Arizona Football: 5 Ways Mike Stoops Can Save the Season and His Job
Arizona's season was set up to fail.
An inexperienced squad was beset by offseason injuries (four projected defensive starters blew out ACLs before the year started) and then was forced to play the most brutal early-season schedule in the country, facing three Top-10 teams plus USC in the first five weeks.
Still, the program owned one of the best quarterback-receiver combinations in the country in Nick Foles and Juron Criner, among the premier duos ever at Arizona, adding a sliver of false hope that it could somehow pull out a massive upset or two.
Oklahoma State smashed those pipe dreams immediately, blowing out Arizona 37-10.
Then Stanford and Oregon came into Tucson and routed the Wildcats by a total of 93-41, the bulk of Arizona's points against the Ducks coming in garbage time.
And while the offense showed serious signs of life in a 48-41 loss versus USC at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum last weekend, the defense looked completely pathetic.
The only thing that has gone right so far this season is the expansion of the Pac-10 into the Pac-12.
That's because the conference now owns two divisions, the North and South, and Arizona is currently undefeated against the teams in the South that actually matter (USC is ineligible for the Pac-12 conference championship game due to NCAA sanctions).
If Arizona is able to take down Oregon State, UCLA, Washington, Utah, Colorado and Arizona State, it will play for the conference championship and a possible BCS bowl berth.
But that will take the most incredible reversal in school history.
Here are five ways to make the impossible happen.
Take a Page from the Washington Huskies Circa 2010
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
Check out these similarities between last year's version of Washington, eventual Holiday Bowl champs, and this year's version of Arizona:
Washington was led by one of the best quarterbacks in college football in Jake Locker, a Top-10 pick by the Tennessee Titans last April, and a stud receiver, Jermaine Kearse, who is expected to go in the first three rounds this year, along with one star on defense, Mason Foster. Besides that threesome, Chris Polk developed into a star in the backfield, one of the driving forces to their turnaround.
Arizona is led by one of the best quarterbacks in college football in Nick Foles, a projected early-round NFL draft pick, and Juron Criner, who is expected to join Kearse in the first couple of rounds, along with one proven commodity on defense, lineman Justin Washington (who has been a bust in 2011). Besides that threesome, Arizona is hoping for another standout to emerge, possibly freshman burner Ka'Deem Carey, to take the weight off the passing game.
The Washington Huskies were getting pounded by everyone they faced midway through last season, losing three straight games by a combined total of 138-30 to Arizona, Stanford and Oregon.
Arizona has lost four straight games to three ranked teams plus a perennial power, and it looked completely outclassed in the process, losing by a combined total of 178-96.
Here's where it gets good for Arizona:
Washington won its final four games of last season, sneaking into the Holiday Bowl where it gained ultimate redemption by beating Nebraska 19-7, the same team that torched the Huskies 56-21 in Week 3 of 2010.
According to this piece from ESPN.com, Washington's turnaround came when they decided to become a physical football team. And they also decided to take more risks, including a crucial decision to go for a touchdown to win the last game of the regular season against Cal, instead of playing for a tie and overtime.
Those are two things Arizona definitely needs more of in order to make this season worth watching: physical aggression and willingness to take risks.
Stop Kicking Field Goals
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Seriously. Just stop.
The rage is turning into complete embarrassment as the Arizona kicking game is one of the worst in the nation and in school history, the combination of Alex Zendejas and Jaime Salazar continually failing.
As a duo, they are just 2 for 5 on field goals and a feeble 13 for 17 on PATs.
In order for this season to take off, Arizona is going to need to score in the 40s or higher on a weekly basis.
That isn't going to happen by deciding to conservatively (perhaps that's the wrong word, given Arizona's struggles from short range in the kicking department) go for three each time they're within scoring distance.
Because the offense is having severe issues finding the end zone after it gets into the red zone (at least until the USC game), why not add another down for them to figure it out?
It's got to be almost as much of a sure thing as allowing the duo of place kickers that have imploded in front of national audiences the last four weeks continue to shank, hook and fail to elevate more kicks than they already have.
It is largely unprecedented, but in order for Arizona to start winning games, unconventional methods are going to be necessary. Start by keeping the place kickers off the field at all costs.
Give Ka'Deem Carey 20 Touches Per Game
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
They don't necessarily all have to be on handoffs, but explosive freshman Ka'Deem Carey needs to have the football in his hands at least 20 times per game.
Although this writer was calling for Carey several weeks back, his impact became apparent to the nation against USC when the true frosh exploded for two rushing touchdowns and another through the air, showing off the skills that make him one of the conference's most dangerous newcomers.
Carey, who is also a lethal threat in the kick-return department, owns the most total yardage on the roster.
The nephew of former Arizona and Denver Broncos star Vance Johnson, the bloodlines run deep in that family as Carey owns the same score-from-everywhere-by-any-means ability as his uncle.
Carey is gaining valuable experience and a larger role in the offense as the weeks go by, and offensive coordinator Seth Littrell should not be shy about unleashing the talented youngster.
He may make mistakes on occasion, but he will offset those by finding the end zone more often then just about anyone else on the roster is proving capable.
Carey is currently tied for the team lead in touchdowns (3) with seniors Keola Antolin and Juron Criner.
Rotate on the Regular to Pinpoint Potential Stars on Defense
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Face it Arizona followers: There are no stars on this defense right now (though that could change with safety Adam Hall possibly returning to the lineup after tearing up his knee in the offseason).
The pieces are interchangeable.
It's time to start mixing in a slew of defenders, keeping fresh legs all over the field on the regular.
While certainly not ideal, at least Arizona can maintain an active crew of defenders at all times, even if they can't match up across the board skill-wise.
And perhaps a few All-Pac-12 players in the making will start to emerge as their minutes are increased.
It certainly cannot get much worse than it has the last four weeks by giving other players shots at proving their value. Allowing an average of over 37 points per game just cannot continue.
Defense is supposed to be Mike Stoops' specialty. And he needs to start grooming his inexperienced core into something respectable across the conference.
This piece from Greg Hansen of the Arizona Daily Star delineated 37 reasons for this unit's disastrous run over the last month. It's an ugly list largely filled with a multitude of players who just straight quit the team.
Those that stuck around have to develop in a hurry.
Win the Pac-12 South and Play for a BCS Bowl Berth
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
USC is ineligible for the Pac-12 championship game due to NCAA-imposed sanctions.
That leaves Arizona State as the clear favorite at the top of the division.
But the Sun Devils are somewhat vulnerable, suffering a 17-14 loss at a slightly above-average Big Ten team in Illinois.
Besides ASU, there really is not another Top 25, perhaps not Top 40, team in the South.
If Arizona is able to clear its conscience and look into the future, growing fast after facing maybe the four best offensive players in the country (Justin Blackmon, Andrew Luck, LaMichael James, Matt Barkley), the Cats have a solid shot at pulling off the unthinkable.
Thank goodness for conference expansion.
It has breathed new life into an otherwise dead season for Arizona, making redemption within the realm of possibility.