Wildcats prep for bowl, ASU packs up for winter
TUCSON, Ariz. (AP)—The Arizona Wildcats are preparing for their first bowl trip in a decade.
The Arizona State Sun Devils will stay home for the first time in five years.
That’s the main difference between the Wildcats (7-5, 5-4 Pac-10) and the Sun Devils (5-7, 4-5). Both had mediocre seasons, but Arizona is feeling a lot better after routing ASU 31-10 on Saturday night, reclaiming the Territorial Cup and knocking the Sun Devils out of the bowl picture.
“This win just lets everyone know that this program is headed in the right direction and that Mike Stoops might have some idea about what he’s doing here,” offensive tackle Eben Britton said.
Arizona’s victory nailed down a berth against No. 17 Brigham Young (10-2) in the Las Vegas Bowl on Dec. 20. It also reinforced the perception that the gap between Arizona and Arizona State, once as wide as the Grand Canyon, has grown narrower.
The gap widened in the 10 years since Arizona last went to a bowl game, with the Sun Devils plugging along as the Wildcats disappeared into the fog of the John Mackovic era. The Sun Devils are 67-56 since 1999, far better than Arizona’s 46-70 mark.
Arizona finished ahead of the Sun Devils in the Pac-10 only once from 1999 to 2005. But in the last three seasons, the Wildcats have finished ahead of the Sun Devils once and tied them once.
Arizona’s recruiting is also improving. On Monday, three Wildcats were named to the All-Pac-10 first team—tight end Rob Gronkowski, Britton and Mike Thomas, who was honored as a receiver and punt returner. Quarterback Willie Tuitama and defensive back Devin Ross were named to the second team.
ASU, meanwhile, placed no one on the first team and only two players— receiver Michael Jones and defensive back Troy Nolan—on the second team.
The next step for Arizona is finding consistency, but its fans still seem unaccustomed to success. Why else would the students rush the field after a victory over an ASU squad that also lost to UNLV?
“Maybe that was the greatest moment in the last 10 years,” Stoops said. “We certainly expect and want more.”
This much is certain: the Sun Devils expected more than 5-7.
They entered this season ranked 15th and hoping to contend for their first Bowl Championship Series berth. The Sun Devils were the defending Pac-10 co-champs and had a tested senior quarterback in Rudy Carpenter.
But after easy wins over Northern Arizona and Stanford, the Sun Devils collapsed in a 23-20 overtime loss to UNLV in Tempe on Sept. 13. That started a six-game losing streak, which tied a school record.
Late-season wins over woeful Washington, Washington State and UCLA fired hopes for a minor bowl berth. Those hopes evaporated against Arizona.
“I never thought we’d go from 10-3 to missing a bowl game,” linebacker Mike Nixon said.
The offense is taking most of the blame for ASU’s collapse.
ASU averaged 22.8 points per game, 83rd in the nation. They finished near the bottom of the nation in rushing (89.1 yards per game) and sacks allowed (2.83 per game), both indictments of a poor offensive line.
In its last two games, the offense mustered one offensive touchdown—on a 19-yard drive.
Those are staggering numbers for a school whose reputation was built on offensive pyrotechnics.
But coach Dennis Erickson said he’s not going to address the problem by changing his offensive staff, starting with coordinator Rich Olson.
“That’s ridiculous,” Erickson said when asked about the possibility of such changes. “It’s not about coaching changes. It’s about us as a group. If I got rid of the guy that runs the offense, I’d have to get rid of myself. I don’t want to do that. That’s not in my plans right at this moment.
“We’ve got some things we need to investigate, try to find out where we’re at,” Erickson said. “Obviously, we can’t play like we’ve been playing on offense. We’ve got to look at it and see what we’ve got to do to get better.”
One thing Arizona State has to do is find a quarterback to replace Carpenter, who started the last 43 games and is among ASU’s all-time passing leaders.
Danny Sullivan, who has completed 40 passes in college, is the only returning quarterback with experience. Other potential replacements include Samson Szakacsy, Chasen Stangel and Jack Elway.