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Wednesday, December 9, 2009
Arizona season recap

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Arizona took another step forward under coach Mike Stoops in 2009.

Last year, the Wildcats earned their first bowl berth since 1998. This year, the Wildcats, picked eighth in the preseason media poll, tied for second in the Pac-10, despite breaking in a new quarterback, and earned a berth in the Holiday Bowl.

They also beat rival Arizona State for a second-consecutive year and ended a seven-game losing streak to USC.

The key moment was the decision to change quarterbacks from Matt Scott to Nick Foles after the offense looked terrible at Iowa on Sept. 19. Foles almost immediately established himself as a budding star, and his precise passing and quick release were critical when running back Nic Grigsby suffered a shoulder injury that killed most of his season.

Offensive MVP -- Quarterback Nick Foles.

Foles, a sophomore, didn't make his first start until the season's fourth game but he made up for lost time, completing 66 percent of his passes and throwing for 2,420 yards with 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

Defensive MVP -- Defensive end Ricky Elmore.

Yes, Arizona fans, it stinks that Elmore didn't earn All-Pac-10 honors. He would have been second-team for the Pac-10 blog if the Pac-10 blog had a second-team. Elmore basically came out of nowhere to lead the Wildcats -- and the Pac-10 -- with 10.5 sacks, and he was particularly important because Brooks Reed battled a sprained ankle much of the season.

Turning point -- The obvious turning point is the decision to go with Foles over Scott, who started the first three games. But, really, the the story of the Wildcats season was perseverance. Multiple times they suffered dispiriting losses -- at Iowa, at Washington, at California and in double-overtime against Oregon -- but in each case they bounced back and didn't suffer a hangover. That is the sign of a maturing program, which in itself is a turning point.

What's next -- The Wildcats figure to be in the thick of the Pac-10 race next year, particularly if tight end Rob Gronkowski opts to return after missing the entire 2009 campaign with a back problem. The defense will take a few significant hits -- safety Cam Nelson, cornerback Devin Ross, tackle Earl Mitchell and all three linebackers -- but that shouldn't be insurmountable, particularly with Reed and Elmore back. Of course, the biggest hit might be defensive coordinator Mark Stoops getting hired away.