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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Football turnaround starts with 2006 season

    Arizona wide receiver Mike Thomas is tackled by ASU safety Josh Barrett as a host of Sun Devils watch in the second quarter of the Wildcats 28-14 loss to ASU Nov. 25 at Arizona Stadium. Despite this loss that cost Arizona a bowl berth, the Wildcats took a step in the right direction by improving from 3-8 the past two seasons to 6-6 this year.
    Arizona wide receiver Mike Thomas is tackled by ASU safety Josh Barrett as a host of Sun Devils watch in the second quarter of the Wildcats’ 28-14 loss to ASU Nov. 25 at Arizona Stadium. Despite this loss that cost Arizona a bowl berth, the Wildcats took a step in the right direction by improving from 3-8 the past two seasons to 6-6 this year.

    Spencer Larsen had his back to the field at Arizona Stadium on Nov. 25 as he explained the Arizona football team’s failed comeback in its season-ending loss to ASU.

    He just as well could have been summarizing the Wildcats’ 2006 season.

    “”Things just weren’t going our way, and we had to overcome it,”” said Larsen, a junior linebacker. “”We had a chance, but we didn’t make the plays that we needed to make.””

    This year saw Arizona emerge from the ashes that accumulated over the program after Dick Tomey departed Tucson in 2000 and shake off lingering doubt that the Wildcats could defuse the self-sabotage that marked head coach Mike Stoops’ first two campaigns.

    The turning point occurred with two-thirds of the schedule gone, with the Wildcats’ first three-game winning streak since 2001.

    Arizona’s embittered offense finally came to life behind the steady gallops of junior running back Chris Henry, which allowed the defense to demonstrate just how much progress it had made since Stoops’ arrival from Oklahoma in late 2003.

    The Wildcats (6-6, 4-5 Pacific 10 Conference) took down consecutive top-25 opponents and beat Oregon on the road for the first time in 20 years, arriving at 6-5, within sight of a postseason berth for the first time since 1998.

    We had a chance, but we didn’t make the plays that we needed to make.

    – Spencer Larsen,
    UA linebacker

    Then, the Sun Devils came to town and burst Arizona’s bowl-game bubble.

    ASU put the game all but out of reach in the first quarter when quarterback Rudy Carpenter threw three touchdown passes that brought soaring hopes of a UA renaissance crashing back to turf.

    Yet following the disappointing 28-14 defeat to the Devils, the Wildcats were grateful for even those seeming worst of times.

    “”We hadn’t been in a position for a while when we were expected to win,”” Larsen said.

    Arizona’s encouraging finish created a curious question: How many games could the team have won?

    The Wildcat defense finished third in the Pac-10 in scoring defense, yet was constantly beset by a woeful offense (16.6 points per game, 105th out of 119 NCAA Division I-A teams) that suffered as sophomore quarterback Willie Tuitama struggled through three concussions.

    Tuitama played in 10 games but was knocked out of four of them, and backups Adam Austin and Kris Heavner did little to light up the scoreboard in losses to No. 4 Louisiana State, UCLA, Oregon State and ASU.

    Meanwhile, the rest of the team dropped passes, watched interceptions slip through their fingertips and turned the ball over carelessly, all relics of Stoops’ first seasons that players pledged they had overcome.

    Arizona seemed to realize its potential following its bye week and a 17-10 loss to the Beavers.

    Over the next three contests, Tuitama managed the game (3-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio) as Henry chewed up clock and defenders’ resolves (averages of 114 rushing yards and two touchdowns).

    The defense, in turn, got some much-needed rest and responded by punishing opponents for their mistakes, as the Wildcats had been so often to that point.

    Sophomore linebacker Ronnie Palmer intercepted California quarterback Nate Longshore in the final two minutes to clinch a 24-20 Homecoming upset on Nov. 11 over the then-No. 8 Golden Bears.

    The following week, the Wildcats forced six turnovers to hold the Ducks to less than a third of their season scoring average in a 37-10 victory.

    Arizona takes memories of the team play it showed in doses this year into 2007, when the Wildcats return 19 of 22 starters.

    Assuming Tuitama is cleared to play after taking a series of hits to his head, the offense returns the core of its attack, sans four-year difference-maker Syndric Steptoe at wide receiver and kick returner.

    The defense loses only safety Michael Johnson, oft-injured this year, from its highly touted secondary. It will keep its linebacker corps intact and feature a budding defensive line headed by defensive end Louis Holmes (team-high four sacks).

    Still, the biggest holdover the team will carry into next season, according to junior cornerback Antoine Cason, is a sense of urgency: knowing that a single loss can snowball into one too many if corrective measures aren’t taken.

    2006 Football season at a glance
    High point: Oregon victory. Arizona came into Autzen Stadium, where it hadn’t won in 20 years, and dominated Ducks from start to finish in 37-10 victory. Also when Wildcats’ hopes for a bowl game peaked…before a precipitous collapse (see Game to forget, bottom). Low point: Oregon State loss. 17-10 home defeat brought Arizona’s record to 3-5, coming just before team’s first three-game winning streak since 2001. Also low-water mark for UA offense, which floundered against Beavers behind third-string quarterback Kris Heavner.
    MVP: Junior linebacker Spencer Larsen. Not only led the team in tackles but also brought ferocity and dependability expected from a seasoned 22-year-old. MUP (most unappreciated player): Redshirt senior kicker Nick Folk. Did double duty at placekicker and punter, excelling at both jobs. Made final nine field goals in career once known for his missed game-winning kick against then-No. 20 Wisconsin as sophomore.
    Player who most emerged: Junior safety Dominic Patrick. Established self as biggest hitter in secondary missing graduated on-field leader Darrell Brooks. (Honorable mention: sophomore safety Michael Klyce, who started only two games but tied for team lead in interceptions with three.) Player who most disappointed: Junior left tackle Peter Graniello. Played poorly as most tenured veteran on young offensive line. Committed frequent, unnecessary pre- and post-snap penalties.
    Game to remember: Nov. 11 vs. then-No. 8 California. Arizona reaped second-straight Homecoming upset over national top-10 team, capped by sophomore linebacker Ronnie Palmer’s interception in Wildcat territory on the Golden Bears’ final drive. Game to forget: Nov. 25 vs. ASU. Sun Devils used 21-point first quarter to tear apart Arizona’s dreams of making the postseason for the first time since 1998.

    “”Any given Saturday, you got to come out on the field with the mindset that you’re going to win,”” said sophomore wide receiver Mike Thomas. “”You got to play for a full four quarters, no matter what. You never know what could happen.””

    At least five of Arizona’s Pac-10 rivals – No. 8 USC (10-2 in 2006), ASU (7-5), Oregon (7-5), UCLA (7-5) and Washington State (6-6) – return a significant amount of talent next season and thus be expected to finish as good as, if not better, than they did this year.

    For the Wildcats to match or improve on a four-way tie for fifth place in the conference, they will have to remember the positives they showed during a few whirlwind weeks in November.

    “”We were down early in the season, and everybody threw us in the tank, but we didn’t,”” Cason said. “”That’s what I think people learned: keep playing, keep fighting. We don’t have each other, we don’t have anything.””

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