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Arizona's 33-0 loss to Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl was an exercise in futility. Nebraska dominated from start to finish. The Wildcats set dubious Holiday Bowl records with only six first downs, 109 yards of offense, 51 offensive plays and nine punts. Arizona's first foray into Nebraska territory did not occur until the third quarter.
Before the game, Wildcat players were excited about the opportunity to perform in front of a national audience and sold-out Qualcomm Stadium. UA Quarterback Nick Foles was intercepted on the third play from scrimmage, Nebraska scored two plays later and the rout commenced.
Winning or losing the Holiday Bowl will not make or break a program. Bowl games are one and done. The season ends regardless of the outcome. Losing a Bowl game is different than a heartbreaking loss in the NCAA Tournament. After a tournament loss, fans and pundits can wax poetic about the what ifs.
Unless it's the BCS Championship Game or possibly a BCS game, winning or losing any of the other bowl games will be forgotten by the majority of fans in the future.
Various theories have been written as to why Arizona lost the game. After Arizona was dominated by a great Nebraska defense, there were suggestions that Arizona did not enter the Holiday Bowl with a competitive attitude. They took in too many sights or partied too much in San Diego. They were happy to be there and had already accomplished enough on the season. The team wasn't focused or prepared enough before the game. The staff did not make enough adjustments during the game.
After the game, coach Mike Stoops apologized for his team's performance. Senior safety Cam Nelson thought that Stoops was too nice to the players the week leading up to the game. Stoops took the loss hard and blamed himself for not preparing his team.
The loss to Nebraska was very disappointing to anyone that follows Arizona football, but the fact is this team overachieved in 2009.
Arizona was predicted to finish eighth in the Pac-10 preseason polls. After the 2008 season, they lost starting QB Willie Tuitama and the Pac-10's all-time leading receiver Mike Thomas to graduation, and LT Eben Britton left early for the NFL.
The two players that Arizona were counting on the most offensively in 2009 were TE Rob Gronkowski and RB Nic Grigsby. Gronkowski missed the entire season with a back injury. Grigsby had only 30 carries in the last nine games and missed three games completely. Gronkowski's absence meant retooling the offense. In addition to losing Grigsby, backup running backs Keola Antolin and Greg Nwoko also missed time with injuries.
This team definitely overachieved. Their second place finish in the Pac-10 was Arizona's highest in 11 seasons. They defeated five bowl teams and captured their first win over USC since 2000.
The Wildcats bounced back more than a few times in 2009. They suffered disappointing losses at Iowa, Washington and Cal, and at home to Oregon. They were only six seconds from the Rose Bowl.
Nick Foles did not become the starting QB until the fourth game of the season. He did not receive significant playing time until the loss at Iowa. Foles' insertion as Arizona's starting QB was the key to the season. He picked the worst possible time to have his worst game, but was the unquestioned MVP of the season.
Following the 2009 season, the defense loses seven starters and will need to be rebuilt. Defensive ends Ricky Elmore and Brooks Reed, cornerback Trevin Wade and safety Robert Golden will be back in 2010. Elmore led the Pac-10 with 10.5 sacks. Mike Stoops will have to replace his entire linebacking corps and the defensive coordinator, his brother Mark.
Seven starters, including the key skill position players, return on offense. Foles will have a year of starting under him, and the running backs should come back healthy. Grigsby, Antolin and Nwoko give Arizona tremendous depth in the backfield.
Nine of the top ten receivers, plus hopefully Gronkowski, will be back. Juron Criner is an emerging star at wide receiver and finished the season with nine touchdown receptions.
Offensive coordinator Sunny Dykes is likely to the be frontrunner to become Texas Tech's next head coach. What happens with him could determine the direction Stoops takes with his offense.
With most of the key players returning next season, this team should be picked in the top four in the Pac-10 to begin the 2010 season.
In 2009, Arizona football became fun to watch again. There were some heartbreakers and disappointments, but they finally became part of the national consciousness after nearly 11 years away from the headlines.
College Gameday made its first visit to Tucson. It probably took Stoops a bit longer than it should have to get this team to be relevant and competitive again. Moving forward Arizona should challenge for the Pac-10 title again over the next few seasons.