As I hope many of you noticed in the past we here at The BearDown absolutely love football. I don’t have the official numbers in front of me but I would be willing to guess that over the last 9 months (can you believe it’s been that long) over 81.2% of the information covered on this site is football or football related. What do we love more than football. Well, nothing actually, but we do love College football specifically. Sure the NFL is fun and great but Saturdays are far better than Sundays and you all know that. So what’s better than just college football? Answer Arizona Football, at least here at The BearDown. And if you didn’t notice that just look at the web address and the sea of red hanging on the goal posts atop this page.
As you may have read Monday here and earlier today here we love our Kitty Kats. We amp up every Saturday and my (4 year old) “In Stoops We Trust” shirt still gets into the rotation in the fall. Mr. Matt hit you with a game by game breakdown of the upcoming UA season, which by his account will have Arizona Football in a Bowl Game. Now I too am guaranteeing Bowl Game. Whether or not it’s the Rose Bowl as Mr. Matt thinks, we’ll have to see. God I hope he’s right, but Rose Bowl or not this should be a great year in Tucson for Stoops Troops. The question remains, will this be the first surge of Stoops growing regime, or will this be Stoops’ Last Stand?
Let’s look at the 2008 Arizona Football season. Where to start? Naturally I feel I should start with the team first. So what do we know about the 2008 Arizona Football Team.
First off, in the upcoming EA Sports Video Game the Kitty Kats are ranked 3rd in the Pac with a Defensive Score of 86 and Offensive score of 85 and overall score of 84. I’m not sure how their overall drops to 84 since the piece missing is Special Teams, and we have amazing Special Teams coming into the ’08 season. Ok, that’s not really a valid point to argue since it’s fictional but it’s out there and now you all know.
As was covered in Randle’s previous articles, the schedule is a much better indicator that the Cats are going to have a much better season. Idaho, Toledo, and New Mexico. These aren’t 3 Guarantees but they aren’t the toughest games on the Arizona docket. At the very least coming out of this 2-1 will almost certainly lock up a Bowl bid for Arizona. Why? Well September tends to be the Cats weakest slate in recent memory. Coming out of that 2-1 instead of 1-2 (as they have 3 out of 4 years under Stoops) could be the one game difference that sends them bowling. But that’s not just it, add that with a 10-6 record (62.5%) over the last 4 games of the season over the last 4 years under Stoops leads to confidence closing the season and a good shot at 3 more wins.
The Cats seem to get better, especially deeper into conference play. That in addition to the fact that 2 of their 3 toughest contests of the season (Oregon and ASU) fall in that category and a 3-1 record against Washington State, Oregon, Oregon State, and Arizona State seems very possible and very nice. In the Territorial Cup during Stoops tenure the Cats are a deceiving 1-3. The one win being in Stoops’ first (3-8) season in Tucson. 2 of the other 3 games were decided by 3 points. ASU came back to win the 2005 game with Arizona Freshman Phenom Willie Tuitama on the bench.
What else have past UA teams told us? Well, under Stoops regime there has been one constant. A nice, home, HUGE upset sometime in the back half of the season. The first year it was beating ASU to cap off a 3-8 season. Last year it was against #2 Oregon. The two years in between, that upset happened on homecoming. (52-14 over #7 undefeated UCLA and 24-20 over #8 one-loss Cal). Well, in 2008 sandwiched between Cal in Tucson and the last 4 game push beginning in Pullman versus Wazzu, Arizona plays host to USC on Homecoming. Every year teams come in here and think that Arizona is beatable. I guarantee USC will be thinking the same thing. Arizona is 3-1 on homecoming since Stoops took over. Much like the Arizona Freshman, homecoming brings out the best in the Kitty Kats. The dorms are a little cleaner, the behavior a little better, and the outcome a pleasant surprise. Instead of showing off for their parents the Kitty Kats tend to show off for the many departed Cats fans who bleed red and blue and have struggled through the last, well decade. If they can’t manage against USC then the Territorial Cup looks to be the next chance for their back half upset. At the end of the year, while 11-1 and 10-2 are possible, I think that 9-3 is VERY likely, and the saving grace for the 5th year of Stoops in Tucson. The first of many bowl games to come.
