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November 5, 2009

Arizona quietly making a move in the Pac-10

Oregon has dominated the headlines in the Pac-10 this week after handing USC its worst loss of the Pete Carroll era, but it's not the only team in the conference that controls its destiny.

The other team that doesn't need help to win the Pac-10 title is Arizona, which quietly has entered the national rankings for the first time in nine years.

"Our guys I think have come to the point where we know we're a good football team," Arizona coach Mike Stoops said. "We've played very consistently over a period of time and want to continue to do that. I don't think we're satisfied with where we are by any stretch of the imagination. There's a lot of football to be played.

"Obviously we know what's in front of us."

While Arizona hasn't earned a fraction of the attention Oregon has received, the programs otherwise have plenty in common.

Both rely on potent offenses. While Oregon tops the Pac-10 in most offensive categories, Arizona actually leads the league with an average of 445.4 yards per game. Each offense has overcome the type of adversity that might have devastated a weaker program. Oregon's ability to respond from a 19-8 season-opening loss to Boise State and the ensuing suspension of star running back LeGarrette Blount has been well-chronicled, but Arizona also has withstood plenty of turmoil.

Arizona's most dangerous weapon on offense - tight end Rob Gronkowski - suffered a season-ending back injury before he played a down this season. Gronkowski caught 47 passes for 672 yards and 10 touchdowns last season.

Leading rusher Nic Grigsby has spent much of the season battling a shoulder injury that could sideline him Saturday against Washington State. Grigsby ran for a combined 325 yards on 38 carries in the Wildcats' first two games, but he has carried the ball just 33 times in the five games since.

Injuries have forced the Wildcats to use four different combinations on an offensive line that already faced the challenge of replacing all-conference tackle Eben Britton, selected by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the second round of the 2009 NFL draft.

The quarterback situation was enough of a concern for Arizona to switch from season-opening starter Matt Scott to Nick Foles three games into the season.

"It's been a little hard just because you try to build the offense around the personnel you have," Arizona offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes said. "The two primary guys coming back were obviously Gronkowski and Grigsby. They had the lions' share of the yards last year.

"We spent a lot of time trying to find a lot of different ways we could get Rob the football, especially on third down and especially in the red zone. We lost him before the season and struggled a bit early without him in trying to develop an identity."

The struggles haven't necessarily been apparent on the scoreboard.

Arizona (5-2 overall, 3-1 in the Pac-10) has scored at least 27 points in each of its past six games. Greg Nowoko and Keola Antolin have run the ball effectively when Grigsby has been sidelined. And that patchwork line has blocked well enough to allow only four sacks all season (that's tied for fewest in the nation with Oklahoma State and Louisiana-Lafayette).

"We have a lot of depth on our team," said Foles, a sophomore who transferred from Michigan State. "It's shown through the year. We've had guys step up every game. We have a different star every game, from the receivers to the running backs to the offensive line."

Moving on up
Arizona's win totals started rising under Mike Stoops after the point totals and yardage totals increased. This year-by-year look at Arizona's national ranking in total offense and scoring offense underscores how the Wildcats became more productive after Sonny Dykes' arrival as offensive coordinator in 2007. Yards per game and points per game are in parentheses.
Year Total Offense Scoring Offense Record
2004112th (288.9)116th (14.9)3-8
200574th (351.3)80th (22.9)3-8
2006115th (252.8)105th (16.6)6-6
2007 67th (385.3)56th (28.0)5-7
200833rd (402.4)16th (36.6) 8-5
200914th (445.4)T-37th (30.0) 5-2
Although he has made only four starts this season, Foles already has thrown for 1,399 yards while completing 72.3 percent of his passes. He followed up a 384-yard performance against Washington by going 40-of-51 for 415 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions in a 43-38 triumph over Stanford.

"He's a guy who doesn't get rattled easily," Dykes said. "He has an ability to make plays in pretty key situations. He does a great job on third down. He seems to find a way to get it done.

