Archive for the ‘Mike Stoops’ Category

Spring Fish Wrap – AZ Mildcats Edition

June 12, 2009


And down the stretch we come. Just four WSU spring “fish wraps” left, as the 2009 calendar flips to November. And to kick off the final month of the season, WSU heads to Tucson the week after playing Notre Dame in San Antonio (hmmm, maybe they ought to just stay down south and make a week of it?).

Nice SI cover from the archives huh? Man, that Desert Swarm D, that was something else to watch. I was at that battle in Pullman in 1994, when the Palouse Posse-led Cougs lost a heartbreaker, 10-7. What a fantastic defensive match-up though, wow. The speed and hitting on both sides was incredible. Of course, that was the game where Mark Fields stripped the ball away from an Arizona running back as the Wildcats were trying to milk the clock, and with under a minute to play, the Cougs got the ball back deep in AZ territory. After a few plays, they were well within field goal range, but the play clock ran out as Tony Truant lined up for the field goal attempt! I still remember the entire WSU sideline screaming for a timeout, but the field goal unit just sort of moved in slow motion as the play clock wound down. Heck, the WHOLE STADIUM was screaming timeout! But we know what happened next – delay of game, five yards back, and the resulting kick never had a chance. Just brutal. But still a pretty entertaining game!

Yes, Arizona, where Mike Stoops turned the heat down to a low simmer on his eternal hot seat. Word was Stoops was in trouble if he didn’t get his Mildcats into a bowl game, but he was able to cobble together an eight-win, bowl victory season to keep the villagers at bay. So what to do for an encore? How do they look heading out of spring? Let’s see….

2008: 8-5, including 5-4 in the PAC-10. They wrapped up ’08 with an impressive 31-21 Vegas Bowl extravaganza over BYU. That’s the same BYU that beat both Washington and UCLA on back-to-back Saturdays last September, so hey, the PAC-10 saved a little face?


It was AZ’s first bowl win in 10 years, the last one coming in a Holiday Bowl victory over Nebraska in 1998. But things did look a tad shaky for a while last year. After starting 4-1, AZ would lose four of their next six. But they closed strong, beating ASU big to close the regular season, and then of course, the Las bowl win.

FANS ARE: For once, pretty pleased with Stoops. The eight wins was a nice way to cap off Willie Tuitama’s career (and while going undrafted, Tuitama was arrested for “extreme DUI” in March. Tough spring for Willie.) And the expectations are pretty reasonable right now. A lot of people believe that AZ should be a perennial bowl contender, and they might finally be settling in under Stoops. Not necessarily in USC-Cal-Oregon territory, but certainly in that four-to-seven range?

LAST TIME vs. WSU: A somewhat uninspired 59-28 win in Pullman. Uninspired in that they failed to score 60? Nah. Uninspired in that AZ came into the game a little flat, and let an over-matched WSU team hang around a little bit.


It was 14-14 into the second quarter before AZ turned on the juice to pull away, but WSU scrapped back to make it 45-28 in the beginning of the 4th quarter. But that would be it, as AZ tacked on a couple of late TD’s to win going away.

OFFENSIVE SYSTEM: A Sonny Dykes creation in the Texas Tech Red Raider style, AZ threw the ball a ton last year. They love to get into shotgun sets and spread you out, but can beat you with the quick-hitting runs, backs catching it out of the backfield, or splitting coverages with the MONSTER tight-end (we’ll get to him later).

’08 OFFENSIVE RANKINGS: #3 in the conference in scoring offense (36.6 ppg), 3rd in passing offense (244.0 ypg), and #4 in total offense (402.4 ypg). But the biggest improvement – BY FAR – was the running game. In ’07, AZ was a miserable 10th out of 10 in rushing yards per game, just 76.8. Not only that, they were almost 35 yards per game out of NINTH place, behind Stanford’s 111.2 yards per game. But in ’08? Try 158.4 yards per game, a solid fifth in the PAC-10. That’s an improvement of 81.6 yards per game on the ground in one year! That running game helped out quite a bit in improving their scoring per game by over a TD (28 ppg in ’07, 36.6 in ’08). No doubt, a much better offense in ’08.

