Wednesday, November 4, 2009
Is Arizona poised to make a Pac-10 run?
By Ted Miller ESPN.com
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
Little game of Pac-10 Jeopardy: This nationally ranked team controls its own conference destiny and it never rains in its home stadium.
Chris Morrison/US PRESSWIRE
Even with a tough upcoming schedule, coach Mike Stoops believes Arizona's best football is ahead.
No, though we enjoy that jocular pregame announcement at Autzen Stadium as much as anybody. And, please, remember to phrase your answer in the form of a question.
Who is Arizona?
No, really. Who is Arizona?
The Wildcats, ranked 18th in the BCS standings, are 5-2 overall and, at 3-1 in conference play, are alone in second place in the standings. If not for an odd and controversial deflection at Washington, the Wildcats would be sniffing the top 10.
Yet few folks seem to know much about them.
They rank No. 1 in the Pac-10 and 14th in the nation in total offense (455 yards per game) and third in the conference in total defense (315 ypg). They are balanced on offense -- 12 rushing touchdowns, 12 passing touchdowns -- and they do a good job of stopping the run, ranking 17th in the nation (101.3 ypg).
Yet the buzz around the program -- outside of Tucson, at least -- is only a light hum.
"That's all the time. We're always laying low," said Wildcats senior safety Cam Nelson, who knows personally about being underrated.
"We don't get much credit, which doesn't bother us. We don't need anybody to know us. We like being a no-name team that's going to sneak up and make a big run."
Nelson sounds more resigned than perturbed. As for that big run, don't disregard the notion. The schedule ahead is brutal (perhaps the toughest in the nation) but nothing worth achieving is ever easy to obtain.
Arizona should know. It has been waiting a long time for a Rose Bowl berth. Like, er, forever.
We must pause now and acknowledge what Wildcats coach Mike Stoops has been relentlessly telling his team for the past two weeks (Arizona had a bye last week): Do not overlook Washington State, which comes to town on Saturday.
"Our guys are smart enough to understand ... anybody can beat anybody if you give them the opportunity," Stoops said.
But, outside of the locker room, we are free to consider this slate of four games: at California, Oregon, at Arizona State and at USC.
Is it far-fetched to imagine the Wildcats running that gauntlet unscathed? Absolutely. But not impossible.
Arizona whipped Cal 42-27 last year. It's won two of three from Oregon. It beat the rival Sun Devils 31-10 last year. USC only beat the Wildcats 17-10 in 2008, and these Trojans don't appear as salty as those.
Moreover, the Wildcats have reached this point -- on the cusp of consecutive bowl berths for the first time since 1997-98 -- despite major injury issues.
They lost their best player, tight end Rob Gronkowski, before the season began with a back injury. They've played their last four games without their best pass-rusher, end Brooks Reed. Two of their top three running backs, starter Nic Grigsby and No. 3 Greg Nwoko, likely will miss the Washington State game with shoulder injuries, while No. 2 Keola Antolin is still nursing a sprained ankle. The offensive line has been down one or two starters much of the season.
Said Stoops, "I think our best football is still in front of us. It's going to need to be."
The good news is that Reed appears set to play Saturday, and Nelson believes the return of one of the best ends in the Pac-10 will have a big impact for a unit that has struggled to consistently pressure opposing quarterbacks.
"It will help a whole lot," Nelson said. "Brooks' intensity on the field, the way he plays and carries himself, you'll see a big change in the defense. D'Aundre Reed has stepped in and done a good job, but there's no substitution for Brooks on the field. He plays reckless, hard. He's fast every play, trying to cause a turnover. Once we get him back, things will be a whole lot different. There will be more pressure, which will make it easier on the back end for us."
Speaking of back ends: Nelson has no problem talking about the rigorous back end of the schedule and what it's going to take to win-out. That doesn't, however, mean he's overlooking Washington State.
"Regardless of their record, they are still a Pac-10 team," he said. "Every week is a challenge."
But if Arizona is up to that challenge from now until Dec. 5 at USC, it may accomplish something it's never done before.