Hard Work

September 3, 2007

(at BYU 20, UA 7)

I don’t know either.

The day began with pure joy. I woke up before my alarm clock went off and didn’t feel tired. As I removed that final Q-tip from its case my ears never felt so clean. My Norelco hummed as if imported from Heaven.

Wildcat Heaven.

For the second straight year the first football game started with a bang as we forced a BYU fumble on the opening possession. Then out trots the offense as visions of aerial glory dance in our heads and they…line up in the I-formation and…run. Huh?

The next play features three wideouts and Tuitama back in the shotgun and…another run. The third play is a quick near-lateral to Mike Thomas (which ends up gaining our only first down of the entire half). The drive results in a fourth-and-five scenario from the BYU 30 and we think about it, take a time out, think about it some more and…run.

The first four first-down plays were runs. The fifth one was a dump off to the running back. The sixth one was a pass play from under center out of a two-back set that resulted in a sack. The seventh first-down play was a false start followed by another run. And that was it for the entire first half.

Where was the four wide receiver set and the throw, throw, throw mentality? The “spread” part is supposed to mean spreading the field, not spreading rumors. It was like we were out-thinking ourselves. “We showed the promise of a good offense in the spring game and the fall scrimmage so BYU will be expecting a good offense. We’ll surprise them with a bad offense. They’ll never see it coming.”

We can’t successfully operate a run-first offense. We already tried that in the Stoops Era. It didn’t work. It got a lot of people fired. We were told we were going to try something new. We need to try something new. If we’re going to fail on offense again we need to fail in a different way.

I’ve never understood running to keep the defense honest. Let them tell all the lies they want while you throw it over their heads.

The problem with Saturday’s approach was half (48.9%) of the touches went to Chris Jennings who is – at best – our fifth biggest playmaker. Mike Thomas and Earl Mitchell are bigger threats, and after one game you have to add Delashaun Dean and Rob Gronkowski to the list.

That’s what was so maddening about our offensive approach. We were told the whole point of the offense was to get the ball into your best players’ hands in space. There was no space to be found, and we barely saw our best players. How do you go 59 minutes before getting it to Earl Mitchell? You can’t Unga him a bit and let him bounce off of people? We threw one pass to The Gronk and one of the three defenders needed to bring him down got knocked backwards about five yards. That’s not something you want to try a second time?

It’s funny how you pour yourself into following a sport and you still don’t know anything about it. And by “you” I mean “me.” I spent the last few weeks with no worries about the defense and terrified of our new kickers. Bondzio puts the opening kickoff midway into the end zone for a touchback and Crier didn’t shank a single punt. We had the better special teams play on Saturday. The problem is we had the worse everything else.

Why were we the only team with first-game jitters? Why were we the only team that looked rusty with over-pursuing and missed tackles? Why were they the only team trying to keep every play alive and fighting for that very last inch (which turned into about 40 extra yards on one play)?

Why were we wearing white-on-white when we haven’t won with that uniform combination in almost two years?

People talk about beating yourself which usually refers to a mistake like a penalty or turnover that takes you from a neutral situation to a negative situation. Well, what about when you mess up by failing to take advantage of a golden opportunity to move into a positive situation? What’s that called? Not-beating the other team? Un-winning yourself? Whatever it is we do it all the time.

After BYU’s first touchdown Devin Ross fielded the kickoff. Remember, this is the same Devin Ross who said his goal was to have a kickoff return touchdown every single game this year. Well, he almost did it on his very first attempt. But the thing is, he should have done it. Ross had one man to beat and he ran right into the kicker and tackled himself. Devin had an open lane to the right and there wasn’t anyone left who had an angle on him. There’s a big game-changing play right there for the taking and we didn’t take it. We un-won ourselves.

Midway through the second quarter, with that same 7-0 score, BYU quarterback Max Hall made the type of rookie mistake we were banking on when he threw a pass directly at Wildcat defender Wilrey Fontenot. There was no one in front of Wilrey so at worst it’s a huge head start for the offense and it’s quite possibly a defensive touchdown. Another game-changing opportunity, another un-win.

On paper it’s too soon to panic. We still have the favorable home schedule. We still have all six of the predicted “very-winnable” games, and three more key games to try and swing the season.

But the atmosphere has already changed. After nine months of build-up and hype we thought at worst we’d see a close loss to a tough team. We thought our first home game would be a celebration of the new offense with a positive buzz in the air and a “I’ve got to see this for myself” attitude among fans.

Not anymore. When we walk into Arizona Stadium on Saturday there will be nervousness at best, no-shows at worst, and a lot of grumbling in between. The next two games are must-win and – for the ticket-buying public – that might not even be enough. When we beat BYU last year it didn’t feel right. We were worried we were going to struggle on offense all year, and we did. That feeling is back, and unless the Cats can win the next two games in a way that eases those concerns, unless we can prove things have changed on offense and these players will be better in the new system, all optimism built up from the coaching changes will completely disappear.

The greatest crime of all this past weekend was the lack of fire from the Wildcat side of the ball. Again. This was the same lack of intensity, the same lack of passion, the same lack of preparation that we saw the last time the Cats took the field. The shocking part is we didn’t even win a couple games before getting complacent.

There’s a slogan painted on the wall of the UA weight room: Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. When are we going to learn we’re supposed to be the “hard work” part?

It’s definitely hard work being an Arizona Football Fan.

Back to work on Saturday.

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