’09 RETURNING OFFENSIVE STARTERS: Seven, which is pretty strong. But not coming back are some boys with big shoes to fill, including leading passer Willie Tuitama and leading receiver Mike Thomas.

TOP OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Running back Nic Grigsby is a really nice player, a 1,000+ running back and a key figure in Arizona’s improvement in the running game. But about that MONSTER tight end….

Rob Gronkowski is the complete package. While he missed three games last year, he still was third on the team with 47 catches. But he was most adept at getting into the end-zone, with 10 TD catches (that’s one per game he played in last year). Those 10 TD catches were a nice progression from ’07, where he had six more as a true frosh. The guy is pretty much everything, and with Mike Thomas now moving on from Tucson, there is no doubt who will get a lot of attention in the passing game next season! And at 6-6, 260, he’s also setting up nicely for a productive career at the next level.

DEFENSIVE SCHEME: Your garden-variety 4-3. Not a ton of blitzing, but they have a talented group of defensive linemen coming back in ’09, so it may not be necessary anyway to get pressure.

’08 DEFENSIVE RATINGS: Arizona was #3 in the conference in scoring defense (21.3 ppg), #3 in total defense (313.0 ypg), #5 in rushing D (131.1 ypg) and #4 in passing defense (181.9 ypg). A decent defense that improved literally across the board in all the major categories from 2007.

’09 RETURNING STARTERS: Seven, including the front-line guys on the defensive line and key players in the secondary. The big losses are at linebacker, led by all-everything tackler Ronnie Palmer.

TOP RETURNING DEFENSIVE PLAYER: This one is kind of tough. Defensive end Brooks Reed had a big junior year last year, with eight sacks and 10 tackles for loss in ’08. He was by far the biggest pass-rush threat on the defense as a sophomore. And freshman DB Trevin Wade came up big in his first season last year, leading the team with four interceptions. But I’ll go with the senior corner, Devin Ross, as the top defensive player coming back in ’09.


Ross was second on the team in ’08 with three INT’s, and was tied for 6th in the conference in pass-breakups with 13. A pretty complete corner, Ross also had 50 tackles. He was a second-team All-PAC-10 selection last year, and will likely be in the discussion as top returning corner this year. He’s not afraid to stick his nose into the action and even though he’s not a huge DB (5-11, 170), he won’t back down. Ross stepped into a difficult situation last year, taking over for departed four year starters at corner in Antoine Cason and Wilrey Fontenot, but he more than held his own. With Robert Golden moving off corner to one of the safety positions, Ross will likely team up at corner with rising sophomore Trevin Wade, who led the team in interceptions last year with four. They should have a top-shelf secondary in ’09, and Ross will be a huge part of that.

TOP THREE POST-SPRING QUESTIONS:

1) HOW ABOUT THE QB? You knew it was coming, but yep, Willie Tuitama’s time has come to an end in Tucson. Tuitama capped his career off in style, beating BYU last year and throwing for over 300 yards in the game. Tuitama threw for over 3,000 yards last year, the second consecutive season he topped the 3K mark in the passer-friendly spread offense at AZ. Overall Tuitama threw for over 9,000 yards in his career, the top all-time at Arizona. Yes, he’ll be missed.

That said, time to turn the page. Right now the QB derby is still in full swing, as QB’s Matt Scott and Nick Noles are tight coming out of spring. Scott has a little game time under his belt, but not a whole lot, just 84 yards last year in extremely limited time in ’08.


Scott (pictured) can move though. Not the pure thrower in the mold of Tuitama, Scott ran for 188 yards last year in his short time on the field, averaging 8.2 yards per carry. The word from Teddy Miller was that Scott has the slight lead over Noles coming out of spring, but it’s likely both could play early in the season as they try and figure everything out.

