UA Football Holiday Bowl Game Notes
Dec. 23, 2009
2009 Pacific Life Holiday Bowl
Arizona (8-4, 6-3 Pac-10) vs.
Nebraska (9-4, 6-2 Big 12)
Wednesday, December 30 | 5 p.m. (PT)
Qualcomm Stadium | San Diego, Calif.
Live TV Broadcast: ESPN
Television Talent: Chris Fowler (play-by-play); Craig James (color analyst); Jesse Palmer (color analyst); Erin Andrews (sideline)
UA English Radio: Wildcat Radio Network (Brian Jeffries, play-by-play; Lamont Lovette, color; Dana Cooper, sideline)
UA Spanish Radio: 990 A.M. ESPN Deportes (Francisco Romero, play-by-play; Marco Rincon, color)
Satellite Radio: SIRIUS 120; XM 140 (ESPN Radio Feed)
Some Bowl Themes: Two teams that literally came within seconds of championships and other post-season destiinations... The Cats enjoy a second consecutive bowl game after building to make it a regular feature under Mike Stoops... Two squads re-visit San Diego for a rematch of the 1998 Holiday Bowl, narrowly won by Arizona, 23-20... Arizona shoots for a nine-victory season, its first since that campaign (when the Cats finished 12-1 and No. 4 in the final AP poll)... Nebraska fights for a 10-victory year, its first since 2003... A meeting of friends in young big-time coaches Mike Stoops and Bo Pelini, who grew up on the same streets of Youngstown, Ohio, and broke into the trade as go-fers under Hayden Fry (inluding one overlapped year in 1991)... The Arizona camp anticipates its first view of all-everything NU senior defensive tackle Ndahmukong Suh, while offering up a pair of junior sack men of its own in Ricky Elmore and Earl Mitchell... Arizona sees what its offense can do against an opponent that sees similar stuff all the time in Big 12 action. Quarterback Nick Foles gets his first start against a non-league team after wresting the job for the fourth game of the year... NU's defense brings 19 picks to the table, ninth in the country and five off the pace as best in the land... Nebraska tests its power game against an Arizona defense that prides itself on stopping the run... A match of career 2,200-yard junior rushers in UA's Nic Grigsby and NU's Roy Helu... Electrifying return men in Arizona's Bug Wright/Travis Cobb and Nebraska's Niles Paul, who could be key while kickers contend with the December soup that can seep into Qualcomm at night... UA shoots for a fourth consecutive bowl victory (2-or-2 under Stoops) while NU tries for two straight and 2-for-2 under Pelini... Wildcat fans return to San Diego in the real offseason -- thousands of them of them visit every July and August as so-called 'Zonies...'
The Last Time Out: Arizona got itself to San Diego and the Pacific Life Holiday Bowl by earning a second consecutive road victory and taking down the Trojans, 20-17, on Dec. 5 in the L.A. Coliseum, to earn a piece of second place in the Pac-10. The winning points came off a 10-play, 80-yard drive and that says a lot about what Arizona did in the game. One notable feature was compiling 321 yards in offense against a good defense, and another was incorporating its own good defense to hold the Trojans to 282 yards. Arizona mustered only 82 rushing yards but Nick Foles outgunned Matt Barkley by a 239 to 144 edge in passing, plus two to one in scoring throws. That last was a nifty corner fade route by Juron Criner for 36 yards and the final score with 3:14 left. Having to play defense with the game on the line, the Cats came up with a sack by tackle Earl Mitchell and three incomplete passes. After trying to eat up all the clock at the USC 15-yard line including taking a delay-of-game penalty, USC got a final shot. But Mitchell notched another sack and the game was over. That earned him Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Week honors. Foles completed 22 of 40 throws and suffered one interception. His four-yard toss to Delashaun Dean opened the scoring and gave UA a 7-0 lead half way through the first period, and his quarterback sneak for a yard put UA up 14-7 at the half. The Trojans tied the game with a short-field drive in the third period, and took a lead with a field goal half way through the final period. But UA mustered the troops for the winning drive. The Cats spread out the heroes, with 51 yards rushing by Keola Antolin, six catches by Juron Criner and five apiece from Bug Wright and Dean. The UA offensive line did not give up a sack. Trevin Wade had nine tackles and his fifth interception of the year, Mitchell had six tackles including three for losses, and sub Marcus Benjamin made some stops in the late going filling in for Wade. Many other Arizona players showed up and in the end had more in the tank than USC's guys.
The Coaches: Arizona, Mike Stoops, 47, (Iowa '86), sixth year at Arizona (33-38) and sixth year overall as a head coach. The 2009 season is his 24th in coaching. He's sixth on the Arizona career coaching victories list, passing Jim Young a few victories back. His back-to-back eight-victory seasons are the first at UA since 1993-94. Stoops took a 2-10 program and rebuilt the Wildcats into an 8-5 bowl champion last December, and back to the national rankings this year after an eight-year hiatus. He carries a record of 22-28 in Pac-10 games and a 10-9 slate in non-conference games.. His teams are 21-18 in home games and 12-20 on the road. The Wildcats beat a ranked team in each of his first five seasons including a pair a year ago. Stoops was a UPI All-American as a senior and All-Big Ten pick his last two years as a Hawkeye in 1983-84. His coaching background as an assistant was all defense including eight seasons as a coordinator. Nebraska, Bo Pelini, 42, (Ohio State '90), second year at Nebraska (18-8) and second year overall as a head coach. He has been a defensive coach for most of his years in the trade dating to a graduate assistantship at Iowa (alongside Mike Stoops) in 1991. He coached in the NFL for nine years, was NU defensive coordinator for a year, Oklahoma DC for a year and LSU coordinator for three years before assuming the head role in Lincoln. Stoops and Pelini grew up in the same neightborhood in Youngstown, Ohio, and each are alums of Cardinal Mooney High School. Pelini was an LSU assistant when the Tigers took down Arizona in 2006 in Baton Rouge.
Late Season Success: Mike Stoops’ Wildcats have enjoyed a nice run of success in the months of November and December since his arrival in 2004 despite back-to-back losses at Cal and against Oregon State. A career record of 33-38 includes a 14-9 mark in the final two months of the season. Over the last three seasons, Arizona is 11-6 in such late-season games. But, perhaps most impressive, the Wildcats are 7-3 against ranked teams in November/December showdowns, , which includes last year’s Las Vegas Bowl win over BYU last December. This year, the Cats entered November with a national ranking of their own, but dropped from the polls after a loss at California. A victory at No. 20 USC vaulted the Cats back into the polls at the end of the regular season.