"The team's really responded well to him. He's played with more confidence and leadership than I thought he was going to be able to. He hadn't gotten to start early [in the season] and just hadn't played that much. Usually those guys have a little more of a feeling-out process, but he's just taken the reins and run with them."

Foles' leadership helped Arizona bounce back from a devastating defeat that could have wrecked the Wildcats' Pac-10 title hopes.

Arizona led Washington 33-21 last month before the Huskies closed the gap on a 25-yard touchdown pass with 2:55 left in the game. On the Wildcats' ensuing possession, a Foles pass bounced off the foot of Arizona receiver Delashaun Dean and landed in the arms of Washington linebacker Mason Foster, who raced 37 yards for the winning touchdown in the Huskies' 36-33 victory.

"Those games can kill teams, just because they get so down," Foles said. "We didn't let it affect us. We came back the next week ready to go."

Indeed, Arizona responded to that loss by posting back-to-back victories over Stanford and UCLA. Those two wins have moved Arizona to 19th in the coaches' poll and 18th in the BCS standings.

Arizona is second in the Pac-10 standings and can overtake conference leader Oregon by winning the rest of its games, including a home showdown with the Ducks on Nov. 21. Arizona, the only Pac-10 team never to have played in the Rose Bowl, hasn't finished higher than fifth in the league in Stoops' previous five seasons.

"Our depth and our mental aptitude are much different than it was four or five years ago, that's for sure," Stoops said. "That's what you hope takes place. It does take time. We've been under some serious siege over the last three or four years where we were at. Getting to this place has been a lot of work."

The development of this offense also has been gradual.

This marks the third season since Dykes was hired away from Texas Tech to bring the spread offense to Arizona. The offense has shown slow but steady improvement since his arrival.

"Anytime you have a change in philosophy, it takes a couple of years before you get things going," Dykes said. "It's always easier when you go into a program with a similar type of offense. For us, it was an entire change of philosophy. It takes a year or two before you excel at the rate you want it to."

Not too wild

Arizona never has played in the Rose Bowl and has won a share of the Pac-10 title just once - finishing in a three-way tie for first place in 1993 - since joining the conference in 1978. Here's a list of how many times the Wildcats have finished at each spot in the league standings (includes ties).

First place: One

Second: Four

Third: Three

Fourth: One

Fifth: 10

Sixth: Six

Seventh: One

Eighth: Three

Ninth: One

10th: One

Dykes' arrival brought major changes to Arizona's attack, but this isn't the typical Texas Tech-style spread offense, which focuses heavily on the passing attack. Arizona seeks more balance.

Arizona ran the ball 55 percent of the time last season on its way to finishing 8-5 and beating BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl, the Wildcats' first postseason appearance since 1998. The injuries to Gronkowski and Grigsby have caused Arizona to spread things out more this season, with the Wildcats passing on 51.7 percent of their snaps.

"We're not just built to throw it 50 times a game," Stoops said. "We want to feature our running backs. That's been a really positive side for us, when you look at the way we rush the ball."

Now that Arizona's offense has caught up to its traditionally strong defense, the Wildcats have a chance to grab that elusive Pac-10 title. That prospect is what helped lure Dykes from Lubbock in the first place.

"I felt this place had a lot of potential," Dykes said. "Coach Stoops' teams always play great defense and solid special teams. If we could get the offense playing at the level the defense was, we'd have a chance to win championships. That's the direction we want to go in. If we continue to improve year to year and hopefully game to game and keep doing the little things right, hopefully we'll have a chance to play for championships."

Arizona has quite a few hurdles on its way to a Pac-10 title. The Wildcats are favored by 33 points against Washington State this week, but their schedule gets much tougher the rest of the way. Arizona travels to California next week, plays host to Oregon on Nov. 21 and ends the regular season with back-to-back trips to Arizona State and USC.

Arizona undoubtedly will earn some overdue attention if it survives that stretch unscathed, though the Wildcats don't mind operating under the radar.

"We're not worrying about that," Foles said. "We're just worrying about ourselves. [Attention] will come in time. We have to prove ourselves. We haven't proved anything yet."

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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