What specifically makes me think that the Cats can have a season like the one listed above. Well first maturity. The big names on this Arizona offense last year happened to be Juniors, Sophomores, and in the case of Monster TE Robbie G, a True Freshman. Young teams are going to struggle. Specifically when they are handed difficult losses, they might not be able to overcome. When games are slipping away young teams tend to focus on the fact that it’s slipping away instead of stepping up and stopping it, fixing it. In ’07 all of the seniority was on the defensive side of the ball, the offense only had one senior, departed Tackle Peter Graniello.
This year with Seniors Tuitama and Thomas connecting on the TnT and leading this team out onto the field the heads will be much clearer, more even keeled. It also helps that this year the offensive line will consist of 4 lineman who have been playing together for a year. Last year there were youngsters and untamed talent playing alongside Graniello and (2008 Outland Watch-list member) Eben Britton. Too much confusion and youthful mistakes led to a dismal running game despite the talent at the tackles. That will change this year which leads me to my next point. The Running Game.
In 2007 Arizona made great strides over the back end of the season developing Sonny Dykes’ Spread Offense and turning into Air ‘Zona. They will be more experienced in the spread and make some offensive noise this year. But there was a complete lack of a running game. Get ready for Nic Grigsby to make some moves with a more experienced offensive line protecting him and the passing game opening up the running game. Grigsby managed a mediocre 704 yards last season in a floundering, new, pass happy offense. But upon closer inspection he recorded 186, 126, and 124 yards in 3 of the games. This shows that he and this offense are able of running a successful ground attack but the offensive line needs to open the holes for him. And this year they will. If Grigsby can’t do it, Senior Xavier Smith will have to step up his occasional carries into the bulk load. A Running Game is key.
Now opposed to the traditional school of thought (run first to open the pass), the Spread Offense instead runs to give their potent passing offense a rest. And while Air ‘Zona struggled in the Spread early in 2007, by the end of the season they had it figured out. Air ‘Zona finished #10 in Passing Offense and when your quarterback has over 2:1 TD to Int ratio in a pass first offense, that’s a good sign. 12 picks in 524 passes is less than 2.3% chance the ball leaving Tui’s hands is going to wind up in the hands of the wrong team. I’ll take that stat right there. Tui might not be the most mobile QB, but he’s proven before he’s got wheels when he needs them. If you don’t believe me watch the highlights of last year’s Oregon game and his 22 yard jaunt to set up a TD in the first half.
Numbers are the key phrase this year in Tucson. Try some analysts projecting Tui throwing for over 4,000 yards and 35 TDs. In his first try in the spread offense he compiled 3,683 yards in the air and 28 TDs. He already set 10 Arizona records, both single game and season. Tui, who passed for 2,440 coming into ’07 is primed to set numerous career school and Conference records. The timing has improved on a daily basis between Tuitama and Receivers Mike Thomas, Terrell Thomas, and Delashuan Dean. When Tui can’t get them the ball Sophomore TE Rob Gronkowski will be able to get the ball. Much like Willie T, Thomas is poised to set some serious receiving records in his Senior season. He has one goal, playing on Sundays, and in order to play on Sundays at 5’8” you need to impress with your numbers. Thomas is capable of hauling in almost anything Willie throws in his general direction. TnT, the 7-10 split, have been playing together for 4 years now. They read each other on the field. Another year like last year’s (83 rec) for Thomas won’t only put him atop the Arizona record books above Bobby Wade, he will surpass Arizona State Receiver Derrick Hagan’s record of 258 receptions.
Then there’s Monster TE Rob Gronkowski. Last year’s 28 receptions for a team leading 18.8 YPC had one analyst saying simply that DBs couldn’t tackle him. If Robbie G can have more games like Washington State (4 catches, 115 yds, 2 TDs) he won’t be 3rd option for too much longer. And definitely won’t be under any radars. The most important number for the Arizona offense is 10. 10 returning offensive starters used to the Spread Offense. Bottom line, Arizona made tremendous steps to become Air ‘Zona last year, and with a year under their belt in the new scheme look out for the 2008 passing attack, and memo to Pac-10 HQ, get your erasers out because there’s gonna be some changes in those record books.
