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September 16, 2010
Week 3 preview in the Pac-10
In Iowa, cornstalks grow as tall as the Saguaro cacti in the Arizona desert. And that may be enough to make the Arizona Wildcats queasy.
After absorbing a beating from Nebraska in last season's Holiday Bowl, anything associated with corn might cause anxiety for the Wildcats.
In seven seasons under coach Mike Stoops, Arizona has gone from foundering (a combined 6-16 in '04 and '05) to respectable (a combined 11-13 in '06 and '07) to good, with back-to-back 8-5 finishes the past two seasons.
"I still think we're making progress in our program," Stoops said this week. "We're gaining on a national level. We started behind a lot of people and we've caught up relatively quick. It takes time to build a program like this. We're not Florida, Ohio State or Oklahoma … we're not like that. But, again, I'm very pleased with where we're at and taking that next step in another great challenge."
The Wildcats' next step is establishing themselves as a legitimate power. But standing in their way are the ninth-ranked Iowa Hawkeyes, who visit Tucson on Saturday.
The Wildcats have flirted with moving up the ladder before. In '08, they were 5-2 after upsetting No. 25 California. Then, they lost three of their next four games. Last season, they were ranked 22nd going into the Holiday Bowl matchup with Nebraska, but fell out of the rankings after an embarrassing 33-0 loss.
The Wildcats are 2-0 this season after easy victories over Toledo and The Citadel, both overmatched opponents. But possible validation awaits in the form of the Hawkeyes.
Last season, Iowa knocked off Arizona 27-17 in Iowa City. A win over the Hawkeyes this season would mean a rise in the polls and perhaps signal that the Wildcats have indeed become a legit top-20 program.
"It's a hard place to get to," Stoops said. "We're fighting like mad to get there. This is another opportunity. Hopefully, we'll take advantage of it."
The Wildcats might have a better chance than a year ago. After that loss in Iowa City, Nick Foles moved in as the starting quarterback and went on to have a strong season with 2,486 passing yards and 19 touchdowns. Foles has gotten off to a torrid start this season. He has thrown for 574 yards while completing 83 percent of his passes.
Stoops said Foles' completion percentage should be even higher.
"He's very accurate, I don't think there's any question about that," Stoops said. "Every ball he's thrown has had a chance [to be completed]; he maybe should be 100 percent with his throws.
"But he'll have to play much faster [against Iowa]. Things are going to happen a lot faster this week and the windows are going to be a lot tighter, so we're going to need his accuracy and our players are going to have to make some tough, competitive catches."
The going indeed will be much tougher for the Arizona offense, which is averaging 46.5 points. Iowa has allowed just two touchdowns and one was scored in garbage time after the Hawkeyes already had taken a 35-point lead over Iowa State.
Nothing comes easy against Iowa's defense, which is led by intimidating end Adrian Clayborn, who is one of the best players in the nation.
"A guy that big [6 feet 4 and 285 pounds] who runs that well is a unique player," Stoops said. "He's very good. [Broderick] Binns, the other end, is very good, too, and their inside players are very good. Three or four of those guys up front are NFL[-caliber] players."
The Hawkeyes' offense is dangerous, too. Quarterback Ricky Stanzi is experienced. Wide receivers Marvin McNutt and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos are big-play threats, and running back Adam Robinson has rushed for 265 yards and four touchdowns.
"They're going to do what they do," Stoops said. "They're good at running the football and they're good throwing. They have two tremendous receivers, and Stanzi is playing as well as he's ever played. They can hurt you in a lot of ways."
That's why Iowa is in the top 10. Getting there for Arizona will require beating teams like the Hawkeyes.
"This is obviously a different game than what we played a week or two weeks ago," Stoops said. "The competition level is much greater. And we're trying to get to a position that we've never been, so this is something unique and challenging to our players."