Overcoming Adversity: Arizona’s 8-4 mark this season is a credit to one of the deepest UA teams in recent memory, and that depth has been tested to the max this year. Among the issues the Cats have dealt with this year are: Losing All-American tight end Rob Gronkowski to a season-ending back injury prior to the season … The Wildcats played three consecutive road games, including trips to Iowa, Oregon State and Washington that spanned 7,116 round-trip miles and left UA without a home game for 35 days, the second-longest stretch in the nation … Arizona has trotted out five different starting offensive line combinations in 12 games … Over 50 players have suffered from the flu, with only a handful missing games, but nearly all missing 2-3 days of practice time … Running back Nic Grigsby, who suffered a sprained shoulder on his first carry at Oregon State, has been in and out of the lineup since late September, missing three full games. After carrying the ball 49 times for 400 yards in UA’s first three games, he has since carried just 26 times for 159 times in the team’s last nine games (with three missed games) … Keola Antolin, the team’s No. 2 runner entering the year, suffered through ankle problems early in the season forcing redshirt freshman Greg Nwoko to assume the No. 2 duties. He did so admirably until spraining his shoulder against UCLA and went on to since miss nearly all of two games, before returning against Oregon. Antolin has battled nagging injuries off and on since … Junior wide receiver Delashuan Dean, the team’s top returner at the position entering the year, missed all of fall camp with a hamstring injury, then suffered a concussion against NAU and later injured his ankle at Washington … ’08 sack leader Brooks Reed suffered a high ankle sprain at Iowa in Week 3 and did not return to his starting role until the Cal game in mid-November … Not to mention, a controversial deflected interception at Washington and an unfortunate batted pass at Cal stand between UA and a much prettier record … And lastly, UA entered the season having to replace the Pac-10’s all-time leading receiver in career receptions (Mike Thomas) and the school’s all-time leading passer (Willie Tuitama), along with a second round draft pick in tackle Eben Britton.
Cats in the Pac: Arizona’s 6-3 mark in the Pac-10 was its best since the 1998 and is the third six-win Pac-10 season in program history. The record gives the Wildcats 14 victories in their last 22 conference games, dating to the last four games of the 2007 season. That 14-8 record (0.636 winning percentage) is impressive by itself, but even in the Wildcats’ eight losses, they have been just a few plays away from winning each game. UA has lost five of the eight games by three points or less and by a total of 37 points (average of 4.6 per game).
Staring at the Stats: The Cats won't get there but are close to the season record for first downs. UA has 256 (21.3 per game), while the records are 287 (2008) and 22.4 ((1975)... Arizona's 2020 rushing yards are 39 shy of the Mike Stoops-era high of 2059 by last year's club. Those two figures will stand as the lone UA 2,000-yard clubs of the decade. Since it joined the Pac-10 for the 1978 season, Arizona's best season rushing total was 2,720 by the 1979 team... Assuming Arizona can pass for 137 yards against Nebraska, it would hit the 3,000-yard plateau, accomplished only three times in UA history -- in the past two years under QB Willie Tuitama and in 2002 under Jason Johnson. The 2007 club set the school record at 3,477 passing yards... The Cats need 117 yards in total offense to reach the 5,000-yard plateau, accomplished three times in school history -- 1998 and 1999, and last year. The pair to close the '90s came from QBs Keith Smith and Ortege Jenkins, and receivers Dennis Northcutt and Bobby Wade, and RB Trung Canidate. Willie Tuitama, Nic Grigsby, Mike Thomas and Rob Gronkowski had a big hand in last year's bundle... Arizona has six playes with 20 or more receptions, among its best diversification in history. The 2007 club had the most, eight, largely because a pair of running backs (Nic Grigsby-35 and Chris Jennings-27) posted big numbers out of the backfield...
Staring at Their Stats: Outscoring opponents by 173 points is a pile of ways to win ball games, as has Nebraska. The 11.2 points per game allowed makes the Huskers the top team in that category that UA faced during 2009... Nebraska's per-game total offense of 317 yards per game would have been No. 10 in the Pac-10... The Cornhuskers' 19 interceptions are more than any Pac-10 recorded (Arizona had 12). They recorded 259 yards in field position because of them... NU looks to get better as the going gets going, with nearly 100 points each in the second and fourth quarters... There appear to be a lot of whistle stops in Nebraska games this year, with 93 flags drawn by the Huskers and 82 by its opponents. NU was penalized for 839 yards. The first -- if it happens -- penalty in the Holiday Bowl and Nebraska ties its school record set last year... Ndahmukong Suh's 12 sacks fueled a team total of 42, 11 shy of the school record by the 1999 club... Field goals and PAT kicks account (95 points) for 30 percent of the Huskers' scoring in 2009. (Arizona scored 89 footers, 25 percent of its points)... The Huskers convert on third down at the same rate as Cal or Oregon (37%)... Nebraska's defense forced the opposition to punt 84 times, nearly 20 more than Arizona's defense did... Roy Helu's 1,139 rushing yards came at a superb clip, 5.2 yards, for a guy toting the orb 217 times. His year is very similar to that by uninjured Nic Grigsby of UA last year, with 214 totes for 1,153 markers... Paul Niles' 35 punt returns are eight shy of the school record set by DeJuan Groce in 2002... Nebraska tackled people behind the line 103 times for 395 yards in losses (Arizona 69-280), a substantial piece of real estate...
All-Pac-10 Honorees: A total of 10 Arizona football players were recognized by the Pacific 10 Conference on the All-Pac-10 teams announced Monday by the league office, but oddly none from the second-place team made a first team unit. Headlining the group are six players named to the All-Pac-10 Second Team. Defenders Cam Nelson, Earl Mitchell, Xavier Kelley and Trevin Wade represent the Pac-10’s second-ranked total defense, a group that checks in No. 21 nationally. On offense, linemen Colin Baxter and Adam Grant earned high praise for a unit that has allowed the second fewest sacks in the league. Also receiving notice by Pac-10 were quarterback Nick Foles, defensive end Ricky Elmore, cornerback Devin Ross and linebacker Vuna Tuihalamaka as Honorable Mention selections. The All-Pac-10 teams are selected by the Pac-10 football head coaches.