The defense took a hit. I can’t go on glowingly about the defense the same way I can about the offense. Why? The Defense is a huge question mark. They have to fill in for a Thorpe Award winning 1st round pick Antoine Cason, Pac-10 leading tackler Spencer Larsen, draft picks Wilrey Fontenot and Lionel Dotson, and 4 other departing starters. What’s the good news? While those players were great, Arizona was able to outscore opponents with an underperforming Defense. While on the offensive side of the ball, youth can’t compare to experience. The opposite, occasionally, holds true for defense. Especially in the fast Pac-10 having natural talent in the game able to overcome boneheaded mistakes will be key. UA returns 3 defensive starters. And luckily 2 of those are in the Defensive backfield. FS Nasty Nate Ness had a very good 2007 (5 INTs in 6 games) and SS Cam Nelson will bring his 60 tackles (4th on team in ’07) and looks to solidify the Secondary while Devin Ross has natural ability to play bigger than his size (5’11”) and Marquis Hundley got some quality minutes last year. Of course high on the list of competition at CB is Incoming much loved recruit Robert Golden.
The other returning starter is Middle Linebacker Ronnie Palmer. Ronnie is ready to make some noise and he’ll let you know it. As of right now I believe Xavier Kelley and Adrian McCovy will be starting at the outside linebackers, but Vuna Tuihalamaka impressed the hell out of me in Spring Ball and should be ready at a moments notice. One of the biggest acquisitions, it appears is Arizona DT Earl Mitchell. If that name sounds familiar he was protecting Tuitama last year along with a handful of receptions and a TD as the FB. Coaches looked at his speed and his 265 lb frame and decided that Interior lineman was a much better fit for him. From what I’ve seen and heard in the offseason, this might be the most important move they made all summer. Fresh faces and youthful exuberance might be exactly what this defense needs. No one is firmly set in their positions so don’t be surprised to see players fighting that much harder on Saturdays to keep their positions.
The special teams were great last year. Kicker Jason Bondzio made tremendous strides in Tucson so we could forget the name of Nick Folk. The Senior and Pac-10 Honorable Mention PK went 21-24 on kicks less than 50 yards and 21 out of 25 total. Sophomore Keenyn Crier, who we all hope doesn’t see the field too often, will help keep the ball on the right side of the field. The second team all Pac-10 kicker averaged near 40 yards net and is definitely poised to play on Sundays. Besides that there isn’t much to say. The kickoff coverage team only allowed 1 TD 71 Kickoffs. Of course the kickoff specialist team didn’t get a whole lot of opportunity for tackles since only 47 of the 71 kickoffs netted a return. And while the 9.5 yards per punt return aren’t the best (#73 nationally last year) the 0 TDs allowed is very good and only having to punt 20 times isn’t too bad. With Cason gone Mike Thomas will be stepping up as return man in a unit that had 2 punt returns last year. No shot to Antoine but I would be surprised if Thomas can’t get a little more return yardage he’s a lot more elusive and similar in stature and speed to Chicago’s Devin Hester. In another silent aspect of the game, Arizona came in 4th in the conference in least yards penalized.
Arizona will have the tools and opportunities to Save the job of Mike Stoops. Whether it be through a 7-5 record, 11-1, or most likely 9-3 Arizona will be playing in late December. Expect this year’s Territorial Cup game (December 6, Tucson) to be the biggest game of the season for one if not both of these bitter rivals. If both teams are coming into this game with a shot at the Rose Bowl, which is possible, expect more than (school record)59,920 in Attendance, Standing Room Only. And with a little luck and a lot of hard work, when that game is over, as in years past, a sea of red will flood the field at Arizona Stadium. But the difference in 2008 is that my beloved Kitty Kats will be making plans for Pasadena on January 2nd, and I will be absent from work.