NCF Nation: Russell Crowe

Foles, Arizona want to take the next step

September, 15, 2010
9/15/10
10:43
AM ET
It's easy to imagine a Hollywood version of Arizona's Nick Foles coming off the bench against Iowa last year. Mike Stoops, played by Russell Crowe, would toss his headset to the ground in frustration over the Wildcats' offensive ineptitude. And as he picked it up, amid the din of Kinnick Stadium, he'd catch sight of Foles, played by Kip Pardue, looking chill but also engaged.

[+] EnlargeNick Foles
Rick Osentoski/US PresswireNick Foles' key to success: "I just try to keep it level."
"Foles!" Stoops/Crowe would bellow. "Son, the Wildcat nation is depending on you!"

Cue inspirational music.

And, of course, Foles would lead the Wildcats to a comeback win, all the while looking chill but also engaged.

Not what happened. The unsentimental reality: A coach -- Foles doesn't remember who -- told him to warm up after Iowa took a 20-10 lead at the beginning of the fourth quarter.

"And as I was warming up, they said, 'you're going in'," Foles recalled.

He led the Wildcats to a first down. And then they punted. After an 8 1/2-minute touchdown drive from Iowa made it 27-10, Foles led the Wildcats 62 yards for a TD that made the score more respectable. That was it.

Foles would arrive at the football offices early the next day, a Sunday. He watched film. After that, he went out to throw into a net on the practice field. Then he was summoned by then-offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes, who told him he would make his first start at Oregon State. Against the Beavers, Foles completed 25 of 34 passes for 254 yards with three TDs and no interceptions in a 37-22 victory.

And away he went. Nothing Hollywood about it, really. But by remaining chill and engaged and not letting the frustration of initially losing out a close quarterback competition to Matt Scott drive him to distraction, Foles set himself up to be ready when called.

"I was just continuing to work hard, preparing like I was a starter," Foles said. "I knew at any moment I could get an opportunity to play. My big thing was just staying focused, staying ready. I didn't get frustrated because I knew I might eventually get a chance."

Now Foles is something of an X factor in the rematch with Iowa on Saturday in Arizona Stadium. A lot of the same players will be on the field for both teams, but Foles went on to become one of the nation's best quarterbacks after the Iowa game.

Of course, the Iowa defense, which welcomes back eight starters, including all four members of what is probably the nation's best defensive line, is a year older and a year scarier.

"They are very disruptive," Stoops said. "They took away a lot of stuff we thought we would be able to do [last year]. We've got to come up with a better game plan. But they do that to a lot of people. They are so good inside and up front they limit what you can do."

Stoops even specified what Iowa does: While most defenses need seven (or eight) guys to stop the run, Iowa can do it with six, which is not unlike what Nebraska did in the Holiday Bowl -- sorry for bringing that up, Wildcats fans. More guys playing in space makes it harder to throw the ball.

"[Foles] is going to have to play much faster," Stoops said. "Things have to happen a lot faster this week. The windows are going to be a lot tighter to throw in. So we're going to need his accuracy and our players are going to have to make a lot of tough, competitive catches."

Accuracy? Foles is completing 83 percent of his passes.

But Foles is going to need plenty of help. He's going to need his receivers to be aggressive with the ball in the air, his line to stand up to the Hawkeyes' front and he needs running back Nic Grigsby to be a threat on the ground. Also, he needs his guys to remain chill but engaged, because Iowa is going to make big plays on defense. The unit, led by future NFL first-round draft pick Adrian Clayborn at end, is too talented not to.

Foles is the right guy to role model that state of mind.

"I just try to keep it level. I think that's the key to being successful," he said. "You are going to have highs and you are going to have lows but you've got to keep steady. I tell the guys all the time during a game you can have some bad plays and you have some great plays, but the key is to stay steady, to stay mentally focused. That's how I go about it every day. Just have fun. That's a key. Play the game. Just let it come to you."

Arizona defensive end Brooks Reed let the Iowa game come to him last year. It gave him a high ankle sprain early in the second half that pretty much ruined his season. Remember that long, back-breaking Iowa drive at the beginning of the fourth quarter that made it 27-10? Reed tried to come back and play during it. Bad idea.

"I think they noticed I was limping around, and they started running power to my side," Reed said. "Got a few yards, and I got taken out."

Reed and fellow end Ricky Elmore are the best DE-tandem in the Pac-10, and the Wildcats' secondary is good enough to mute Hawkeyes quarterback Ricky Stanzi and his solid crew of receivers. But the big question is how the two new tackles and three new linebackers will handle the power running game, which is Iowa's primary mode of travel.

"They like to run guys over -- that's their deal," Reed said. "This is our first real test as a defense. The first two games kind of got us warmed up."

Reed has seen encouraging signs in the first two games, in which Arizona gave up eight points (two came on a safety) and just 177 yards per game. It reminds him of his first year as a starter in 2008 when the Wildcats had to replace eight starters on defense and ended up ranked 24th in the nation in total defense.

But this is a major step up in competition. And opportunity. The Wildcats have become a top-25 program under Stoops. The next step means entering a rarefied atmosphere.

"That's a hard place to get, but we're fighting like mad to get there," Stoops said. "This is another opportunity. Hopefully, we take advantage of it."

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