Points on the Polls: Arizona re-entered the major top 25 polls this week, putting itself among some familiar teams. The Wildcats played five teams that finished the regular season in the AP Top 25 (No. 7 Oregon, No. 10 Iowa, No. 16 Oregon State, No. 19 Stanford and No. 25 Central Michigan) accumulating a 3-2 record against those schools … Not included in the group is USC, who was ranked at the time of UA’s game in L.A. to close the regular season. The Cats’ 21-17 upset knocked the Trojans out of the AP Top 25 Poll for the first time in 130 polls, a school-record streak … Arizona also played a road game at California, which was not ranked at the time of the game but thanks to a 24-16 win over then-No. 18 Arizona, the Golden Bears re-entered the Top 25 for three weeks prior to losing the season finale at Washington.
Strength of Schedule: Arizona’s best regular season record (8-4) since the 1998 season has come against one of the toughest schedules in the nation. The NCAA rated UA’s strength of schedule as the 16th-toughest in the nation based on cumulative opposition, trailing only Oregon (No. 14) in the Pac-10. The Wildcats’ opponents accumulated an 80-52 record on the season. Arizona’s non-conference schedule included the Big Ten runner-up, Iowa, and the Mid-American Conference champion, Central Michigan, a team that won at Michigan State this season. UA’s impressive mark also included a nine-game Pac-10 schedule, including five on the road. The Pac-10 is the only league in the nation to play nine conference games, and this season six of those opponents for UA became bowl-eligible, with five posting eight-win seasons overall. In all, the Wildcats faced eight bowl-eligible teams and seven teams that reached at least eight wins during the regular season.
Stingy Defense: The Arizona defense doesn’t make a lot of headlines and has earned the nickname of the “No Name Defense” over the last two seasons. But the unit has quietly performed as one of the nation’s best. The Wildcats finished No. 24 in the nation a season ago in total offense (313.0 yards per game) and ranks in a similar position this season. Currently, Arizona checks in at No. 21 in the country by allowing 315.8 yards per game. Helping UA’s cause is a run defense that ranks No. 22 with 111.9 yards per game allowed, while UA’s front seven have created havoc in passing situations. Led by junior DE Ricky Elmore (10.5 sacks, 11.5 TFL) and DT Earl Mitchell (6.5 sacks, 12.5 TFL), Arizona ranks No. 12 in the nation with 34 sacks (2.83 per game). The staunch run defense has forced opposing teams into third-and-long situations when the big boys up front can pin their ears back and get after the passer. That has helped the Cats limit opposing teams to a 33.5 conversion rate on third down, which checks in at No. 20 in the country. Because of that, opponents are averaging just 16.9 first downs per game, another Top 20 mark (No. 20).
Sack Master: Defensive end Ricky Elmore has turned in a breakout junior season as he has emerged as the Pac-10’s sack leader over. Through 12 games, Elmore has tallied a career-high 10.5 sacks in much-needed fashion as classmate Brooks Reed struggled through the early-middle portion of the schedule with an ankle injury. Reed returned this year as one of the more heralded ends in the league, but Elmore has more than filled in on the opposite side. Elmore’s 10.5 sacks are the most for a Wildcat in a decade, surpassing Joe Tafoya’s 10.0 set back in 1999. The next best total is 11.5 by Joe Salave’a in 1997. Then it’s Tedy Bruschi’s 14.5 and 19.0 totals in the 1995 and 1993 seasons, respectively.
Return Artists: UA return specialists Travis Cobb (kickoffs) and Bug Wright (punts) are etching their names into the UA record books for their return prowess. Cobb has 729 kickoff return yards, which has surpassed Chuck Levy’s 682 yards in 1991, the previous single-season record at Arizona. Cobb, with help from a few others who have returned kicks, put this UA squad within reach of the school’s record for most yards gained per return. Averaging 25.5 yards per kickoff return, the Cats will need Cobb or someone else to break off another big-time return to reach the 1935 team’s 27.2 yards per return. In the meantime, Wright has made his presence felt returning punts. Wright led the nation with a 19.2 yards per return average entering the final week of the regular season, but dropped from the rankings after not qualifying with enough returns per game. That is based on 1.2 return per game, and he has 11 in 12 games played by the Cats. Should Wright find a way to get his attempts up while maintain his average, he will break the school record held by Dennis Northcutt who averaged 18.9 yards per punt return on 23 returns in 1999.
All-Purpose Yards: The Wildcats are averaging 538.0 all-purpose yards per game (includes all returns with total offense). The figure is the second-best in the Mike Stoops era and a 205-yard improvement from the low set in 2006 (332.2 all-purpose yards per game). Each of the three teams since ’06 have hit 530-yards per game or better. Much of the credit has to go to Sonny Dykes for revamping the offensive attack, but it’s also a tribute to UA’s dangerous kick and punt return units. In 2007, Antoine Cason returned two punts for touchdowns and Mike Thomas followed suit with a pair last year. This year, Bug Wright (punt) and Travis Cobb (kickoff) have scores on returns. The 1999 squad posted a 577.3 yards per game average one season after the ’98 club averaged 554.5, two marks better than the recent ones.
B2B Road Wins: The Wildcats finished the regular season winning back-to-back true road games in consecutive weeks for the first time in school history. The historical games included a 20-17 last-second victory at Arizona State and a 21-17 come-from-behind win at USC. There have been only a handful of seasons in which the Wildcats closed regular seasons with a pair of road games, including 1999, 1993, 1987 and 1971 in the mostly modern era of football. The school did the same in the 1951 and 1952 seasons, and the first such instance came in the 1932 season. In the 1910’s and 1920’s, Arizona did play several neutral site games paired with a road game to end seasons. But no matter how you look at it, this year’s accomplishment is pretty rare.
2K/3K/5K Notes: The Wildcats have rushed for 2,010 in 2009, and so long as they don’t lose a net 11 yards or more against Nebraska, will finish with back-to-back 2,000-yard rushing seasons for the first time since 1998-99 (UA rushed for 2,059 in 2008). Prior to that, one has to go back to the 1986-91 seasons to find a string of consecutive 2,000-yard seasons on the ground … On the other hand, the Cats need just 120 passing yards to reach 3,000 yards passing in the season. Only three teams in school history have done so, including the last two (2007 and 2008 with Willie Tuitama) and the 2002 club (Jason Johnson at QB) … With 4,890 yards of total offense, UA is closing in on the 5,000-yard milestone for only the fourth time in school history. The 1998-99 squads did it and so did last year’s Las Vegas Bowl championship team.