Best matchup: Washington WR Jermaine Kearse vs. Nebraska CB Prince Amukamara. Kearse, a junior, is underrated nationally. He has 14 receptions this season, and four have gone for touchdowns; he has 10 TD receptions in his past six games. He also has hit 100 yards in four of the past six games. But Amukamara is the best cornerback he will see this season. Opponents shy away from throwing to his side, but Amukamara still has three pass breakups this season and has five picks and 14 breakups since the beginning of the 2009 season. Washington must get some big plays from Kearse, or it has no shot at upsetting the Huskers.
Player on the spot: UCLA QB Kevin Prince. Prince, who has had oblique and shoulder injuries, remains UCLA's starter but for how long? He was just 6-of-12 passing for 33 yards and an interception in last week's 35-0 loss to Stanford. He was removed from the game after he botched a handoff and was stripped of the football, which resulted in a Stanford touchdown. Prince has completed 39.5 percent of his passes with three interceptions and only one touchdown. Bruins coach Rick Neuheisel replaced Prince with sophomore Richard Brehaut against Stanford. Unless Prince plays better this week against Houston, Neuheisel may be tempted to make a permanent change.
Numbers game: Oregon's special teams already have produced three touchdowns. Cliff Harris returned two punts for touchdowns in the season opener and Kenjon Barner returned one for a touchdown last week against Tennessee. Not surprisingly, Oregon leads the nation in punt returns with a 43.6-yard average. Harris also returned an interception for a score against Tennessee for his third touchdown of the season, the nation's highest total for a non-offensive player.
What they're saying
"I've been keeping it to myself, but just watch, this game right here, it's going to be a big one. Louisville's got one coming." -- Oregon State RB Jacquizz Rodgers, telling The Oregonian that he expects a breakout performance after failing to reach 100 rushing yards in each of the Beavers' past three games
"We want to go out and play good defense and make him prove to the world that he's a great quarterback. We don't want to put him on no pedestal. We want to go out and prove that we can take down a good quarterback with our defense." -- Nebraska S Rickey Thenarse, on Washington QB Jake Locker
Etc.: Arizona athletic officials are calling for a "Red Out" and urging all Wildcats fans to wear red for Saturday's game against Iowa. … Arizona WR Juron Criner left last week's game with a shoulder injury, but he definitely will play against the Hawkeyes. … Arizona State QB Steven Threet will be facing Wisconsin for the second time. Two years ago, he was quarterback at Michigan and led the Wolverines back from a 19-0 halftime deficit for a 27-25 victory. … Cal LB Mike Mohamed has been slowed by a sprained left toe. He missed some practice this week and has worn a protective boot. … Oregon DE Kenny Rowe is hobbled with an ankle injury and TE Brandon Williams has hand and arm injuries, but both are expected to play against Portland State on Saturday. … Ducks sophomore RB LaMichael James had rushed for at least 100 yards 10 times in his career and in each of the past eight regular-season games in which he's played. … Oregon State is looking to extend its home winning streak to nine when the Beavers face Louisville this weekend. … Oregon State WR James Rodgers had caught a pass in 30 consecutive games, the fourth-longest current streak in the nation. … Stanford QB Andrew Luck is a talented passer, but has shown he can run, too. He's rushed for four first downs and has gained 63 yards on seven carries. … Stanford's 35-0 victory over UCLA last week marked the Cardinal's first shutout on the road since 1971 and first over UCLA since 1941. … USC DEs Armond Armstead (shoulder) and Nick Perry (ankle) are slowed by injuries. … The Trojans have been penalized for more yardage than any team in the nation. They've been flagged 24 times for 240 yards. … UCLA already has committed seven turnovers, which is the most among Pac-10 teams. Mountain West Conference member New Mexico (with eight) is the only team in the nation with more. … Washington State RB James Montgomery, who missed almost all of last season with a leg injury, rushed for 116 yards last week against Montana State. It was the first 100-yard rushing performance by a Cougars player since Montgomery rushed for 118 yards against Hawaii 11 games ago. … K Nico Grasu has come up big in all of Washington State's last three victories. His field goal in the final three minutes provided the winning points in last week's 23-22 victory. He also kicked winning field goals in overtime against SMU last year and Washington in '08.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.