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September 24, 2007

On A Desert Island

There is only one certainty in Pac-10 college football this weekend in Tucson, Arizona - one team will emerge victorious from Arizona Stadium and claim their first Pac-10 conference football win of the 2007 season. Which team that will be - Arizona or Washington State - remains unknown.

WSU had the misfortune of drawing top-ranked USC for their season opener, so the fact that they began the conference season at 0-1 is only a little less surprising than Arizona. That is because the Wildcats had to travel to Berkeley to exchange pleasantries with California - the conference's generally-regarded second-best team - for their conference season opener. With both expected results out of the way - a 47-14 loss for the Cougars and a 45-27 loss for the Wildcats - the two teams can now meet to decide who will be winning their first conference game of the year.

For Arizona, the year began with high hopes of resurgent offensive production after head coach Mike Stoops went out and gathered in the services of Sonny Dykes, one of the architects behind Texas Tech's successful spread offense. However, the enthusiasm which greeted the Wildcats at the beginning of the year has all but dissolved in the face of disappointing losses to BYU, New Mexico and now, California, as Arizona has only one win to show for their first four games of the year - and that was at home against Division I-AA Northern Arizona.


The spread offense has produced numbers alright - oft-injured starting junior quarterback Willie Tuitama is 22nd in total offense in the NCAA and is among the leaders in most passing categories - but the efficiency and execution of the new system is in question. The offense treats the pass like a run with short, possession style passes that gain little yardage but, if executed properly, keep the Wildcats in possession of the ball and give them the possibility for breaking big plays while keeping the opposing defenses on the field running around chasing various receivers. In theory, defenses will eventually tire and become more and more susceptible.

However, the offense, while putting up loads of yardage - to the tune of 318.25 yards per game and good enough for 14th in the country in the category of passing offense - has only been able to provide consistent efficiency. There is more pressure for Tuitama to complete virtually every pass as though it were as simple as a hand-off to the running back and with Tuitama's completion percentage hovering near 62% - sixth in the Pac-10 - it means that efficiency standard for this offensive system has not been met. But the larger problem is found in the red zone. Tuitama has tossed the pigskin 194 times - a full 53 more attempts than the next closest QB, Wazzu's Alex Brink - and yet Brink has 12 touchdowns and three interceptions while Tuitama in his pass-first offense has only been able to muster 10 touchdowns with four picks. That means, in a typical game, Tuitama throws the ball 48 times with a touchdown resulting in every 19 pass attempts. Translation: two or three touchdowns per game and a resulting scoring offense of only 26.5 points per game - last in the high-scoring Pac-10. Since the offense is unbalanced toward the pass, the rushing game has only produced an anemic 71.5 yards per game - also last in the conference - and 113th in the nation.

But defense was supposed to be the Wildcats' specialty anyway -they were returning the bulk of last year's defense that had seemingly jelled at the end of the year to bring Arizona close to bowl game consideration. But whereas last year's defense was solid at the end of the year, there has been no carry-over effect so far into 2007. A pass rush on opposing quarterbacks has been virtually non-existent and the defensive secondary is allowing 259 yards per game - only 16 less than WSU's much-maligned group. The Wildcats' rush defense of 110 yards per game has been average, so they have been able to stay within striking distance of most of their games - although last week's loss to Cal was over in the first quarter.

Special teams has been a bright spot for the Wildcats, who have been solid in virtually all aspects of measurable special teams play. Senior defensive back Antoine Cason is 15th in the country in punt returns and both kicker Jason Bondzio and punter Keenyn Crier have performed above average so far, with Bondzio hitting on five of his seven field goal attempts and Crier putting down nearly 43 yards per boot.

With expectations so high entering the season and Arizona not having been to a bowl game in nine years [1998 Holiday Bowl against Nebraska - the longest bowl drought in the Pac-10], the pressure was on Stoops to succeed from the start before his team got to Pac-10 play. With the results of the first four games in the books, Stoops has been officially plopped onto the proverbial coaching hot seat by the fans and will be under extreme pressure to win this game or find himself the target of many more displeasing utterances from both the Arizona faithful and unfaithful.

All-in-all, the game should be a close affair as it features two teams with glaring defensive issues but with productive offenses that are at a crossroads in their season and each must secure a victory to temporarily stave off the wolves. In Arizona's case, with three of their next four games being on the road after this game, the Wildcats must find a way to have the offense play more efficiently and defense to regain their 2006 form or else they will be looking at a long season - and possibly for another new coach by the end of it.



NCAA Top 25 for Arizona


Passing Offense - 318.25 yards per game [14th]

Punt Returns - 14 yards per return [25th]

Punt Returns - Antoine Cason - 15.5 yards per return [15th]

Receptions Per Game - Michael Thomas - 7.75 [12th]

Total Offense - Willie Tuitama - 298.25 yards per game [22nd]



WSU continues their football season against Arizona at 7 p.m. on Saturday, September 29 at Arizona Stadium in Tucson.





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