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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    What we thought then isn’t what we know now

    What we thought then isnt what we know now

    Take a look at the state of the Arizona football team entering the year: it was coming off yet another bowlless season in addition to losing two of its best players defensively in Antoine Cason and Spencer Larsen.

    It didn’t look pretty.

    The old adage says you can’t win championships without a defense, and that also means no bowl games. Without Cason and Larsen, as well as solid defensive lineman Johnathan Turner, Arizona looked to be in trouble.

    Shows how much I know.

    Now after a 7-5 season and its first bowl berth in a decade, I look back at my preseason perceptions and compare them to reality. Needless to say, I was wrong in a few areas.

    Perception of offense:

    In Sonny Dykes’ second year with the program, I knew the offense would show vast improvement. After all, head coach Mike Stoops has always said it takes time to gel a team’s new identity, so I will give the Wildcats’ last season as their time to get to know the new schemes.

    My thoughts were quarterback Willie Tuitama would have to carry the team offensively with superior play, while halfback Nic Grigsby would need to be a solid running option and outlet out of the backfield to protect a signal caller with past health issues.

    Obviously, one of the most explosive players in the Pacific 10 conference, Mike Thomas, was going to play a major part, but I wasn’t sure if he could lead the Wildcats to offensive supremacy in the conference.

    Reality: The Wildcats have certainly proven this season that they have gone beyond most offensive expectations.

    This season, the Wildcats went above and beyond what I had previously expected in terms of offensive output. Arizona has averaged 37 points per game and more than 400 yards of total offense.

    “”It’s been a funny evolution to get where we’re at (offensively) for a lot of different reasons, but I think finding an identity is a problem,”” Stoops said. “”We’ve had to find out how we can manipulate the games a little bit better and I thought we’ve done that.””

    Not only did Tuitama play very well for the most part, throwing for 2,763 yards and 21 touchdowns, but the running game proved to be far more capable than previously expected. In fact, the 31 rushing touchdowns this season is more than the last three seasons combined.

    Grigsby and true freshman Keola Antolin worked well together, combining almost 1,600 yards and 22 rushing touchdowns.

    As I expected, Thomas had yet another huge season by catching 70 passes for a shade under 800 yards and four touchdowns. The wideout also had 21 carries for 102 yards and a rushing touchdown, not to mention his countless plays on special teams.

    Perception of defense:

    This was certainly the tricky part in terms of what I thought was going to be the weakness of the team. Losing Cason, Larsen, Turner and another lockdown corner in Wilrey Fontenot were huge losses – something I didn’t think the Wildcats could overcome.

    The Wildcats had some big questions on the defensive front after losing Turner and Yaniv Barnett and after converting Earl Mitchell to nose tackle from fullback. I had little faith in Arizona’s ability to stop the opposition’s running attack pressure on the quarterback.

    And then there were the concerns at cornerback with the departures of Cason and Fontenot, two players who were almost irreplaceable.

    From how I saw it before the season started, it was going to be a long year for the Wildcats’ defense.

    Reality: Arizona’s defense has vastly improved from the year before, which is somewhat unexplainable given how much talent it lost after last season.

    I don’t think even Nostradamus could have seen this coming, so I don’t feel too bad for being off the mark. Heck, I don’t even think defensive coordinator Mark Stoops could have seen this coming.

    The Wildcats’ defense allowed just 21.3 points per game this season and was particularly backed by the secondary. With Marquis Hundley and Devin Ross stepping in for departed stars, the Wildcats only allowed 169 yards per game through the air, which is almost an unthinkable stat.

    Brooks Reed was a menace in terms of pressuring the quarterback with his team-leading seven sacks, and Mitchell was solid at clogging the run as the defensive tackle accounted for 35 tackles.

    “”I think defensively for us to end up second in the Pac-10 (in total defense) is a pretty significant move for the amount of question marks we had this year with this young defense,”” Mike Stoops said. “”To be able to do that was really the difference.””

    Perception of special teams

    Entering the season, I thought Arizona would be in good hands on special teams with both kicker Jason Bondzio and punter Keenyn Crier.

    Both kickers proved to be clutch last season, particularly Crier as a freshman, so I had all the confidence in the world in what the special teams could do for the Wildcats this season.

    Reality: I guess I can pat myself on the back for this one because Arizona’s special teams has been fantastic this year.

    Bondzio went 51-for-51 on extra points this season and 13-for-15 in field goals. The only tries Bondzio missed were from more than 40 yards out. Aside from some faux pas from Crier, including a two-yard punt early in the season and his knee hitting the ground when he caught the ball against ASU, field position was usually on Arizona’s side.

    Two unsung heroes were Tito Foster and Orlando Vargas who played on every special teams unit. Known as the “”Smash Brothers,”” Foster and Vargas could be spotted everywhere on the field making big blocks and big hits and really had a major impact on Arizona’s field position throughout the season.

    Perception of how Arizona would do

    I hate to admit this, but in my final year covering Arizona for the Wildcat, I didn’t think I would be going anywhere for the bowl season. While I was almost sure the offense would put up solid numbers, I didn’t think the defense would be good enough to get Arizona over the 6-6 threshold needed to guarantee a bowl berth.

    Reality: Well, I think everyone knows the reality. Arizona exceeded everyone’s expectations, the Wildcats finished the regular season 7-5, and qualified for its first bowl berth in a decade. Kudos to Stoops and his staff. The Wildcats could have even won nine games, in my opinion, if they won the New Mexico and Stanford games as they should have.

    Well, it feels good to be wrong because I get a trip to Las Vegas out of it. Thanks to the Arizona football team for proving me wrong.

    – Ari Wasserman is a journalism senior and can be reached at sports@wildcat.arizona.edu

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