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Arizona wants to halt Beavers' rise

11/20/2008

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Arizona witnessed first hand in 2007 Oregon State's transformation from cute, bucktoothed Beaver into a monstrosity that ransacked cities and plundered unsuspecting Pac-10 teams.

When they met last October, Arizona was coming off a 28-point win over Washington State and the Beavers had just imploded at home against UCLA, losing 40-14 -- after leading 14-12 in the fourth quarter -- to fall to 2-3.

It seemed that Arizona was rising with its new spread offense, and Oregon State was on the brink of collapse.

Instead: Whammo!

Oregon State jumped to a 28-point lead in the second quarter and coasted home, 31-16.

The Beaver defense held Arizona to no offensive touchdowns, just nine yards rushing and 231 yards of total offense. It also picked off three passes and posted eight sacks.

"They were on me all night," Arizona quarterback Willie Tuitama said. "I definitely remember that."

That was the start of a run of seven wins in eight games -- the lone loss to USC -- for Oregon State, while the Wildcats struggled to find consistency and finished 5-7, leaving coach Mike Stoops on the proverbial hot seat.

"We're a totally different team now," Tuitama said. "Last year, we couldn't really run the ball that well yet. We changed that. A quarterback's friend is a good running game."

Stoops likely has done enough to retain his job. His Wildcats, at 6-4, are bowl-eligible, which which was widely regarded as the baseline requirement for him to return in 2009.

Arizona hasn't been to a bowl game since 1998, so any berth would be appreciated around Tucson.

Yet there's a difference between an adequate season and a successful one. That difference could be realized if the Wildcats win their final two games.

"The season would definitely be a success if we win the next two games," tight end Rob Gronkowski said.

It starts with stomping out the Beavers Rose Bowl dreams, which means embracing the role of the spoiler.

"I think there's definitely some of that," Oregon State safety Greg Laybourn said. "I think if I were in their position, I would love to do that."

Few others in the Pac-10 are rooting for Arizona. Oregon State's winning out and earning a Rose Bowl berth and USC's securing an at-large BCS bowl invitation means the conference pockets an extra $4.5 million.

So, Arizona winning Saturday could end up costing it and the other nine conference teams $450,000 each.

Stoops and his players probably don't care. They seemed pretty grumpy this week about their lackluster first-half effort at Oregon that saw them down 45-17 at the break. A raging but ultimately abortive second-half comeback didn't salve the wounds.

"We were embarrassed and humiliated in the first half," Stoops said. "You can go one of two ways. You can continue that or you can make something out of the game and try to gain some dignity in the second half... That to me is very encouraging. It's something we couldn't do a year or two ago, that's for sure."

Nonetheless, Arizona is still learning how to play with consistent focus and intensity on a weekly basis.

So Tuitama's point about this being a completely different team than last year is not entirely true, but not just because of the costly tendency to meander through the occasional quarter or two.

This, however, is a good thing: The Wildcats offense is loaded with experience and has a good idea what it will get from the Beavers hyper-aggressive scheme.

"They've got a lot of experience," Laybourn said. "That's what I'm concerned with. The guys I remember playing against last year -- all of them are back. And they're all a year better ."

The stakes are high for both teams. Arizona still has a shot to go as high as the Sun Bowl, and the potential of closing the season by recording an eighth victory with a win over rival Arizona State is certainly compelling.

Everybody knows what's at stake for the Beavers. It's gotten to the point that coach Mike Riley doesn't even flinch (that much) when asked how he's tried to keep a lid on the Rose Bowl talk.

"No body has ever said, 'Don't say the word.' Our kids say it," Riley said. "I heard a guy respond to a question about not being afraid to talk about it. But you know the point. The point is it all goes away if you don't win, so you better focus on winning. That's all there is to it."

Arizona was at the front lines when Oregon State transformed into a Pac-10 contender in 2007. Now the Wildcats are at the rear-guard, hoping to make their own transformation at the expense of the Beavers Rose Bowl hopes.