Greg Hansen: Cats receive a painful glimpse at near future

2011-09-09T00:00:00Z 2012-11-30T16:19:21Z Greg Hansen: Cats receive a painful glimpse at near futureGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
September 09, 2011 12:00 am  • 

STILLWATER, Okla.

One guy in a Wildcat uniform went home happy, and that was Wilbur T. Wildcat. He saw photogenic golf star Ricky Fowler standing in the end zone, stopped, and asked if he would pose for a picture.

"No problem," said Fowler. "Hope you guys get better down the road."

The rest of the Wildcats and their coaches took a midnight drive to Oklahoma City, caught a plane and had to be wondering, deep down, how much worse this might get before it gets any better.

"There's no redo," said UA linebacker Paul Vassallo. "There's no 'let's come back in eight, nine months and start again.' This season's going. We have to go forward with the people we have."

So far, it's been easier to talk about the people the Wildcats don't have: Adam Hall, Juron Criner, Jake Fischer, Joe McKnight, Greg Nwoko, Trace Biskin and, whew, did I leave anybody out?

But it's doubtful any or all of those injured players would have made much of a difference in Thursday's 37-14 loss at Oklahoma State. The Cowboys pushed the ball down Arizona's throat in the first 20 minutes, relying as much on an overpowering and experienced offensive line as on marquee names Brandon Weeden, Justin Blackmon and Joseph Randle.

It was a game without mystery and, for OSU, stress-free. In the final 40 minutes, there was but one play of consequence: a fake punt that OSU ran 23 yards to shut off any chance Arizona had to flip the game's momentum.

At no point did Arizona look like a team that will be able to win any of its next three games, against Stanford, Oregon and USC.

"They held us to 14 points, and we're an offense that is supposed to put up a lot of points," said UA receiver Dan Buckner. He raised his eyebrows as if to say there wasn't anything else to say.

Period. End of paragraph. End of game.

Someone asked UA coach Mike Stoops if he had a sense of relief, knowing that the OSU-Arizona rematch in Tucson next year will find the Cowboys without Weeden, their 28-year-old quarterback who has now punished Arizona in 36-10 and 37-14 blowouts.

"We've got a lot of stuff in between," said Stoops. Arizona's immediate football future is the equivalent of an NFL team getting hammered by the Packers and then playing the Jets, Eagles and Cowboys the next three weeks.

That's a lot of bad stuff.

Somehow over the last three years, as Arizona made considerable progress, evolving from bad to average to pretty good, the Wildcats took an unexpected step back. The team that lost at Boone Pickens Stadium last night has a flawed running game, a vulnerable secondary, a thin and young defensive line and no real depth.

Those bowl teams of 2008, 2009 and 2010 were supposed to be launching points for Arizona the way Oklahoma State's 7-6 teams of 2006 and 2007 triggered a move into national consciousness, with successive years of 9-4, 9-4 and 11-2.

Stoops is not fond of the Cowboys - how could he be after all those years coaching for the hated Sooners? - but he sounded like a coach who had moved on from hate to admiration late Thursday night.

"They're legit," he said, with envy in his tone. "That's a big-play team. They've made the step; they're not a good program, they're great. They'll be there" at year's end.

By the time Arizona is whole again, with Criner, Hall, Fischer and Biskin back on the active list, it's likely the Wildcats will be 1-4 and heading to Oregon State on Oct. 8. Criner and Hall are star-level players, one on offense and one on defense, and other than Foles, Arizona has a frightening shortage of star-power players in a league that is blessed with them.

How else do you explain the UA's Thursday night numbers? It had two receivers, Buckner and freshman Austin Hill, catch passes for more than 100 yards. Its quarterback threw for 398 yards. And yet the Wildcats rarely threatened to score, and never really threatened to rally and make a game of it.

It's like a baseball team with a .320 team batting average, runners on base all day, and no power hitter. Arizona's offensive scheme is all singles and doubles. It desperately needs a three-run homer periodically to do more than bend the Pac-12's better defenses.

Running behind a new offensive line, tailback Keola Antolin rarely found space to make, or create, more yards. Stoops said it essentially reduced the UA to a "seven-on-seven" passing game. With limitations like that, you're better off in the Big Sky Conference.

Arizona's next two opponents, Stanford and Oregon, are probably as good as Oklahoma State, perhaps better.

Yet before he went to the airport, Stoops insisted "in the long run, this will make us better." He repeated that line a second time, as if he really believes it.

In the long run, starting now, his belief is going to be tested like never before.

Contact Greg Hansen at 573-4362 or ghansen@azstarnet.com

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