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Football analysis: Greater tests yet to come for Cats

CHRIS CODUTO/Arizona Daily Wildcat
UA junior running back Mike Bell fights to gain some of his 118 yards rushing during the Wildcats' season-opening 21-3 win over Northern Arizona Saturday night.
By Brett Fera
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Tuesday, September 7, 2004
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Keeping ball in Bell's hands among keys to victory for UA against NAU

As the old sports adage goes, what worked against one opponent probably won't work against another.

The UA football team managed just seven points through the first 50 minutes of Saturday's game against Northern Arizona, but held the visiting Lumberjacks to only three points - a feat Arizona likely won't duplicate this week against No. 17 Utah.

The first game of the Mike Stoops era wasn't perfect, but it got the job done. Here's a few things the Wildcats did right, and a few more they'd better do against Utah if they hope to continue their winning ways.

As the Bell tolls

It's no secret that junior tailback Mike Bell is the team's go-to-guy in any - and every - situation.

Canales went to Bell early and often, and it showed by the team's ability to both control the clock and put points on the board - albeit sporadically.

The first seven plays on the team's game-opening scoring drive were all directed toward Bell, who ultimately carried the ball a career-high 31 times, also tallying three catches in the game.

"I've worked so hard and I'm just so thankful that the coaches are giving me a chance to do it and help the team win," Bell said. "I'm just blessed to be in this situation."

Keeping Bell as the team's centerpiece was expected, and it paid off for Arizona in its opener.

21 - 3

score by quarter

peak performers


Mike Bell
- Jr. - RB
31 car., 118 yds., 2 TD

Kris Heavner - So. - QB
18-23, 171 yds., TD


Darrell Brooks
 - Sr. - S
2 tackles, INT, FF

Antoine Cason - Fr. - CB
13 tackles, INT, 2 FF


play of the game

With NAU driving late in the third quarter down just 7-3, Brooks forced a fumble on NAU wide receiver Kory Mahr deep in Wildcat territory, keeping the Lumberjacks out of the endzone yet again.  Brooks' hit came just moments after he became the brunt of a Mike Stoops sideline tirade after missing an assignment.

Heavner's Handle

Through his gritty play during a lose-lose situation as a freshman last year and his strong offseason camp, UA sophomore quarterback Kris Heavner showed that the UA offense doesn't have to be the Mike Bell show for all 60 minutes.

Heavner completed 18 of 23 throws, finishing just one incomplete pass away from the school record for single-game completion percentage.

More importantly, he was able to stay within himself and not try too hard for the home-run ball. Heavner had just one completion of longer than 12 yards - a 37-yard strike to wideout Syndric Steptoe with most of the yards occurring after the catch - and managed to find eight different receivers in the game.

"Just his presence is what you want in a quarterback," Stoops said. "He was poised and threw the ball where he needed to be. We didn't open it up as much as we would have liked, but we wanted to run the ball and establish the run game. I think we have a whole lot more offense that we didn't show, and I think he has the makings of being a very good football player.

Spreading the ball around and accumulating moderate gains proved to be the ticket for the Wildcats while running Canales' west-coast offense.

Stoops gets offensive

During one first-quarter timeout, Heavner scurried to the sideline for a quick chat with Canales.

Who did he see standing right next to his offensive coordinator? None other than defensive dynamo Mike Stoops, the team's head coach.

How big of a deal is that?

Well, it was chronicled often that former UA coach John Mackovic, an offensive-minded coach, used to separate himself from his defensive unit during play-stoppages and sideline huddles.

Stoops contends that he doesn't add much specific input on offense, but said that it's important he be there for his players during games and keep his ears tuned to what's going on in all facets of the game.

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Nothing fancy

As much as seeing Nic Costa bounce around the field would have been great entertainment for the nearly 50,000 in attendance Saturday, it was probably a good idea for Canales and Co. to limit Costa's work at both wideout and under center.

Keeping things simple allowed Arizona to open the game with a 9-minute, 80-yard drive and also allowed the team to work out some of its offensive kinks, even though the game was just a 7-3 contest for more than two quarters of play.

Cats' darkest depths

Stoops admits that he wasn't too inclined to sub guys in and out much against NAU, but he knows he'll have to if the Wildcats plan to survive against a much more capable Utah team.

"We need to develop more depth, obviously on the defensive line. It's a critical area. We're gaining depth as we move forward." Stoops and Canales played only five offensive linemen until late in the second half and, aside from two reverses to wideouts, tailbacks other than Bell only ran the ball four times all game.

While Arizona spread the wealth well in its passing game, it will be vital for fellow running backs Gilbert Harris and Chris Henry to get more involved if Bell plans to stay healthy and be ready for late game surges.

Bell may be willing to carry the ball every down, but he shouldn't be expected to, especially once the Wildcats start facing bigger, faster and stronger opponents.

Don't just show up

Stoops made a point to say how grateful he was to the 49,741 who showed up, despite rainy weather, to root the Wildcats on to victory.

But just as he expects his players to pick up their performance another notch with a top-20 team in town this week, Stoops said its time the fans do so as well.

"It's almost like they were sitting waiting for something bad to happen," Stoops said. "We would like them to get more involved. Again, I couldn't be more pleased with all the people that were there, but in a tactful way I'd like to say 'just make a little more noise.'"

Stoops admitted that his team's inability to score more than one touchdown until midway through the fourth quarter may have been cause for boredom Saturday night, but added that he's confident his team will give fans a little something more to cheer about this week.

Growing up fast

Freshman cornerbacks Antoine Cason and Wilrey Fontenot both got the start against NAU, exceeding expectations with both their poise and stopping ability.

"That could have been as good a performance as I've ever seen from two corners who had never played a (college) game before in their life," Stoops said.

With a more talented receiving corps and one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the country ready to lead Utah into Tucson, Cason, Fontenot, and the rest of the Wildcats' young defensive unit will undoubtedly see a few white jerseys get past them.

That's OK though. More important than being expected to stop every player that comes its way will be the Wildcat defense's ability to regroup when it does get beat, which it invariably will. Maturity goes a long way over a long season, and this year's Arizona squad is going to be forced to learn on the fly.

"It's a growing process, a maturity process. We don't want to get too emotional, too high too low," Stoops said. "We understand we're going to be in some tough games throughout the year. We don't want them to go through peaks and valleys."

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