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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Offense finally big through small breakthroughs

    If Arizona was looking for a remedy for its meek offense, it found it in Stephen F. Austin.

    Gaining a season-high 407 yards – including 263 on the ground – the Wildcats found that elusive groove it’d been searching for since the season started three weeks ago.

    In doing so, Arizona enters Pacific 10 Conference play with its best nonconference record in nearly four years, having accomplished what it so struggled to do most in 2006: The Wildcats ran the ball. And they ran it effectively.

    “”Even when they’re bringing guys in the box to try and stop the run, if you can still run on them, that makes it a lot easier,”” said redshirt senior quarterback Adam Austin, who made his first career start against SFA in place of concussion victim Willie Tuitama. “”You can do a lot of things on offense after that.””

    Though the offense started slow on the

    “”He earned it. I told him this week we were going to do it anyhow, but he put a little exclamation point on it.””

    – Arizona head coach Mike Stoops,
    on walk-on junior-college transfer Chris Jennings’ new scholarship. Jennings had career highs of 26 carries and 201 yards in Arizona’s 28-10 win over Stephen F. Austin on Saturday.

    scoreboard – Arizona led just 14-10 at the half against the Division I-AA Lumberjacks – it accomplished much more in the first 30 minutes than a quick glance could show.

    On its first drive, Arizona converted all four of its third-down attempts – a season high – in grabbing a 7-0 lead.

    By the first play of the next drive, junior-college transfer Chris Jennings had nine carries for 68 yards, a season best not only for any individual running back but also for the team as a whole.

    And the ground game was clearly something UA head coach Mike Stoops wanted to emphasize all night, with the team running the ball on 62 percent of its plays.

    “”We tried to get some things accomplished in the run game,”” Stoops said. “”That was our major focus this week.””

    After the Lumberjacks scored 10 unanswered points, Austin led the team on an eight-play, 72-yard drive capped by his first career score, a 1-yard sneak up the middle. The touchdown drive, which spanned just 3:52, was Arizona’s second fastest of the season.

    With starter Chris Henry suspended for the game, Jennings – 111 yards on 14 carries – and redshirt freshman Xavier Smith – six carries, 29 yards – were able to steal the show by halftime.

    But the story of the night was Tuitama.

    After practicing only Thursday, in what amounted to 25 plays of preparation, the sophomore entered the game on Arizona’s first drive of the fourth quarter and led the Wildcats to two scores.

    A week removed from a concussion that kept him out of the fourth quarter of a 45-3 loss to then-No. 8 Louisiana State, Tuitama completed 6-of-9 passes for 61 yards, but more importantly, he displayed the confidence he exuded in five games last year.

    “”We need Willie to be a big-time player,”” Stoops said. “”The quarterback always has to make plays. That’s just the nature of that position.””

    As he hit the field to the roar of the student section, Tuitama looked calm and poised – two qualities he’d been lacking all season – and took care of business, moving his team down the field with ease.

    “”He’s a guy that pulled the trigger for them,”” said Robert McFarland, SFA’s head coach. “”I think the team is comfortable with him being in there.””

    After getting off to a rocky start this season, Saturday’s performance was something the young signal caller needed to have heading into a matchup with No. 3 USC next weekend.

    “”That was kind of our feeling, just get him back out there, get him in the flow of the game and try to get some rhythm,”” Stoops said. “”To have him throw some really good balls is very promising for us.””

    But it wasn’t just Tuitama by himself. The throws became easier for the quarterback to make with the offensive line beefing up its protection.

    “”As soon as I went in,”” Tuitama said, “”the whole O-line told me I was going to have all day … after what happened last week.””

    Also quietly making an impact Saturday night was wideout Mike Thomas, 2005’s co-Pac-10 Freshman of the Year, who hauled in five catches for 47 yards and more than doubled his offensive output on the season.

    But even with the signs of progress made, there is much to work on heading into Saturday’s game against USC. Twice, Arizona was inside the red zone and failed to net even three points – missing a field goal once and turning the ball over another time.

    “”I was just disappointed in our lack of execution, fumbling the ball down there in the red zone,”” Stoops said. “”We had a chance to really give us some breathing room.””

    Although it wasn’t perfect, or even pretty, against a team coming off a demoralizing loss at home (to Delta State, no less), a win – even against a Division I-AA opponent – was exactly what the doctor ordered.

    Now, heading into Pac-10 play, the Wildcats just hope to learn from the lessons they learned two weeks ago in Baton Rouge, La.: Good teams put winning streaks together.

    And one win doesn’t make for a streak.

    “”We need to win a game and keep winning games,”” cornerback Antoine Cason said. “”You can’t win a game and lose the next one to a good team. I think we’re a good team, but we just have to execute a lot better.

    “”I think we’re trying to get to that point.””

    -Mike Ritter contributed to this report.

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