2) THE SCHEDULE? Pretty reasonable early, tough as nails late. They host Central Michigan and Northern Arizona to open the season, and then they are off to Iowa for what could be a difficult road game. They close September by heading to Corvallis, taking on the Beavs in their PAC-10 opener. All told, they have five PAC-10 road games. November looks tough as well. After hosting our Cougs on 11/7, they go to CAL, are home for Oregon, then close the year by going to Arizona State and at USC on 12/5. It’s not hard to see AZ get off to a hot start, at least well into October, but the season will be all about what happens in November.

3) How GOOD is the defense? Pretty good actually. Not exactly Desert Swarm good, but maybe the best defense they’ve had in several years. They improved across the board in ’08, and have a lot of talent and experience back on the d-line and of course, in the secondary. But they do need to pick it up a bit in the pass-rush department. Even with Brooks Reed and his breakout ’08 season, they still were middle of the road in the conference with 24 sacks. More will be expected out of the men up front. With a couple of new starting linebackers in the mix, they will need to have a big year on the line to keep the heat off the new guys.

WSU Football Blog SEZ: Arizona was one of the breakout teams that everyone liked last year (including us!). Senior QB, tons of starters back on a complex offense (10 last year), etc, etc. It looked like a strong pick early in the year, but they really wobbled in the middle of the year. However they did put it all together late, and ’08 turned into a nice success.

Everyone knew they would move the ball last year. But the big surprise was the improvement in the running game. Nic Grigsby averaged 5.4 yards per carry, and true frosh backup Keola Antolin added over 500 yards as a nice one-two punch. The team had 33 rushing TD’s in ’08, a huge improvement over ’07.

And with that strong running game, things are going to be different in ’09. Like many PAC-10 teams for next year, the emphasis is going to be on the running game. And why not? With Grigsby and Antolin returning, along with experience on the O-line, the fantastic all-everything TE Rob Gronkowski, AND a brand new QB? Get ready for an older-school Arizona attack, where they will lean heavily on a strong ground game and an experienced, physical defense to carry the day.

That’s it for today. ENJOY YOUR FRIDAY, and as always….GO COUGS!

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Spring Fish Wrap – AZ Mildcats Edition

June 17, 2008

Great weather, nice stadium that seats over 56,000, great hoops program…..but a football team that hasn’t been to a bowl game since 1998?? What is it with Arizona’s football program that they just can’t seem to put it together? It’s a hard thing to put your finger on. You would think from a distance anyway that they should be successful, but for whatever the reason, it’s been a long, dry spell without success.

Maybe part of the deal has been their choice of coaches since Dick Tomey was relieved of the job. Tomey had a strong run of success, racking up a 95-64-4 record and seven bowl games in 14 seasons before losing his job with a 5-6 record after the 2000 season. John Mackovic anyone?? DISASTER, going 10-18 and a mid-season firing, where things got so bad he nearly had a player revolt on his hands. They turned to the hot young assistant in Stoops from Oklahoma beginning in 2004, and it has been an uphill climb ever since.

I don’t know about you, but when I think of Arizona, I think of the fantastic desert swarm defenses led by Tedy Bruschi. I also think of that heartbreaking 1994 loss, where the Palouse Posse and the desert swarm went toe-to-toe for 60 minutes. Speaking of toe, I will always remember watching Tony “The TOE” Truant slowly setting up for a field goal, while the play clock was winding down 3….2….1. I’ll never forget looking over at the WSU sideline, and the ENTIRE FLIPPIN‘ TEAM was going APE, screaming TIME OUT! TIME OUT! But the players on the field never called it in time, delay of game penalty was called, and the next play Truant’s kick was wide left and 10 yards short from the moment toe hit leather. What a sad ending to a hell of a defensive fist fight.

