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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Mediocre start haunts football

    UA running back Chris Jennings (28) lies in the grass during the Wildcats 29-27 loss to New Mexico in Arizona Stadium on Sept. 15. Arizona finished the season sixth in the Pacific 10 Conference.
    UA running back Chris Jennings (28) lies in the grass during the Wildcats’ 29-27 loss to New Mexico in Arizona Stadium on Sept. 15. Arizona finished the season sixth in the Pacific 10 Conference.

    It wasn’t even an hour after the Arizona football team ended its season Saturday night when the realization settled in for Antoine Cason.

    “”(I’ll) never put on the Arizona helmet again,”” the Jim Thorpe Award finalist said.

    Then Cason had a message for the future of his soon-to-be alma mater about what it feels like to be a graduating senior settling with a 17-29 record and no postseason games in four seasons.

    “”They need to go out next year and compete,”” Cason said. “”They need to know what this feels like and not want it to happen again. They need to learn from this experience by not starting off slow, ending well but lose when it’s on the line, because you don’t want to be in a situation where you have to win.””

    That, in a nutshell, was the harsh reality of the 2007 Wildcats (5-7, 4-5 Pacific 10 Conference). After a slow start, the team followed with more inconsistency before finally kicking into gear in late October at Washington.

    By that time, the team already had six losses, meaning it had to win out just to become bowl-eligible.

    Even though the Wildcats had a recent history of success in November, going 8-4 since 2004, when it came down to it, the team could not pull off a win over No. 13 ASU Saturday, which would have ended the Wildcats’ postseason futility at nine years.

    Instead, the team will look back on early season games against teams like New Mexico, Stanford and Southern California – all contests the Wildcats seemingly had every opportunity to win but didn’t.

    “”This year we lost to a number of teams that I don’t even want to mention, that are mediocre at best,”” said departing senior linebacker Spencer Larsen. “”We could have been a Rose Bowl team. If you look at the teams we lost to and the teams that we beat, we could have had it. There’s a lot of ‘coulda-woulda-shouldas’ around here.””

    This season was supposed to be the year that the Wildcats turned the corner, made the jump, crossed the hump and set the tone in the Pac-10.

    Despite being picked seventh in the conference in the preseason (Arizona finished sixth), expectations were the highest in a decade. After finishing 6-6 last season with an anemic offense, it was the addition of offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes that was supposed to put the team over the top, as well as a defense that featured 10 returning starters, including nine seniors.

    In total, 19 seniors will depart now, and with the 2008 season waiting in the wings and 11 senior starters departing on both sides of the ball, next year might be filled with more questions than answers, once again.

    The resounding attitude with the team is that it lacked discipline and a common goal, and that the near misses at the beginning of the season dug the Wildcats in a major hole.

    “”If we would have held on against New Mexico and Stanford, we’d be sitting fine right now,”” said quarterback Willie Tuitama. “”We have to make sure that everybody as a unit is doing the right things because that will translate onto the field.””

    Larsen, who has been known as the Wildcats’ voice of reason, said the team didn’t “”have everyone on board working towards the same goal.””

    “”We’re getting there, but the thing this team needs to do next year is make sure everyone’s on board and on the same page as to what needs to be done on and off the field,”” he said.

    Another harsh reality realized at the end of the season is that UA head coach Mike Stoops is in even more of a precarious situation now than at any other time of his coaching career – even more than when his team was 2-6 after a loss to Stanford.

    Fans are right back on the bandwagon of negativity, despite Stoops guiding toward three consecutive wins late in the season again.

    “”We really played much better in the second half of the season,”” Stoops said. “”That’s probably the thing I see. We still have a ways to go maturity-wise.””

    Arizona also had trouble winning close contests. The Wildcats finished their final six games 3-3 but lost all three games by a combined 11 points – seven at USC, one against Stanford and three against ASU.

    Over the entire season, the Wildcats lost by a margin of 59 points. In the team’s five wins, its margin was 73 points.

    The Wildcats also could not adjust to playing on the road. In the six road games, the team went 1-5.

    “”The finality is always hard,”” Stoops said. “”It’s not what we expected or what we hoped for. It was overall somewhat disappointing. I think we expected more.””

    Next season, Dykes will have to develop more running backs and receivers. Nicolas Grigsby got the bulk of the snaps at tailback as a true freshman, a position that finished last in yards in the Pac-10.

    Junior Mike Thomas also had the most catches for a UA receiver (82) since Bobby Wade had 93 in 2002 and played nearly every snap as well.

    More importantly, the coaching staff will have to find the right personnel to replace virtually an entire defensive unit.

    “”The young guys have to learn from the guys that were here,”” said defensive coordinator Mark Stoops. “”As a coach, you get excited about the guys waiting in the wings.””

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