All it will take for the Arizona Wildcats to become eligible for their first postseason bowl under coach Mike Stoops is a win over the Washington State Cougars today at Martin Stadium.
One win? Over a Cougs team that’s been outscored 169-0 over it’s last 10 quarters?
Sounds simple enough, especially considering the Cougs haven’t been competitive in a game in about a month and a half and the Cats just finished playing then sixth-ranked USC down to the wire in a 17-10 loss last week. Looking at just one stat — Arizona averages 36 points per game, and the Cougars give up an average of 42 points per game — makes it seem like a done deal.
Yep, the Wildcats will have to rearrange those holiday plans to include football practice and a 13th game this season.
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But Stoops isn’t about to allow his team the luxury of that kind of thinking quite yet. He was brought to Tucson five years ago - as the hot new coach - to return the program to some level of respectability. And it has taken the better part of those five years to do it. So he isn’t about to let his team start celebrating a win over WSU and becoming bowl eligible before the game is even played.
“They are still a Pac-10 team,” Stoops said. “They work hard and they have had trouble in a lot of different areas, but that does not mean they are not capable of putting something together.”
Of course, Stoops would admit that he’d be lying if he and his players didn’t grasp what will happen with a win.
“Our kids understand where we are at,” Stoops said. ”They can count.”
But there is something more at stake than just getting to Arizona’s first bowl game since 1998. It’s bigger than that.
“They are out to change the perception of Arizona football,” Stoops said.
It’s what Stoops was brought in to do when he was defensive coordinator at Oklahoma. But the perception wasn’t changed overnight. Actually it was a painstaking process marked by plenty of failure. Stoops and the Cats suffered through back-to-back 3-8 seasons, followed by a 6-6 record and then last season’s 5-7 campaign. The lack of success — and any kind of bowl game — left Stoops on the hot seat.
But now in his fifth year, the Wildcats seem to have turned the corner as a program. It’s not something lost on Cougars coach Paul Wulff, who can see some similarities in what he hopes to accomplish, particularly the need for patience.
“It does take time,” Wulff said. “You got to have a lot of parts in place to do it.”
To be fair, WSU was lacking in some of those.
“A lot of it is about the state of the program when you come in,” Wulff said. “Every program is different.”
And Wulff hopes to be different than Arizona by making similar strides in less time.
Today, Wulff’s focus is on finding a way to slow down an Arizona offense triggered by senior quarterback Willie Tuitama. A starter since he was a freshman, Tuitama holds every major passing record at Arizona. And those four years of experience make it difficult to fluster or confuse him with schemes or blitzes.
What makes matters worse for WSU is that Tuitama has some help on offense. Running back Nic Grigsby is a versatile threat who can break a big play on a run up the middle or catch the ball out of the backfield.
Receivers Mike Thomas, Delashuan Dean and Terrell Turner are all capable of making big plays and tight end Rob Gronkowski is a budding star.
“They’re a pretty veteran football team and they’re a good football team,” Wulff said. “Talent-wise they’re right up there with top two or three teams in the conference.
Cornerback Tyrone Justin’s sprained ankle is still swollen and has limited his mobility. It seems unlikely he will play. Senior Markus Dawes will make the start in his place. Also safety Alfonso Jackson, who started the season at cornerback has taken some reps at corner this week and could see time there. Defensive end Andy Mattingly also suffered a sprained ankle early in the week, but should be able to play. Of the three players who suffered “stingers” in last week’s game, defensive end Kevin Kooyman and linebacker Myron Beck should be ready to go. Offensive lineman B.J. Guerra’s status is a little less certain and is questionable for Saturday.