Progression

December 18, 2006

(at UA 87, Houston 62)


One thought about Arizona's 25-point victory over Houston: Coach Olson may disagree, but Mustafa Shakur's breakaway pass off the backboard to Marcus Williams was the best play of his career. Not only did Mustafa give up the ball in the exact same two-on-zero situation discussed last week, but he did it in style. Point guard purity with an attitude.

And with that being the only basketball news this week I guess this is as good a time as any for a 2006 Arizona Wildcat Football recap.

So how are you doing, Gridiron Cat fans? Is the sting of the final game still dominating your thoughts? Have you recovered from the Momentum Train flying off the tracks and ramming into a mountain?

The thing to keep in mind is every season can be broken into three parts. The out-of-conference season, the Pac-10 season, and the throw-the-records-out-the-window-because-anything-goes rivalry season. This year's league slate was easily divided into pre-bye and post-bye halves so you end up with four distinct segments.

The non-league season went as expected on paper but it was an ugly 2-1. We only scored one touchdown against BYU, we got absolutely throttled at LSU, and we played Stephen F. Austin even most of the night. There was a lot of "I've got a bad feeling about this" in the air.

Sure enough, the first half the Pac-10 season was dreadful. You can take your pick of low points: Giving up three TD's in about four seconds against Washington. Willie Tuitama getting knocked out of yet another game at UCLA. Playing the Oregon State game with our third-string quarterback and three offensive points. Mike Stoops could've worn a John Mackovic mask for Halloween and things would've been less scary as October came to a close.

But then we had a bye week, the calendar turned to sweet November, and Progress returned along with his good friends Optimism and Heck Yes Some Actual Wins!

Did you realize that Cal came into town as the #8 team in the country, which was the exact same ranking as LSU when we played them? Nothing like taking advantage of a second chance with a 46-point turnaround.

That's what we have to focus on as we think about this past season. Take as many steps back as needed to view the big picture and the overall positive trends cannot be denied.

We won six games! That's more than Mackovic won in his final two years combined! The UA's 6-6 record ended a string of six consecutive losing seasons. The last time a Wildcat team successfully won as many games as it lost Earl Mitchell was in sixth grade. This is a big deal.

(Wait, let me try that again…)

By going 6-6 in two thousand 6 Arizona ended its streak of 6 straight losing seasons that began when 6-two Earl Mitchell was in grade 6.

(That's more like it. I'm bringing sixy back.)

It's OK to be disappointed that we lost the Territorial Cup. It's understandable to be frustrated that we've come up short in the Duel four of the last five years and six out of freaking eight. But don't let that tarnish the rest of the season. Don't let it obscure a victory over a ten-win and top-20 BYU team. Do not diminish any part of the glorious run of three straight upset victories.

(By the way, speaking of Those Guys: Dirk Koetter came from Boise State. Dennis Erickson came from the University of Idaho. Do you think when Idaho State was interviewing their new football coach they told him he was next in line for the ASU job?)

Before the season started I talked about improving our turnover margin as the key to the entire season. We did in fact force more turnovers this year (26 compared to 19 in 2005) and there was a significant improvement in holding onto the ball (only 19 lost turnovers as opposed to 28 the year before) and, sure enough, the won/loss record got better.

We actually ended up second in the Pac-10 in turnover margin. Yes, that was mainly a result of the +3 against Cal and the gaudy +6 vs. Oregon, but we were never worse than -1 in any game. We were +1 against BYU and even in every other contest including USC, OSU, and ASU. Now the challenge becomes duplicating that kind of success in 2007.

(By the by, when you look back at that above link, be sure to scroll down and check out my BYU prediction. Virtual high-five!)

((Go ahead and ignore that touchdown pass prediction five paragraphs later. Cyber head-shaking.))

The key stat to watch next year has to be sack differential. We took a huge step back in regard to causing their quarterback pain and eliminating ours. The '06 Cats recorded only 15 sacks compared to 24 the previous year and gave up a staggering 31, or ten more than in 2005. We went from a +3 sack margin to an agonizing -16. The good news is the new offense is known for preventing sacks, and sophomore quarterbacks become smarter, quicker junior quarterbacks, and freshmen linemen become bigger, stronger sophomore linemen. The talent is there, and now the experience is right there along with it.

As far as the defense, even with the low sack total there's little to complain about. After the first season of the complete round-robin league schedule, Arizona's 167 points allowed in nine Pac-10 games (18.6 points per game) ranked second only to USC. The defense's goal for 2007 is to take the final step and not have any LSU games (it'll help not playing LSU) and passing the Trojans as the top D in the league.

For the team as a whole, the biggest need for improvement doesn't have a number attached to it. The emotion and intensity on the field was noticeably less against Washington and Oregon State than it was against USC and Cal. It's too bad there's no stat for After-Tackle Dance Vigor or Celebratory Decibels. Good teams don't save up energy for big upset opportunities. Good teams take just as much pride in beating the unexciting teams and preventing upsets.

Taking a look at next year's schedule the first thing that jumps out is the difficulty of the road games. The top three teams in the league this year were USC, Cal and OSU, and we play all three on the road next year, as well as the Territorial Cup game. Another quirk is the fact we'll be playing 11 straight games from September 1 through November 10 with no bye week.

The good part about the restless schedule is we get a week off before the rivalry game while ASU does not (the Devils host USC on November 17). I don't mean to put extra pressure on Coach Stoops, but if we don't win with an extra week of preparation against a first-year coach…. Never mind, I do mean to put extra pressure on Coach Stoops. We gotta get our Cup back.

My fellow Wildcats, we should not feel bad about the 2006 football season. We were better at the end of year than we were at the beginning of the year. We were better this year than we were last year. Things are getting better. And there's no reason to doubt that trend will continue.

With three years in the books, Mike Stoops has been pretty consistent against Pac-10 foes. He's 1-1 vs. Stanford and WSU, 0-3 against USC, and 1-2 against everyone else.

2007 is the year to start evening a lot of those scores.



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