I also think of Ortege Jenkins flipping the ball over his shoulder (illegally, I might add) in overtime, a thrilling 35-34 WSU win in 1997.

By the way, in that game, if you were there or watching on TV, does anyone remember Jenkins complaining to the ref about crowd noise during the 4th quarter and overtime? To the point the ref warned the crowd to be quiet?? I was there, and there were MAYBE 30,000 fans in the stands that day. First of all, I never knew a crowd noise rule existed in the Pac-10, let alone college football in general. If it does or did exist, it certainly was never enforced. But for the refs to actually stop play to ask the Martin Stadium faithful to be quiet?? UNBELIEVABLE. Granted this happened in 1997, long before blogs that waste your time like this one were even thought of. If something like that happened today, it would be all over ESPN, Sportline, Cougfan, AOL Fanhouse, you name it! Whatever.

Anyway, I also remember a great 12-1 season in 1998, beating Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl and finishing #3 or #4 in several polls. Since then? Not so much. Not only do they have this bowl drought going on, but did you know they are the only Pac-10 team that hasn’t yet won the conference title? Granted they haven’t been in the conference too long, just since 1978, but still, it hasn’t been easy.

Which brings us to the coach that has redefined the hot seat – Mike Stoops. Over the last three or so seasons, Stoops has his name firmly planted on top of the annual “hot seat” lists. Win now, or else! But these last two years have seen a major escape by Stoops, who lives on to see yet another season. In 2006, they started out a miserable 2-4, and the clamour was rising that the time had come to pull the plug. But in somewhat-Oregon-State fashion, the ‘Cats circled the wagons, going 4-2 to finish the year at a bowl-eligible 6-6. Stoops was saved, the program was heading in the right direction, he finally had a non-losing season in year three of the rebuilding job. But then 2007 happened, and they were right back in 2006. This time they started out a lousy 2-6, and the obituary was being finalized in all the local rags. THERE WAS NO WAY HE’LL SURVIVE THIS ONE! But Arizona once again finished strong, winning three of their last four to finish 5-7. And Stoops, again, survives.

So, is this the end? 17-31 in four years would get you fired in a lot of places. After all, Doba took the fall with a much stronger 30-29 record. Yet here we are. Read on to see what 2008 looks like for the Mildcats:

2007: 5-7, 4-5 in the Pac-10. 3-1 finish to the year saves Stoops from the chopping block. Also ruined Oregon’s BCS hopes by beating down the Ducks, 34-24 in Tucson, where Dennis Dixon tore his ACL. Ouch.

OFFENSIVE SCHEME: PASS! That’s pretty much it. Spread ’em out and throw, throw, throw. It’s the Dykes offense, led by OC Sonny Dykes, who came from the Texas Tech Red Raider offense in 2007 to completely overhaul the snooze-fest that was the Arizona offense. QB Willie Tuitama had a fantastic first year in the new scheme, leading the conference in TD’s with 28, and second in the league with over 3600 yards passing. Overall, Arizona’s offense went from scoring just 16 points per game in 2006 to 28 points per game in 2007.

The running game, however, was brutal. 76.7 yards per game, #114 in the nation! They do have a talented sophomore tailback in Nic Grigsby, who had over 700 yards rushing (and he shredded our Cougs to the tune of 262 total yards, including 186 yards rushing and 76 yards receiving. Double-Ouch.).

TOP OFFENSIVE PLAYER: It has to be Willie Tuitama. The senior (wow, he’s a senior already?) took to the shotgun passing offense better than many thought he would. His numbers were great last year (3683 passing yards, 28-12 TD/INT ratio, 62% completion percentage, and a QB rating of 134.24). He’s got excellent size at 6-3, 220, and stayed healthy for the first time in 2007 after battling concussion problems in ’05 and ’06. He is the perfect fit in a quick-hitting passing attack. He should not only be an all-conference candidate, but he is a serious threat to the offensive player-of-the-year award in the Pac-10.

