By Kevin Clerici
Arizona Daily Wildcat September 16, 1996
The UA defensive secondary entered this season without a catchy nick-name, just a new approach.
One that shows a new mentality: turnovers.
With five interceptions, three of which were returned for touchdowns, a UA record, the defense came up big in the fourth quarter, when the game was still arguably close.
The biggest one came from junior free safety David Fipp. With Illinois at the UA 5-yard line and down 13-0, quarterback Mark Hoekstra looked right to tight end Matt Cushing in back of the end zone. A bad pass turned worse when Fipp nabbed it and extended the Illini's touchdown-less possession streak to 51.
"This season we are thinking turnover," sophomore safety Mikal Smith said. "It is our mentality going into each and every play. We are not just thinking, Let's stop them. We are thinking, Let's get the ball back for the offense."
Smith had an interception of his own, scrambling 86 yards down the left sideline for a touchdown. It was both his first interception and touchdown of his collegiate career.
Nine plays earlier, inside linebacker Chester Burnett stepped in front of a crossing receiver for a 33-yard return with 8:04 left in the game.
True freshman Dennis Northcutt put the exclamation point on the game when he ran 63 yards with a minute left for the final score. Northcutt added another interception, picking up the team's seventh of the season on the game's final play.
Last season the Wildcats finished the season with six interceptions, stemming this season's new approach. Starting at Camp Cochise, the defense has focused on making more big plays.
With the addition of Chris McAlister, who joined Kelly Malveaux at cornerback, the UA cover men are one of the top duos in the Pacific 10 Conference.
"I feel really good about both of those corners around me," Fipp said.
"I know that if I accidently get sucked up they are going to be on top and making the play. You never want to get out of position, but sometimes it happens and I really feel that they will always have my back."
That confidence allows the safeties to take more chances, to go for more interceptions.
"It's probably a combination of a lot of things - we have great corners, a great strong safety, combined with the new mentality on defense," Fipp said.
The UA season record for interceptions is 31, but the secondary knows it has better offenses to face.
"There are still a lot of things that we can get better at," Fipp said, "so I need to keep working."
Overshadowed by the secondary was redshirt freshman linebacker Marcus Bell's play. With Jimmy Sprotte injured with a separated shoulder, Bell saw good time and made the most of it. He recorded a team-high 14 tackles, 13 of those being solo. Known for his special teams play, Bell worked his way into the starting lineup.
"It's great to see him get his feet wet and get a chance to play," UA head coach Dick Tomey said. "We are thrilled to death to see him accept the challenge well."
"It felt good to be in there," Bell said. "It was definitely rewarding. I got my chance tonight and I made the most of it."
Listed at only 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, Bell doesn't consider his size a big factor.
"I feel that size does not matter as long as you keep your quickness and speed out there," he said.
Sprotte is probable for Saturday's game in Washington.