Greg Hansen : While it wasn't juicy, Cats wring out win

2009-10-25T00:00:00Z Greg Hansen : While it wasn't juicy, Cats wring out winOpinion by Greg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
October 25, 2009 12:00 am  • 

Two men wearing tangerine-hued blazers with official-looking logos introduced themselves to Mike Stoops on Saturday night.

"Orange Bowl?" he said with a amused look.

Now wouldn't that be a story?

The Orange Bowl reps made a goodwill visit to Arizona Stadium and although the Wildcats didn't power up the sizzlemeter to anything more than fair-to-middlin', their 27-13 victory over UCLA whetted the imagination.

"We're in a good position," Stoops said. "I don't think there's any doubt about that."

True, Arizona caught the Bruins in yet another bad year — how does one school recruit so well and play so ineptly? — but this was also the day that UA quarterback Nick Foles semi-struggled and his team was down to its No. 4 tailback.

Yet Arizona still outgained the Bruins 456 to 211 and never did get into a full-blown, worrisome situation. Rather, the Wildcats periodically fidgeted and won going away on a night Foles didn't have his good fastball.

"At some point, Nick was going to have to come back to earth," said UA offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes.

In his first three starts, Foles completed 75 percent of his passes and looked a lot like some guy who just stepped off the Starship Enterprise. On Saturday, his accuracy was down 10 points (22 of 34 or 65 percent) but it wasn't a factor because Mark Stoops' defense played its best game of the year.

Besides, what's wrong with 22 for 34 with two touchdowns? Over the past 30 years, Arizona would take those passing numbers every night.

Mark Stoops and his defensive staff spent the week hammering away at the psyche of their unit. After it yielded 584 yards to Stanford, Stoops played the we've-got-to-redeem-ourselves card and he had a willing audience.

"Coach Stoops and his brother are defensive guys and they were embarrassed last week," said UA safety Cam Nelson. "We took that to heart."

The Stoops brothers matched X's and O's with two of the game's most celebrated offensive figures, Bruins coach Rick Neuheisel and offensive coordinator Norm Chow. It wasn't a fair fight, because the Neuheisel/Chow brain trust operates with below-accepted levels of Pac-10 quarterbacking and an offensive line that has produced the league's No. 9-ranked total offense.

But the Wildcats played with such emotion defensively that UCLA gained 99 yards under its already-thin 310 yards per game average.

"We didn't have to brow-beat them," Mark Stoops said. "It was just about having a strong presence." His brother described it as "flying around."

Mark Stoops was particularly effective in designing a blitz package against UCLA that seemed to catch Neuheisel/ Chow unprepared. The Stoops brothers don't typically coach pin-your-ears-back-and-blitz defense but in the first half Saturday they ordered a series of game-shaping blitzes that seemed to haunt UCLA quarterbacks all night.

Nelson got two of those sacks and linebacker Sterling Lewis another. Later, tackle Earl Mitchell got another. The Wildcats sacked Stanford on just one of 79 plays a week earlier.

"We don't wholesale blitz, we don't bring the whole farm," Mark Stoops said. "But we did hurt them with blitzes early. We just practiced those things and it got the guys juiced up. They executed well. That's what I was looking for."

Said the effervescent Nelson: "I have been begging coach Mark to blitz for three years."

Arizona hasn't had much practice at being 5-2 this century. It is a particularly nice place to be entering a bye week, if for no other purpose than to heal a significant number of injuries to important players.

There will be a crack of sickening realty soon enough: Cal, Oregon, ASU and USC await but for the next two weeks, who cares? In the first half of the season, Arizona has identified a winning quarterback and put together an effective and productive offensive line and one of the nation's most skilled groups of receivers, and, on Saturday, it rediscovered its defense.

About the only significant worries are place-kicking and the health of pass rusher Brooks Reed and tailbacks Nicolas Grigsby and Greg Nwoko.

To that point: On the first snap of the fourth quarter, Grigsby had his right shoulder in a sling and was chatting with Nwoko, whose left shoulder was packed with ice, on a trainer's table. Reed, in civvies, stood nearby, on a bench, waving a towel, exhorting the crowd of 51,440 to make more noise.

The Bruins didn't threaten again.

"When you look at the back end of our schedule, there's a lot there," said Stoops. "But I have no problem with where we're at. We've played a very difficult schedule."

By comparison, Neuheisel left town 0-4 in the Pac-10 and in serious need of reinforcements. It's much the same way Stoops looked in his second year at Arizona, 2005.

On Saturday, you couldn't look at the Bruins and think "they're going to be good next year" or that they are only a player or two from turning that 0-4 into 4-0. On Saturday, the Bruins were swarmed in the desert the way it used to be a long time ago.

"I've been there before, on the other side," Mark Stoops said.

This time, for a change, the Orange Bowl guys are in Arizona's locker room. Enjoy.

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