Defense Wins Games: A Key to the Wildcats’ success this season has been the play of their top 25 defense through out the season. In games the Wildcats have won, the UA defense has limited opponents to an average of 18.4 points per game compared to an average 32.8 ppg in the team’s four losses. But taking even a closer look at the UA defense in the Cats’ wins you will find six pretty dominating efforts. UA’s defense held six opponents to 17 points or less on the season, including Central Michigan (6), Northern Arizona (17), UCLA (13), Washington State (7), Arizona State (17) and USC (17). That is a 6-0 mark on the season when holding opposing team’s to 17 points or less.
100 Rushing Yards? The net rushing yards column has been a pretty good indicator of the outcome of UA’s games this season, notably when it comes to the opposition’s success – or lack thereof. The Wildcats are 5-0 when holding an opponent under 100 rushing yards. On the flip side, the Wildcats are just 1-2 on the season when they fail to rush for 100 yards on the ground. UA has rushed for an impressive 4.9 yards per carry as a team in 2009, while opponents have managed just 3.8 ypc.
Fun Foles Facts: Despite not starting the first three games of the season, Nick Foles has quickly put himself on many UA single-season passing charts, while even inching towards some career marks: Foles, who has thrown a TD pass in 11 of 12 games this year, has 19 on the season. That total is tied for fourth-most for a season at Arizona, but it also is just one shy of the No. 10 spot for a career, held by Bill Demory (1970-72) and Marc Reed (1966) who each had 20 … Foles’ 66.1 percent completion percentage would be just short of being the best ever for a UA quarterback should it hold up, narrowly behind Keith Smith’s 68.5 percent marksmanship in 1998. The difference is Foles already has more completions (251) than Smith had attempts (165) … Speaking of completions, the 251 he has this year already are the third-most in a single season at UA, while his 380 attempts are fourth-most … Foles has a pass efficiency rating of 132.2 is just outside the top 10 … Foles’ 2,437 passing yards in ’09 check in at No. 6 for a season, just 37 yards short of Tom Tunnicliffe’s 2,474 in 1984 … His 2,382 total offense yards are sixth-most in a single season … Foles' 415 yards passing against Stanford rates No. 8 in Arizona single-game passing history, while his 420 yards in total offense in the game rank sixth on the UA chart. His 40 completions rank as the No. 2 figure in history behind Willie Tuitama's 42 at California in 2007... Foles and SU's Andrew Luck combined for an Arizona combo record of 62 pass completions, besting the 60 tossed by Keith Smith (25)and Pat Barnes (35) of California in the first quadruple overtime game in NCAA history at Berkeley in 1996... Foles set a school record for pass completion percentage (78.4) for games with 20, 30 and 40 completions. Tom 'Terrific' Tunnicliffe hit 78.0 (21-for-27) against Pacific in 1982, Willie Tuitama hit 74.5 (38-for-51) at Washington in 2007 and Willie hit 68.9 (42-for-61) at Cal in 2007.
Touchdown Trends: The 2008 Arizona Wildcats became the first UA team to score at least 20 rushing touchdowns and 20 passing touchdowns in the same season (33 rush, 24 pass) since the school joined the Pac-10 in 1978. This year’s squad could repeat the feat as UA has 19 rushing and 20 passing touchdowns to date. Interestingly, only eight UA teams (including the ’08 and now ‘09 squads) balanced even 15 rushing TDs with 15 passing TDs in the same season.
Fast Starts: In the last two seasons, the Wildcats have developed a knack for fast starts to games and halves. In 2009, the Wildcats are outscoring their opponents 105-48 in the first quarter of games and 77-46 in the third quarter. Combined with the 2008 season, those numbers are even more impressive. UA has outscored opponents 197-110 in the first quarter of its last 25 games, and 205-100 in the third quarter of those games. What does it mean? Either the Wildcats thrive playing fully rested or perhaps game plans and coaching adjustments are spot-on and the players are executing those plans.
Strong Finish Up Front: Arizona’s unheralded defensive line finished the regular season on an impressive six-game tear where it controlled opposing offensive lines and helped produce negative yardage plays. In the final six games, UA recorded 46 tackles for loss and tallied 20 sacks. In the first half of the season, the Cats had just 23 tackles for loss and 14 sacks. On the season, UA’s defensive line players accumulated 37.5 tackles for loss and 22.5 sacks, playing a much more prominent role in producing negative yardage plays for opponents than recent UA defensive lines (ex: 30 TFL, 15.5 sacks from the group in 13 games in 2009).
Fanatical Cats: Arizona football fans gobbled up the school’s allotment of 11,000 tickets within 48 hours of the official announcement that the Wildcats would play in the Holiday Bowl against Nebraska. The support and excitement for this year’s Holiday Bowl is consistent with what UA has seen from its fans in recent years under head coach Mike Stoops. Since Stoops took over in 2004, Arizona has averaged over 50,000 fans at Arizona Stadium (capacity 57,400) in each season, the longest stretch of 50K+ attendance seasons in school history. The 2006 (2nd, 55,798), 2005 (4th, 53,613), 2009 (6th, 52,555) and 2008 (7th, 52,440) seasons have filled four of the school’s all-time top seven season-per-game attendance figures.
Difference Between W’s and L’s: The Wildcats have scored an average of 31.1 points per game in their eight wins, but just 26.8 in their four losses … Opponents have scored 32.8 points per game in UA losses while posting just 18.4 points in the eight UA wins … The Cats have rushed for 198.1 yards per game in their eight wins, but managed just 106.2 ypg on the ground in the losses … Opponents have rushed for 92.9 yards per game in eight losses to the Cats, while rushing for 150.0 in games the Cats have lost … UA converts 47 percent of its third downs in wins, but only 36 percent in losses … Opponents manage a 42 percent success rate on third down when defeating UA, but struggle at 29 percent in losses … Opponents score touchdowns in the red zone 58 percent of the time (14-24) when the Wildcats win, but improve to 67 percent (8-12) when defeating UA … Arizona has just eight sacks (2.0 per game) in four losses, but has 26 (3.25) in eight wins … The Wildcats have allowed only two sacks in eight wins this season, but have surrendered eight sacks in four losses … UA has been penalized just 37.1 yards per game in its wins, while giving up 59.2 yards per game in penalties in losses …. UA owns a 33:13-26:46 edge in time of possession in wins, but barley edges opponents in losses, 30:26-29:34 … The Wildcats have lost the cumulative turnover battle (7-5) in losses, but have profited in the wins (12-14).
