Friday, July 16, 2010
Best case-worst case: Arizona
By ESPN.com staff
Fifth in a series looking at potential dream and nightmare scenarios for all Pac-10 teams, starting at the bottom and working up from my vote in the Pac-10 media poll.
Understand: These are not predictions. They are extreme scenarios and pieces of fiction.
Up next: Arizona
Toledo and The Citadel got Arizona's vanilla. Iowa got the Rocky Road.
Workmanlike efforts during a 2-0 start didn't generate much buzz, but when the Wildcats roll up 480 yards of offense in a 41-28 slamming of No. 8 Iowa, let's just say the 'Zona Zoo goes politely cuckoo. Quarterback Nick Foles & Co. make a defense reputed to be among the nation's best look like it's stuck in molasses, as five receivers catch at least four passes and Nic Grigsby and Keola Antolin combine for 193 yards rushing.
"Some folks were skeptical whether we could make four coordinators work," says coach Mike Stoops while giving the hairy-eyeball to a mild-mannered Pac-10 reporter. "Well, I've got one thing to say: 'Ha!'"
Arizona prevails over California in a hard-fought battle and, at 4-0, rises to No. 12 in the national rankings with No. 15 Oregon State coming to Tucson. The Beavers arrive having bounced back from a season-opening loss vs. TCU to win at No. 3 Boise State. With Jacquizz Rodgers emerging as a leading Heisman Trophy candidate, Arizona fans try to mount a grassroots effort on behalf of Foles, who's thrown 11 touchdown passes and is averaging 295 yards passing per game. T-shirts and signs are distributed throughout the stadium asking, "Why not Nick?"
Neither Foles nor Rodgers disappoint, but it's the other Rodgers -- receiver James -- who takes a fly sweep 16 yards for the winning score in overtime.
"Our offense is doing great, but we're still looking for answers on defense," Stoops says.
That defense seems to find its rhythm though over the next month. The Wildcats whip Washington State, take revenge on Washington for 2009's controversial ending and slip by UCLA in the Rose Bowl. A trip to Stanford features two ranked teams that are still in the conference hunt and two quarterbacks who are hanging up All-America numbers.
Yet Foles seems out of sorts much of the afternoon as Stanford takes a 28-17 lead into the fourth quarter. Then, just as Andrew Luck and the Cardinal look to be driving for the score that will put the game out of reach, Trevin Wade takes an interception to the house 72 yards for a touchdown. The Wildcats get the ball back with 2:30 left and drive to the Cardinal 8-yard line. On fourth down, Foles scrambles away from pressure and lobs a toss to the corner of the end zone.
Where it falls just out of reach of a diving Juron Criner. It's a dispiriting loss, but Stoops rallies his team the following weekend, as they nip USC 20-17. They head to Oregon after a bye week still with an outside chance to play in the Rose Bowl.
The two teams played a double-overtime thriller the year before in Tucson, and this one is no different in Eugene, with dizzying momentum swings, odd-ball miscues and eye-popping playmaking. Only there is one difference: This time Nate Costa instead of Jeremiah Masoli makes the key plays that save the day for the Ducks in a 41-38 win.
The Wildcats take out their frustrations on Arizona State, blitzing the Sun Devils 33-10 and earning a berth in the Alamo Bowl opposite Oklahoma, which ensures a great media angle but makes Stoops and his brother Bob uncomfortable.
Still, one has to think Mike Stoops feels pretty good about his team's precise execution on both sides of the ball in a 28-20 victory. The Wildcats' 10-3 finish, their best since 1998, lands them at No. 11 in the nation in the final polls.
"It's been a great season, but this program has higher goals," Foles says afterward. "Next year, we want the Granddaddy."
Talk about deja vu. For a second consecutive season, Iowa provides a physical humbling that takes the shine off Arizona's 2-0 start.
This time, however, the Wildcats' defense deserves much of the blame for the 40-27 loss, as Nick Foles passes for 250 yards and two touchdowns against a stout Hawkeyes defense. But Iowa's offense, led by senior quarterback Ricky Stanzi, pushes around and picks apart the Wildcats' rebuilding defense.
That becomes the theme of the season: Good on offense, inconsistent on defense. And, of course, that frustrates the defensive-minded Mike Stoops.
"Being inconsistent on offense frustrates me," Stoops says. "You might notice a look of frustration on my face."
The Wildcats squeak by California, in large part because of four Bears turnovers. But Oregon State comes to town, and the Rodgers brothers put together highlight film for the 'Zona Zoo. A win at Washington State is followed by a home loss to Washington, with Jake Locker rushing for 155 yards and passing for 240. Still, after a last-second win at UCLA, the Wildcats remain in position to secure a good bowl berth.
But the schedule over the final third of the season is brutal. Andrew Luck outduels Foles at Stanford. Matt Barkley throws for three TD passes in a USC win in Tucson. Oregon rolls up 500 yards of offense in an easy win in Eugene.
The stakes when Arizona State comes to town are high. Both teams are 5-6. Both, therefore, need a win in order to be eligible for a bowl berth. And, of course, these two programs hate each other.
Arizona leads 21-17 with 12 minutes left and pins the Sun Devils on their own 1-yard line. What ensues, however, will go down as perhaps the worst 12 minutes in program history. The Sun Devils drive 99 yards in 18 plays -- all runs and none longer than seven yards -- as their much-maligned offensive line takes control. Stoops is apoplectic on the sidelines, but it doesn't help.
"I'm worried that his head may explode," remarks the play-by-play announcer.
With 30 seconds left in the game, ASU quarterback Brock Osweiler sneaks in for the game-winning score.
A reporter meekly asks after the game if Stoops will continue to use four coordinators going forward. Four of five news stories the next day reference Linda Blair's 360 degree, head-turning scene in "The Exorcist" to describe Stoops' reaction.
Elite local recruits Christian Westerman and Brett Hundley both announce that they have changed their minds and want to go to Arizona State.