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Mike Stoops steps in: Game 1

CHRIS CODUTO/Arizona Daily Wildcat
UA head coach Mike Stoops gestures to his players during pre-season practice earlier this month at the Jimenez Practice Facility, adjacent to Sancet Stadium and McKale Center. Stoops' Arizona debut comes tomorrow at 7 p.m. at Arizona Stadium.
By Brett Fera
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Friday, September 3, 2004
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Cats host NAU to open '04 schedule

Mike Stoops has done plenty for the Arizona football program during his nine months on the job as head coach.

Fan base? Check. Season tickets are selling at a record pace.

Player support? Got it. UA players say they're reenergized and rededicated to excellence on the field.

Bright future? All set. He's already received commitments from 15 recruits for next season's freshman class.

So what else is there?

Ah, yes: Play - and maybe even win - a game.

"Obviously we're very excited and anxious to get to game week. It seems like it's been an eternity," said Stoops, who was hired last December after the UA program finished with a 2-10 mark, its worst finish in school history.

Stoops has his first chance at completing those next steps tomorrow evening when his Wildcats take to the Arizona Stadium field at 7 p.m. against in-state foe Northern Arizona.

With the fanfare reaching its peak this month as students returned to the UA campus, Stoops said he's excited to finally get a chance to take the field surrounded by his new football family, he's most looking forward to his players having a chance to start anew, especially at home.

"All the excitement that we've built over the last nine months - it's exciting to our players to finally get out there," he said. "I just believe this is where I was meant to be and I'm just excited."

Stoops insisted that he doesn't get nervous for games anymore - he's coached for 18 seasons and was an All-American defensive back at Iowa - but admitted that this game does have a bit more meaning than most.

"It's probably similar to your first game playing," he said, "but once the game starts you just concentrate on what you have to do."

What Stoops undoubtedly will have to do if he hopes to avoid a similar fate as his predecessor - embattled former UA coach John Mackovic - is win early and often in his new job.

NAU's visit to Tucson may be Stoops' first opportunity for a victory, but the Lumberjacks aren't the ordinary Division I-AA opponent.

Led by seventh-year head coach Jerome Souers and star sophomore quarterback Jason Murrietta, NAU heads south from its Flagstaff campus after posting a 9-4 overall record a year ago and making an appearance in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Division 1-AA National Championship tournament.

Murrietta earned 2003 Big Sky Conference Offensive Player of the Year honors after throwing for close to 3,500 yards and 29 touchdowns. Murrietta's passer efficiency rating of 147.2 was the second-highest in the nation last season among freshman starting quarterbacks.

"Jason Murrietta is as good a quarterback as you'll see." Stoops said. "It's a great opening game for us - an in-state rivalry game."

The Lumberjacks are ranked as high as No. 3 nationally in all of Division 1-AA after finishing last season ranked in the nation's top eight.

The Wildcats have a top-notch offensive threat returning this season as well in junior running back Mike Bell. Bell ran for 920 yards last season, the majority coming after he took over the No. 1 job for good in the middle of the season.

Arizona will also counter with its own rising young quarterback - sophomore Kris Heavner - and promises to feature a more dynamic offense than last season with the return of senior tight end Steve Fleming and the possible use of sophomore quarterback-turned-receiver Nic Costa at both wideout and in the backfield.

Stoops said that he and his high-profile staff, including his brother Mark and former New York Jets receivers coach Mike Canales, the Wildcats' defensive and offensive coordinators, respectively, aren't looking past NAU and realize it's the big picture that everyone needs to focus on.

"I'm excited to play, but I understand we're in for the long haul, not just Saturday night," Stoops said.

As for what he expects from his team tomorrow night, Stoops said that, while he can't predict the future, he knows there will be added excitement around Arizona Stadium before, during and after the game.

"I don't think you can be 100 percent prepared for all things to happen," he said. "It's just going to be exciting to watch us play somebody other than ourselves."

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