Ball Control: Arizona ranks No. 12 in the nation and second in the Pac-10 in time of possession, possessing the ball for an average of 32:18 per game. The Wildcats are averaging 21.4 first downs per game (No. 29 in nation) and running an average of 71.9 players per game, the third-best mark in the conference. A key has been eliminating negative plays and UA ranks highly in couple categories that indicate that. The Cats have allowed 4.0 tackles for loss and 0.92 sacks per game, figures that rank No. 8 and No. 10 in the nation, respectively, for fewest per game. On the defensive side of the ball, UA ranks No. 20 in the nation for defensive third down efficiency (33.54 percent), No. 20 in fewest first downs allowed (16.92 per game) and No. 12 in sacks (2.83 per game).
Three-and-Out Defense: The Wildcat defense has been strong in third-down situations during the 2009 season, allowing teams to convert only 34 percent of their third down opportunities. More importantly, UA has been quick to force teams off the field after a quick three-and-out series. The Wildcat defense ranks 10th in the nation for most three-and-outs per game, narrowly trailing Holiday Bowl opponent Nebraska, which checks in at No. 9. This is certainly an area to watch in the game.
Score Now, Score Later, Keep Scoring: Arizona has shown its consistency on offense in more than just a solid balance of rushing and passing success. It’s been consistent in scoring throughout games, adding here and there. It’s been best out of the gate, picking up 105 points in the first period, followed by 78, 77 and 86 in the next three quarters in order. (plus 10 in two overtimes). Overall, the 29.7 points per game rank as the No. 6 per-game figure in Arizona football history. Sonny Dykes’ offense also generated another top figure, the 36.6 from a year ago that rates. No. 2. The Cats are among national teams that do well in generating points in each quarter.
Where They Come From: The Cats’ depth chart for the Pacific Life Holiday Bowl has some decided emphasis – two states of the Union. The bulk are 23 players from California and 16 from Texas, with four Arizonans, a pair of players from Hawaii and Nevada, and one each from New York, Washington, North Carolina and Louisiana. The two-state focus mirrors where the early years’ recruiting efforts have focused under Mike Stoops.
Not To Be Offensive: Over the course of the last 36 games, Arizona has scored 13 non-offensive touchdowns (once every 2.77 games). It’s a big-play component that has combined with the offensive surge since Sonny Dykes took the controls of the Wildcat offense. In 2007 and 2008, the Wildcats scored on two punt returns and two interception returns in each season. This year, Travis Cobb has scored on a kickoff return (95 yards), Bug Wright has returned a punt to the house (86 yards), Orlando Vargas has blocked a punt and returned it for a score (23 yards), while defensive backs Trevin Wade (38 yards) and Robert Golden (79 yards) have pick-six’s.
Surprise Factor: A couple of Arizona players popped out of relative obscurity to help the club win eight games. Among them: sophomore wide receiver David Roberts, who coaches had no clue would step up and catch 43 passes... freshman running back Taimi Tutogi, whose physical readiness put him in the picture right off the bat in camp, and who contributed in the running game as a blocker... senior offensive guard Herman Hall, who got an opportunity after an injury and took advantage of it to cement a place up front, starting on both sides... sophomore kicker John Bonano, who walked on and eventually took over kickoff duties in game six when ST coach Jeff Hammerschmidt said 'go in and kick, now'... mid-year junior transfer Marcus Benjamin, forced into cornerback duty at USC when Trevin Wade went down with a concussion, and made a handful of plays to help win the game... To some extent, even some expected contributors ratcheted up the contributions: Soph corner Wade, slated to be the guy after spring ball, showed his four picks in mopup duty in '08 weren't a fluke by showing a nose for the ball with five more in '09; and soph quarterback Nick Foles, who showed poise as a sideline guy for four games before taking the reins and letting them loose... The good notions behind these notes are recruiting and player development. Arizona's program has shown it is successful in both.
Sitting Out or Dropping In: The Wildcats redshirted 18 scholarship players this year, including 10 on offense and eight on defense. One who did not play was sophomore All-America tight end Rob Gronkowski, who is said to have the talent to forego a four-year career anyway. The program has reached the point where depth has improved dramatically and affords young players the time to physically develop. The Cats did use true freshmen this year in safety Adam Hall and linebacker Jake Fischer on special teams, receiver Terrence Miller and H-back Taimi Tutogi. Other first-year players in the program who saw action were juco WR/return man Travis Cobb, walk-on kickoff specialist John Bonano, juco DB/special teams player Lyle Brown, mid-year juco OT Jack Julsing and juco LB/special teams player C.J. Parish.
The Future, In Case You Wondered: Arizona ought to be pretty good in 2010. The Wildcats are expected to return 20 players off the offensive depth chart and 15 off the defensive depth chart. Plus its punter, field goal specialist and kickoff man. That doesn't incude All-America tight end Rob Gronkowski, who may return after missing this, his junior year, with a back injury. (His decision would be based on NFL projections -- and known by the end of January -- not necessarily on his health (which is expected to be fine). Among the returnees are at least eight starters on offense and some experienced depth and four key starters on defense. Offensively, playmakers back are QB Nick Foles;, RBs Nic Grigsby, Keola Antolin and Greg Nwoko; and receivers Juron Criner, Delashaun Dean, Bug Wright and David Roberts. Leaders up front will include center Colin Baxter, tackle Adam Grant and guard Vaughn Dotsy. Defensively, ends Ricky Elmore and Brooks Reed, defensive backs Trevin Wade and Robert Golden, and tackle Lolomana Mikaele will have to spearhead the progress of surrounding young guys (who have developed nicely). Kick returners Bug Wright and Travis Cobb can sparkle. A number of promising redshirts and wait-in-wings guys should be ready. If Arizona repeats somewhere near its No. 8 spot in the Pac-10 preseason media poll for 2009, you might say NO ONE WOULD BE PAYING ATTENTION.
