Sun Dec 21 10:21am EST
Arizona 31, BYU 21. Arizona hasn't really ventured into the national radar, but in the year of quick-strike, high-profile coaching coups, the Wildcats' Las Vegas Bowl win Saturday night was probably the season's most persuasive argument for patience. After years of failing to break through, Mike Stoops began his fifth season in Tucson squarely on the hot seat. He ended it three games above .500 with as big a win as he's earned as a head coach -- the upsets over UCLA in 2005 and Cal in 2006 were encouraging points in ultimately disappointing years, but for a team that hasn't finished above .500 at all in a decade, a bowl win over a top-20 team to finish 8-5 is a much stronger affirmation of the process than settling for 7-6.
It's like watching a kid who grows up so slowly you don't even notice until one day he looks you eye-to-eye. Quarterback Willie Tuitama slightly improved his efficiency rating, yards per attempt and touchdown:interception ratio each of the last three years. The running game doubled its production over 2007. Bit by bit, the rock-bottom Wildcats evolved into a respectable outfit under our noses:
I don't know if that's "doing it right," but it's doing it, at least. All eight of the Wildcats' wins were by double digits and they had a chance to win well into the fourth quarter of all five losses, including USC, Oregon State and the wild shootout at Oregon. Now is the problem of sustaining it with Tuitama, the two leading tacklers on defense and the school's all-time receiving leader, Mike Thomas, all graduating and draft-ready left tackle Eben Britton possibly joining two other outgoing offensive linemen. Eight wins could be just the next step in the long, steady ascent from the cellar, or it could be the peak for a program that's only risen out of the middle of the pack for a year or two at a time in the past. Instead of "Bear Down," the rallying cry for 2009 should be "Continue the Climb."
As for BYU, this must be the most disappoiting 10-win season ever. The Cougars were ranked going into Saturday's game despite a marquee win over Air Force, the only team they beat with a winning record, and looked about as uncompetitive for most of the second half against Arizona as they did in the bad regular season losses to TCU and Utah. A pair of Tuitama touchdown passes in a six-minute window in the third quarter made the Cougar defense look very, very slow. This is the first time Bronco Mendenhall's stock has dipped, although it should go without saying that you're doing something right in the big picture when a 10-win season seems routine; BYU is obviously much closer now to the "BCS buster" everyone predicted in August than the 6-7 team that started the current Vegas Bowl streak in Mendenhall's first season. The next prolific robo-quarterback will emerge from the mold to replace Max Hall in the Spring and the vast majority of the Mountain West will remain under the Cougars' boot.
But this is still the team that was few seconds from becoming Washington's only victim in September. Other than lame-duck Oregon at the end of its second half slide two years ago, BYU under Mendenhall still hasn't done much to improve its reputation for lacking the athletes to win against other poll-worthy competition, and the second half Saturday night did not help.