Sorry to do this…but…2007, Tuitama had his greatest game vs. our Cougs. 346 yards, FIVE TD’s, zero INT’s in a 48-20 rout in the desert.

The biggest concern for Pac-10 defenses? Arizona welcomes back a conference-high TEN starters on offense this fall. The only new starter is left tackle James Tretheway, but even he’s an experienced senior. Otherwise they are all back. They return at least six players who caught 20 or more balls last year, including the top WR in the conference in Mike Thomas. Thomas had 83 catches and 11 TD’s, but, clearly you can’t just focus on Thomas to slow them down.

The one to really keep an eye on is rising TE Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski had a huge game vs. WSU last year (then again, who on Arizona didn’t have a big game against us last year?), with 115 yards and two TD’s. The true frosh had over 500 yards receiving last year, and the 6-6, 260-pounder is a future all-everything performer who should be a force this season.

DEFENSIVE SCHEME: A 4-3 attack. They had been somewhat conservative on D, but this spring they have already stated they will blitz more than ever. An emphasis was placed on blitz packages, and a renewed focus on gang-tackling and everyone flying to the football.

TOP DEFENSIVE PLAYER: While senior free-safety Nate Ness led the team with five INT’s last year and returns as the leader of the secondary, the honors go to linebacker Ronnie Palmer.


Palmer was number two on the team with 83 tackles. He’s a big, 6-3, 245-lb physical force against the run and will compete for all-conference honors this year as the leader of the Arizona defense.

TOP SPRING QUESTIONS:

1) Yes, they will score points and rack up yards against pretty much everyone. But with only three starters back, can they stop anyone?

It is a daunting proposition to only have three defensive starters back. But the new focus this spring on blitzing and energy on defense was important. And, new faces might not be a bad thing in the grand scheme. Last year they returned an impressive nine starters on defense, but they underachieved for most of the season. They were 59th in scoring defense, and a disappointing 71st against the pass, despite having two NFL prospects with corners Antoine Cason and Wilrey Fontenot. Cason will especially be missed, a four-year starter who was a first-round pick in April. But again, fresh bodies could be the best thing to happen to the defense. Apparently there were issues last year, where some bad apples were rumored to spoil the whole thing.

2) They couldn’t run last year. Does it matter in their offense?

No matter how many yards and TD’s Tuitama hangs on people this year, you do at least need some semblance of a running game. 114th in the nation last year isn’t going to cut it this year, and could be the most underrated key to their offense this year. An aerial assault is fun to watch, but at times you have to have the ability to move the chains, or more importantly, devour some game clock if/when you have a late lead. Live by the pass, but you can die by the pass just as well. They do have the talent in Grigsby, who could be a 1,000-yard threat now that he has a full season under his belt. So it’s not like they don’t have the ability to run. They just need to figure it out.

WSU Football Blog Bottom Line: WSU will be getting Arizona on November 8th. Hope for the November chill and swirling winds to whip through the Palouse. Otherwise it could be a tough one. That said, we might be getting them at just the right time. They will be coming off a bye, but before that, they’ll be finishing a tough two-game home stretch vs. Cal (10/18) and the monster, USC, on 10/25. Also, the game after WSU, Arizona is set to go to Oregon on 11/15. Depending on how their season is going, it could be a serious trap game.

Why would I call WSU a “trap game” for Arizona? Because, well, I’m calling it right now – Arizona has the look of a real surprise team of 2008. Senior QB with a ton of starters back, a fresh look and new energy on defense, and most of all, the schedule?? CUP-CAKE CITY. How does Idaho, Toledo and New Mexico sound for an out-of-conference schedule to begin the year? With 12 games on the schedule, if they start out 3-0, as they should, they are halfway to bowl-eligibility.

At least Stoops better hope they are the surprise team. With all these factors in their favor, if they get ANOTHER non-bowl season?? It’s Good night, and good luck!

ENJOY YOUR TUESDAY!