Pitching the Shutout: While UA has not shut out an opponent in a game this season, it has shut out three teams in the first halves of games. The Cats held Central Michigan scoreless in the first half of the season opener and smothered Washington State on Homecoming, blanking the Cougars for the first three periods. UA added a third first half shut out at Arizona State on Nov. 28. What was notable about that performance was that it marked the first time the Cats shut out an opponent in the opening half of a road game since doing so at Stanford on Sept. 30, 2000.
Zendejas on Point: Somewhat quietly, Alex Zendejas has turned in an impressive year for a place kicker. Zendejas has connected on 17-of-22 field goals, including a career-long 47-yarder at the end of the first half against Oregon and a game-winning 32-yarder as time expired against ASU (named Pac-10 Special teams Player of the Week for the game-winner). He’s missed three PATs, but still has hit 38-of-41, giving him 89 points on the year. He is tied with uncle Max’s 89 points in the 1985 season, which is the No. 10 mark for a single season for scoring (all players). In 2007, Jason Bondzio became the first UA kicker to reach 100. Alex’s four field goals in four tries at Washington tied the school record for which he already grabbed a share. He hit on relative chip shots of 18, 23, 29 and 24 yards against the Huskies. For his effort, Zendejas was named one of three “Stars of the Week” by the Lou Groza Collegiate Place Kicker Award. He opened the season 4-for-5 against Central Michigan to join four other former Wildcats with four in a game. His UW performance also gave him a piece of the 4-for-4 single-game high-percentage mark held by the same four kickers (Doug Pfaff vs. Stanford 1989, Max Zendejas at LSU 1984, Charlie Gorham vs. Indiana 1973 and Steve Jurley vs. UTEP 1968). Collegefootballperformance.com gave Alex its honorable mention PK of the Week honor.
Big Earl: One of the steadiest performers on UA’s defense in 2009 has been senior tackle Earl Mitchell, an individual who excels in all phases of the program. In his second season as a starting lineman following his switch from FB/HB on offense, Mitchell has become a load for opposing teams to handle up front. On the season, he has 44 tackles, including 6.5 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss, and he has forced one fumble. He was named to the All-Pac-10 Second Team. In his career, Mitchell has 83 tackles, 8.0 sacks and 18.0 tackles for loss. As a true freshman in 2006, Mitchell debuted as a fullback/H-back, where he remained for two seasons. He caught 14 passes for 174 and two touchdowns on offense, and had four carries for seven yards. He has been selected to participate in the East/West Shrine Game in January and was also named a winner of the National Academic Momentum Award. The award is administered by the Scholar-Baller Program in conjunction with the National Consortium for Academics and Sports (NCAS). Mitchell, an interdisciplinary studies major from Houston, was named the male Western region honoree among 22 female and male student-athletes from 10 regions picked for the award.
Horton Hears a 'Who?:' Arizona senior defensive tackle Donald Horton notched two sacks at ASU in November, his second and third of the year, and third and fourth in his career. The 6-foot, 290-pound graduate will complete his fifth year in the program this month and turned in two solid years as a regular on the interior front. He has 22 tackles this year, one more than his 2008 total in six starts. Horton has played in 42 career games, all 12 this year as the starter.
Introducing Mr. Criner: Sophomore wide receiver Juron Criner has emerged as Arizona’s top-big play threat in 2009, despite starting just four games. At 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, Criner has the size, strength and speed that makes him a mismatch for nearly any defense. He leads the Wildcats with 579 receiving yards despite hauling in four fewer passes (43 total) than teammate and Terrell Turner. His 13.5 yards per reception is tops on the team for players averaging at least one catch per game. But, perhaps most impressive about Criner’s numbers is the fact that 27 of his 43 receptions (62.8 percent) have resulted in a first down or touchdown (9). His nine receiving touchdowns are more than twice as many as the next top target, Turner, and he has 10 in his career. Criner is one TD grab away from hitting UA’s career receiving TD chart, which begins with Vance Johnson at No. 11 (11 TDs). Junior tight end Rob Gronkowski, who is out for the season, is tied for seventh with 16 TD catches. Criner’s ’09 season tally for TDs is tied for fifth in UA history with Dennis Northcutt and Jeremy McDaniel.
Century Club: The Arizona defense features four players with over 100 career tackles, paced by senior free safety Cam Nelson who has 198 career stops. Next in line is cornerback Devin Ross with 147, followed closely by linebacker Xavier Kelley, who has 140. Nickleback Corey Hall, a key defense player who has 12 career starts, has 110 tackles as a part-time player. Linebacker Sterling Lewis is poised to be the next Cat to join the club, as he is seven shy with 95 tackles. Vuna Tuihalamaka has 91, while Earl Mitchell has 83.
Chart Watchers: Senior WR Terrell Turner, who has a streak of 17-consecutive games with a catch snapped at USC, has 141 in his career, which puts him alone at No. 5 in UA history. Turner would need a 12-catch game in his finale to catch ‘T’ Bell’s 153, which rank No. 4 … Junior WR Delashaun Dean has quietly moved into the No. 7 spot for career receptions at UA, hauling in 129 grabs. Two more will tie him for the No. 6 spot, held by Syndric Steptoe (131 – 2003-06) … Junior RB Nic Grigsby’s next rushing touchdown will move him into a tie for No. 4 all-time at Arizona. Grigsby, who has 20 rushing scores in his career, is one shy of Ontiwaun Carter’s 21, set from 1991-94 … Grigsby ranks eighth on UA’s career rushing yardage chart with 2,416 yards, which is 214 shy of Clarence Farmer’s career tally (2,630 – 2000-03).
Steady TT: With his nine-catch, 101-yard performance against Stanford, senior wide receiver Terrell Turner moved past Richard Dice for seventh place in Arizona history for career receptions. Since, Turner has moved up to No. 5 with 141 catches for 1,584 yards in his career. He is just 49 yards shy of breaking into UA’s top 10 for career receiving yards. He pushed his receiving TD tally to nine with a score against the Cougars and stands three shy of hitting the career top 10 in the respective category. He leads the team in receptions with 47 for 450 yards and four scores in 2009.
