September 10, 2007

(at UA 45, NAU 24)

Was it enough?

Saturdayís game with Northern Arizona was one of those classic glass-of-water games. Is our football team half full or half empty?

Scoring 45 points is a big deal at Arizona, no matter who weíre playing. Usually our 1-AA tune-up games are low-scoring snoozefests. Last yearís Stephen F. Austin game was 14-10 in the fourth quarter. The last NAU game was 24-12 with six minutes to play. So the six touchdowns are plenty of fuel for the optimistís smile.

However, if you want to stay angry at the world you have your choice of yeahbuts. Yeahbut it was only NAU. Yeahbut we were being outgained midway through the second quarter. Yeahbut we only scored 14 points in the first half. Yeahbut we gave up 21 points in the second half.

Yeah. But. Itís clear lessons were learned from the BYU debacle and this was the first step toward correcting them.

The rumors are true. A spread offense is being run at the University of Arizona.

Itís a good thing too. Hereís all you need to know about the UA running game. Late in the second half we were up 14-3. In seven possessions NAU had crossed midfield twice and hadnít set foot in the red zone. The Lumberjacks werenít going to win the game. After yet another third down punt and yet another 15-yard penalty we started on the NAU 38 and quickly got it down inside the ten. Facing a third and two from the four we ran Xavier Smith up the middle. Gain of one. Now itís fourth and one and, in a clear effort to try and win back some paying customers, we go for it. Smith up the middle, no gain, NAU takes over on downs.

We had two runs to gain two yards behind our first string Division 1-A offensive line and we couldnít do it against a mid-level 1-AA defensive line. But you know what? Iím fine with it.

Sonny Dykes had a quote in the paper this past week about having to be who we are. Well, weíre a team that canít run straight at people. And thatís OK. Sure, youíd love to rule the world at everything but in order to conquer your backyard you have to identify what you do well and then perfect it. The 2007 Wildcats have to pass to set up the run, and even then most of the runs will involve some sort of deception. So be it. Donít waste any more time working on the power running game. It stinks. Itís going to keep on stinking. Get really good at everything else.

(What are we supposed to do in the red zone, you ask? Iíll give you a hint. Their names rhyme with Earl Twitchell and Rob Schtonkowski.)

The defense didnít make any huge plays (no forced turnovers) and there were still some missed tackles, but we did at least get three sacks (resulting in a +2 sack margin) and all of them were from down-linemen. Improvement.

OK, Antoine. Iíll stop worrying about you returning punts. Or field goals.

The special teams continue to be our specialty. Half of Jason Bondzioís eight kickoffs were touchbacks, a fifth was foolishly brought out of the end zone, and the other three were caught inside the five. Then on the other side of the field you have Devin Ross who is averaging almost 30 yards per kick return. Can we just go ahead and move the kickoff back to the 25 yard line?

Even more special teams: On our first possession in the second quarter we had to punt from midfield and Keenyn Crier dropped a textbook kick inside the five and had it bounce away from the end zone where it was quickly downed. Chalk one up for getting better during practice. Keenyn had his first shank of the year in the fourth quarter but you canít blame him because by then the entire Stadium was bored.

That was the longest third quarter of all time. There were 31 points, 17 incomplete passes and six penalties. It got to the point where we were cheering NAU completions as long as they stayed in bounds.

One thing we werenít cheering for? Kris Heavnerís rushing ability. Listen up, buddy. That -28.0 yards-per-carry average just isnít going to cut it.

But seriously, Heave was the hero during the aforementioned boring stretch. When we were running out the clock he took his time in the huddle and snapped the ball with exactly one second on the play clock every time. Well stalled, sir.

The five passing touchdowns to five different receivers obviously grab the headlines. It was good to see TuiThomas make comeback after a year off.

The 52% completion rate on the other hand isnít too hot. It was great seeing Tuitama looking downfield and stretching the defense again and again and again, but he still needs to make his reads quicker and unload the ball faster. The good news is all that falls under just needing more experience running the new offense. With each game Willie should get more comfortable with where his receivers will be, the receivers will get more familiar with where the ball will be, and everyone will get a better understanding of what the defense is trying to do.

And Ė I hate to bring it up again Ė that is going to be a lingering disappointment the entire season: We wasted our first game. Not because we lost it, but because we didnít use it to get better. If the Dykes offense starts coming together in week five, weíre going to wonder if we would have gotten it going just in time for Cal in week four. If we lose a close game somewhere along the way due to misfiring on offense, weíll wish we had another gameís worth of experience to prepare for that pressure-packed moment.

The most unique aspect of college football among American sports is the fact that each game means so much. Every single contest represents 8.33% of your guaranteed games. You canít waste any of them when youíre trying to overhaul your offense. Now weíll have to pack a seasonís worth of offensive grown into eleven games.

Just completely write off the BYU game and move on. Weíre 1-0 and we have to get to 7-4 if we want a bowl game. Work, work, work.

We interrupt this column for a little coaching genealogy. In the late Ď90s Kentuckyís Hal Mumme introduced his Air Raid offense to Division I football. His offensive coordinator, Mike Leach, went on to coach as an assistant at Oklahoma with Mike Stoops before becoming the head coach at Texas Tech where he trained Sonny Dykes. Whatís the point of all this? New Mexico beat Hal Mummeís New Mexico State team on Saturday.

The Lobos gave up 473 passing yards and four touchdown passes but they intercepted two fourth-quarter throws and scored 44 points of their own to win by ten. Does this give UNM a BYU-like advantage of knowing what weíre trying to do better than we do? Weíll soon find out.

So Arizona and New Mexico are set to do battle on the gridiron for the first time since 1997, the first regular season matchup since 1990, and the first regular season game in Tucson in 30 years. The Kit Carson Rifle will not be up for grabs but that doesnít mean the boys from Albuquerque wonít be focused and determined to win one for very-old-timeís sake. May our cannonading aerials blast the Lobos once again.

No yeahbuts about it.

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