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Pac Ten Week: Arizona Makes Its Move

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This is Sonny Dykes:

He's kind of a big deal, as they say. Here is why:

Arizona Rushing vs. Run Defenses in Top 70
Carries Yds./Carry Run/Pass Ratio Pts. by Offense
BYU 24 2.8 50-50 13
at LSU 21 1.7 64% Pass 3
Southern Cal 19 - 0.8 69% Pass 3
Washington 23 - 0.3 63% Pass 10
at UCLA 26 - 0.5 54% Run 7
Oregon State 28 0.8 58% Pass 3
at Wash. State 44 2.6 62% Run 24
California 33 1.8 59% Run 17
Arizona State 23 1.4 66% Pass 14

Ineptitude notwithstanding, if Arizona has attempted to establish an offensive identity in Mike Stoops' tenure, it's been as a two-back, power running team. This is evident in the numbers: the Wildcats' wins are highlighted to show that, as long as they were still in a game, they always continued to run, or to try, no matter how slow the going. They played three games not listed above, all double digit wins against terrible defenses (I-AA Stephen F. Austin, Stanford and Oregon) in which the 'Cats topped 40 carries, running almost twice as often as they tried to throw. When UA did throw more than it ran it was only to dig itself out of a two-touchdown hole, minimum, a standard that applies to each of its losses.

The run-first identity is so ingrained that Stoops was still saying things like this in the spring:

In addition to all the four-receiver passing sets, Stoops wants the offense to practice with traditional running formations, serving two purposes.

It emphasizes the physical nature Stoops doesn't want to lose and it ensures the defense sees the kind of plays it will have to stop against most teams on the schedule.

"We will not become a soft football team just because we spread the field," Stoops said."

Without such rhetoric, as I pointed out in March, it would seem more accurate to say Stoops has actually come to grips with his team's "softness," if that's how he chooses to classify overmatched linemen toiling in vain to open the smallest crease for Wildcat runners. Arizona's four returning line starters average 288 pounds and will be joined this fall by a 270-pound guard, in a conference that features only six other starting linemen under 295 pounds on the other nine teams combined.

You look like a man who could use a system.
- - -
What other revelation could have sent Stoops to Dykes, his one-time colleague at Oklahoma, with explicit instructions to implement the spread he's taught the last six years as Mike Leach's receivers coach at Texas Tech? Tech is not appreciably more talented than Arizona, but it's been vastly more productive than UA each of the last five years, running and passing, often averaging about twice as many points per game by teaching a system that doesn't rely on physical prowess its players don't possess. If the Wildcats can't run it to begin with, and usually end up throwing a sizeable majority of the time (and in fatally predictable situations) against decent defenses anyway, why not come out with Willie Tuitama slinging it? The word in the spring suggested Arizona might throw 50 times a game, more than any team in the country last year except New Mexico State and, of course, Texas Tech.

I assume when Kyle King floated the `Cats as "a potential surprise team" in an e-mail and then honorably mentioned them in his initial top 25 effort, he was banking on Stoops' increasingly solid defense holding court and Dykes' influence doing for Arizona what Leach's has done for Tech, turning it into a perennial eight-win team that, while still only occasionally throwing a major scare into a heavyweight, no longer thinks twice about qualifying for a bowl game. And, to, answer his question, he's not completely crazy: abandoning a power-less power running game for the spread is a good idea in general, and especially with a two-year starter at quarterback who's led three wins over ranked teams in 15 games. Physically, there's nothing stopping Tuitama from Tech-level abundance, except maybe his spotty health and decision-making, which should be evening out at this point. Kyle was also looking at `zona's improbable November last year, when it won three straight games as a double-digit underdog to Washington State (ranked 25th at kickoff), Cal (#8) and Oregon, the last one by four touchdowns on the road.

But then hopes of ending an eight-year bowl drought went up in smoke against Arizona State, reminiscent of the late collaps in 2005 that immediately followed an upset at Oregon State and a shocking 52-14 beatdown of undefeated UCLA. On one hand, if Tuitama is enough of a talent to lead a win like that, and like the trio of sudden upsets last year, Arizona is a few bounces from graduating from "improving" to the conference's upper tier (USC excepted from the tier system). On the other, defense or no defense, if the team continues to blow its momentum against the likes of Washington (two straight losses by double digits), Oregon State (seven straight losses six losses in seven years) and Arizona State (1-4 since 2002...the only win, of course, over the only ranked Sun Devil team entering the game, in 2004), then it is what it looks like: just another 6-6 team in a 7-5 kinda league.