Return Game: One of the area's the Wildcats have shown significant improvement from a year ago is in the kickoff return game. In 2008, the Wildcats ranked No. 105 among all FBS teams. Through 12 games, UA has upped its 19.3 average from a year ago all the way up to 25.5 yards per return, good enough for No. 11 in the nation and second in the conference. Travis Cobb leads the way with a 26.0 yards per return average, including a 95-yard touchdown return that ended a drought of 136 games between kickoff return touchdowns for Arizona. On the flip side, UA has limited opponents to just 20.5 yards per return.
Just What D.R. Ordered: Sophomore wide receiver Dave Roberts has emerged as a key weapon for the Wildcats in his sophomore season. Against Washington, Roberts led all receivers with 12 receptions for 138 yards. The dozen grabs tied with eight other players for second-most in a single game at Arizona, while the 138 yards were the most for a UA receiver in 2009 (until Juron Criner hauled in 152 yards worth of passes against Stanford). Roberts is the Cats’ second-leading receiver by reception tally with 43 on the season for 410 yards, and he tallied his first career touchdown grab against Huskies. His emergence has helped fill the void left by Mike Thomas, the Pac-10’s all-time reception leader who is now starring for the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sundays. OF his 43 receptions, 21 have resulted in a first down (48.8 percent).
Making them Work: The Arizona defense allowed just seven scoring plays of over 20 yards on the season and just two over 30 yards. What does that mean? It means that the Wildcats have made opponents work for their points. In fact, only five touchdown drives by opponents covered less than 50 yards. On average, opponents had to cover 66.5 yards on each touchdown drive during the season, including 17 of 29 total drives going for 70 yards or more. More times than not, teams aren’t able to string multiple long drives together in the course of the game because of the amount of discipline and patience it takes. Plus, the more plays the offense runs on a drive, the more opportunities for turnovers or penalties to stall a drive. The formula has worked for the Wildcats this year.
Wright Way to Finish: Sophomore wide receiver Bug Wright’s late-season emergence in the offense and punt return game has helped spark the Wildcats. After missing nearly three full games (and a bye week) following arthroscopic knee surgery in late September, Wright has been one of the Cats’ most explosive players over the final six games of the season. In those games, Wright has hauled in 20 catches for 201 yards and a touchdown, including breakout performances against nationally-ranked opponents Oregon (5 receptions for 73 yds, TD, 4 punt returns for 44 yards) and USC(5 receptions for 66 yards). He had an 86-yard punt return for a TD against Washington State, which helped push him into the national lead for average punt return yards by the final week of the regular season. However, with zero punt returns at USC, he fell out of the individual rankings because he does not have 1.2 return tries per game.
Sound in the Kicking Game: In recent years, Arizona has enjoyed a solid run of success in the kicking game. Alex Zendejas, who handles PAT/FGs this year, has filled in admirably behind predecessors Jason Bondzio (2007-08) and current Dallas Cowboy Nick Folk (2005-06). Zendejas has knocked home 17-of-22 field goal tries, with a long of 47. That combines with Bondzio and Folk for a very steady five-year span. Since the start of the 2005 season, Arizona has drilled 57-of-73 (78%) field goals. During that span, UA’s 57 made field goals haven’t just been chip-shots, as they have totaled 2,510 yards – or 33.9 yards per make. The Wildcats have seen 97 percent (188-194) of their PAT kicks successfully made during the four-year span. Zendejas has three of the six misses this season.
Well Grounded: Arizona quarterback Matt Scott, who started the first three games of the season, brings more of a run option behind center than his teammate Nick Foles. On 63 career carries, he's accumulated 493 rushing yards and two touchdowns. That's a heady 7.8 yards per carry. He has seen some spot-duty as a change-of-pace guy since Foles took over as the starter, and has totaled 305 rushing yards in 2009. His efforts this year stack up favorably with previous UA signal-callers who could run a little bit. Here’s a look:
Unlucky 13: For some reason, UA receivers in recent seasons haven’t been able to reach the elusive No. 13 for single game receptions. The number is significant because no player has ever finished a game at Arizona with 13 catches. In 1996, Jeremy McDaniel eclipsed the mark by hauling in 14 passes for 283 yards (another school record). Since, UA receivers have snared 12 catches a total of six times. Bobby Wade hit the dozen mark in 2002, while Mike Thomas did so twice in 2007. A season ago, Rob Gronkowski caught 12 passes in a game at Oregon, while teammate Dave Roberts did so this year on the road at Washington. Juron Criner is the latest Wildcat to join mix, pulling in 12 grabs for 152 against Stanford. In all, eight single game performances have fallen one catch shy of 13 in UA history.
IN“T” Wade: Sophomore cornerback Trevin Wade snagged his fifth interception of the year in the first quarter at USC to set up UA’s opening scored. Wade ranks second in the Pac-10 and No. 19 in the nation with 0.42 interceptions per game. A backup to Marquis Hundley and current mate Devin Ross a year ago as a redshirt freshman, Wade has blossomed into a ball-hawking cover man with some serious smarts. He has nine career picks in just 13 career starts. Wade has 14 passes defended on the season, which is good enough for No. 16 in the country. He has two career double-pick games, one last year against Idaho and one against Northern Arizona this year. Additionally he is in the Top 5 on the team with 66 tackles.
“Cam”araderie: A senior-laden defense includes free safety Cam Nelson, one of the leaders of the tight-knit unit. A two-year starter at strong safety, Nelson moved to free safety prior to the start of his senior campaign. The move seems to have paid off as Nelson checks in fifth on the squad with 64 tackles, including 6.0 for loss, three forced fumbles and three sacks. Against Cal, he snared his first career interception and he was named Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Week following his six-tackle, two-sack and two-forced fumble game against UCLA.
Running to Pay Dirt: Nic Grigsby's three-yard TD run against CMU extended the Cats' streak for consecutive games with a rushing touchdown to 14, surpassing the 1998-99 streak of 13 games. UA rushed for scores in all 13 games in 2008, marking the first time a Wildcat squad had done so since the 1998 season. The '99 club added a rushing TD in the opener before seeing the streak end at 13 one week later. The Cats extended the streak to 15 games, but saw the run snapped at Iowa. Since, UA has found paydirt on the ground in nine consecutive games, giving UA a streak of 24 rushing TDs in the last 25 games.
