip) have kept them all out, and they remain sidelined again this week. Cody Pickett threw for his school-record 455 yards against Arizona last year, and will have a depleted secondary to work against. Seniors Darrell Hinton (6-1, 175) and free safety Jarvie Worcester (6-0, 204) will be asked to provide the leadership for a defensive backfield that could field two true freshmen in the nickel (Jason Martin and Lamon Means). Strong safety Clay Hardt (6-2, 200) is questionable with an ankle sprain, so sophomore Tony Wingate (6-1, 200) could get the call.
In the middle, senior Lance Briggs (6-2, 245) stirs the drink. Though missing the Oregon game, Briggs still leads the ‘Cats in tackles and TFL. The all-conference middle linebacker is listed as questionable with an ankle problem – he would definitely be missed if he can't go. True freshman Spencer Larsen (6-1, 225) started in Briggs' place against the Ducks. Junior Joe Siofele (6-2, 255) was moved from the weak side to the end when Torrey went down during fall camp, while junior Matt Molina (6-2, 240) mans Siofele's WLB spot. Siofele leads the team in sacks with three – the unit as a whole only has 10. Senior rover Ray Wells (6-2, 220) is a ball-hawk and is third on the squad in tackles. In the interior, senior Young Thompson (6-2, 305) is the main threat to get to Pickett, and sophomore tackle Carlos Williams (6-4, 291) has shown tremendous promise.
ARIZONA SPECIAL TEAMS
PLACEKICKING: Sean Keel 6-11 FG (long 48), 8-8 XP, Bobby Gill 1-2 FG (long 27), 3-3 XP.
PUNTING: Danny Baugher 14-37.6 (long 48), .143 inside the 20.
KICK RETURNS: Bobby Wade 5-16.2 (long 25), 0 TD, Gary Love 2-16.0 (long 22), 0 TD.
PUNT RETURNS: Bobby Wade 11-10.5 (long 25), 0 TD.
The Arizona kicking game has been as settling as a stack of Jenga sticks. Senior Sean Keel and sophomore Bobby Gill combined to miss four field goals against North Texas, having two of them blocked – in fact, Keel missed twice inside of 30 yard. Gill handled the chore last week (though he didn't attempt a field goal), but Mackovic has yet to decide who will get the nod in Seattle. Ramey Peru had a punt blocked at Wisconsin, resulting in easy Badger points. Peru quit the team last week, so true freshman Danny Baugher gets the reins. Bobby Wade is as dangerous as they come at returning punts, but the Wildcat coverage team only ranks eighth in the conference and their kick-return team ranks ninth.
KIBBLES AND BITS
Bad Omen: The last time Washington lost back-to-back home games was in 1976 – the same year as their previous loss to California . . . Good Omen: Rick Neuheisel is 3-0 against Arizona, and is also 3-0 against his counterpart John Mackovic, having beaten him twice when the two were in the Big-12. Washington has won six of the last seven meetings between the two schools . . . Another streak was broken in last week's loss. It ended a run of seven straight games where Washington had intercepted at least one pass . . . The last time Arizona was shut out? Why, the 54-0 whitewash to the National Champs in 1991 -- lest we forget Steve Emtman opening the game with two successive sacks of QB George Malauulu. And the last player to return a kickoff for a score against the Wildcats? Washington's JaWarren Hooker in 1997 . . . 6-foot-3 QB prospect Kris Heavner of Johnson City, Texas gave his verbal commitment to Arizona on Sunday . . . Reggie Williams needs to average 92.7 yards per game the rest of the season to catch Mario Bailey as the Huskies' all-time leading receiver . . . John Anderson is on a pace to boot 24 field goals. That would put him one shy of the season record held by Chuck Nelson . . . Lance Briggs and Bobby Wade will represent Arizona in the East/West Shrine game in January . . . Nearing the half-way point of the season, and no one in the PAC-10 has returned a kickoff for a score. Only one (Cal's Jemeel Powell) has a punt return for six . . .
Rick Samek can be reached at RSAMEK1@ATTBI.COM . . .