Gronkowski Out for Year: Arizona junior tight Rob Gronkowski, who missed most of the full-action drills in fall training camp and the first three games with back trouble, will not play this season, Coach Mike Stoops announced following the Iowa game. Gronkowski was a third-team AP All-American as a sophomore and a top preseason candidate for the John Mackey Award this year. He also is the reigning first-team All-Pacific-10 Conference man at his position.
30 Is (Usually) The Magic Number: The Cats’ loss to Oregon in double overtime and their 36-33 loss to Washington on Oct. 10 was a rare one. Since joining the Pac-10 in 1978, the Wildcats have played 111 games in which they have scored 30 or more points. Their record in those games? An astounding 99-11-1. That record included a streak of 18 consecutive victories prior to the Oregon game in 2008 (55-45 loss), and UA is now 20-3 under Mike Stoops. Arizona was 8-1 in such games in 2008 and is 4-2 in 2009.
If Not 30, Try 40: If Arizona's .892 winning percentage since 1978 when scoring 30 or more points isn't enough, then try out a 40+ point stat. In its entire history of football, Arizona is 110-5 when scoring 40 or more points in a game, something it did in four home games a year ago. As you might expect, Arizona was 4-0 in those games. What you might not know is that the last time UA reached the mark four times in one season was in 1954, when it did so six times. In 2009, the Wildcats have reached 40 points three times with a 2-1 record in those games. The loss? A 44-41 double overtime victory by Oregon. Amazingly, the Ducks also dropped the Cats the year prior, 55-45, in Eugue, accounting for two of the five all-time losses.
Sub-200: The Wildcats' defense has been a nightmare for opposing offenses, particularly when it comes to moving the football. In its last 25 games, the UA defense has held five opponents under 200 total yards in a game, the most recent being Washington State (42 plays – 185 yards on Nov. 7). The stat is even more impressive when compared to previous UA clubs, as the Wildcats have accomplished the feat just six other times in the last 12 seasons. The Cats stifled Central Michigan (182 yards) in the '09 opener, just one year after holding Idaho (112 yards), UCLA (196 yards) and Arizona State (162) under the 200-yard mark. Previously, in 2006 UA had a superlative effort at Stanford and held the Cardinal to 32 plays and a total of 52 yards, the Cats' Pac-10 -game record. That season UA held Stephen F. Austin to 50 plays and 196 yards. In 2005 Arizona held Stanford to 58-195. In 2000 the Cats held San Diego State to 66-196. In 1998, the 12-1 team held Oregon State to 54-167 and Hawaii to 60-176.
The 40 Club: Arizona has six veteran seniors -- all defenders -- who have played in 40 or more games, led by safety Cam Nelson and nickelback Corey Hall with 49 GPs apiece. Cornerback Devin Ross (48), linebacker Xavier Kelley (48), tackle Earl Mitchell (48) and tackle Donald Horton (45). Nelson (37) and Mitchell (36) lead in starts. They played as true freshmen, as did Ross. Horton and Kelley already have their college degrees. On offense, senior receiver Terrell Turner leads with 43 games played (32 starts). Junior center Colin Baxter has played in 36 games, with 36 starts, ahead of his position predecessor and current reserve senior Blake Kerley (32 GP, 29 starts). A knee injury caused Kerley to miss the last two-thirds of last season, and gave Baxter a chance to shine.
Cats in the Polls: On Oct. 25, the Cats joined the AP Top 25 poll for the first time since the 2000 season, at No. 23. This week the Cats are 21 in AP and 19 in the USA Today coaches poll. UA was last ranked at No. 24 (AP) on Oct. 22, 2000, but lost to UCLA, 27-24, to drop out of the polls. UA stayed unranked for 104 games until the victory over UCLA brought the Cats back into some national limelight. UA checked in at No. 22 last month in the first BCS rankings of the season. Arizona in the 2009 polls:
Oct. 18 – No. 22, BCS
Oct. 25 – No. 23 AP, No. 24 USA Today, No. 20 BCS
Nov. 1 – No. 21 AP, No. 19 USA Today, No. 18 BCS
Nov. 8 – No. 18 AP, No. 19 USA Today, No. 17 BCS
Nov. 15 – Not ranked
Nov. 22 – Not ranked
Nov. 29 – Not ranked
Dec. 6 – No. 22 AP, No. 23 USA Today, No. 20 BCS
Pals and Peers: Four players serve a pair of University of Arizona athletics department student organizations, the Peer Athletic Leaders and the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. Senior defensive tackle Donald Horton and redshirt freshman linebacker R.J. Young are members of the PAL group that offers transitional assistance to younger students, while senior defensive tackle Earl Mitchell and sophomore quarterback Bryson Beirne are members of SAAC, which works with athletic administrators to provide feedback on improving the Arizona experience for student-athletes. Additionally, seniors Cam Nelson and Chris Gronkowski were selected to serve on Student-Athletes Taking Active Roles (STAR), a group that instills a 'we are always in uniform' message to the 500-plus UA athletes, advocating responsible personal comportment.
2009 Captains: Senior defensemen Earl Mitchell and Cam Nelson will join classmate Terrell Turner and junior Colin Baxter as this year's team of captains. Each was voted to the team by fellow teammates and approved by the coaching staff. A balance of experience and talent across various positions is clearly evident in the group, as the group has a combined 95 starts. Mitchell, nelson and Baxter started every game of the 2008 season, while Turner started all but one at wide receiver.
Pac-10 Players of the Week: Three Arizona players have been named Pac-10 Players of the Week this season ... Most recently, Cam Nelson was named the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Week following his game against UCLA on Oct. 24 when he recorded a career-high two sacks and forced two fumbles, which led to UA offensive touchdowns ... Nick Foles was named the offensive POW for his sensational performance in rallying the Wildcats to a come-from-behind victory over Stanford on Oct. 17, 43-38. Foles passed for a career-high 415 yards in the game ... Devin Ross was handed the weekly honor for his defensive effort in UA’s 38-33 win at Oregon State on Sept. 26. The senior hauled in a game-clinching interception late in the fourth quarter and added 12 tackles … Alex Zendjas was named the Pac-10 Special Teams Player of the Week after kicking two fourth quarter field goals, including the game-winner as time expired at Arizona State on Nov. 28 (20-17) … Defensive tackle Earl Mitchell was named the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Week following his performance at No. 20 USC in which he tallied two sacks and three tackles for loss in a dominating defensive effort for the Wildcats.