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Football analysis: Who knew? Defense the key for Stoops-coached teams

Arizona beat NAU 21-3 at Arizona Stadium in Tucson, Ariz., on Saturday September 4.
By Tom Knauer
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Tuesday, September 7, 2004
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Entering this season, everything pointed to a defensive resurgence under first-year head coach Mike Stoops.

In his final two seasons as defensive coordinator at Oklahoma, Stoops oversaw a unit that allowed 13 or fewer points against 16 of its 28 opponents, helping carry the Sooners to consecutive 12-2 records.

Of course, no one expects Stoops' new team to duplicate such success in 2004, least of all with a patchwork offense and a foreboding schedule.

But the consensus all summer was that fans could expect a better defensive unit than the one that ranked last in the Pacific-10 conference in points allowed in '03.

Saturday, against Northern Arizona, the new-look Wildcat "D" took their first step toward that promise, dominating the Lumberjacks in a 21-3 showdown cleverly disguised as the Mike Bell show. But while the junior running back ran as sleek as the team's new navy blue headgear (31 carries, 118 yards, 2 TD), the effort on the other side of the ball was clearly the story of the night.

Arizona didn't permit a touchdown for the first time since '02, all while intercepting three passes - nearly half of last year's total of seven - and forcing three fumbles.

Freshman cornerback Antoine Cason highlighted the effort with a pick and two forced fumbles, complimenting his 13 tackles, 12 of which were solo.

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"Defensively, we couldn't be more pleased with the way we played all night," Stoops said after the game. "I thought our position on the ball was just fabulous. Very few mistakes."

The Wildcats attacked their neighbors to the north. Lumberjack running back Roger Robinson finished with 20 carries for a respectable 101 yards, but only 16 of them came in the first half. The rest arrived as NAU quarterback Jason Murietta played Santa Claus for the youngsters in Arizona's secondary, tossing balls to both Cason and redshirt freshman Wilrey Fontenot.

Junior safety Darrell Brooks, who grabbed Murietta's second interception, had nothing but praise for his teammates' work against NAU.

"That's a big boost, a test for our confidence," Brooks said. "Last year, we didn't do a good job of turning the ball over. That was something we felt we might as well invest in."

The Wildcats hope to cash in their chips this weekend against No. 17 Utah, the first of three top-25 teams Arizona faces in the next six weeks. The Utes come off a 41-21 victory over Texas A&M in which Utes' signal caller Alex Smith threw for three touchdowns and ran for two more against the bewildered Aggies.

"Utah's a fabulous football team. They can hit you in a lot of different ways," Stoops said. "We watched a lot of tape over the summer, and we have some thoughts. It will be a challenge for us."

Stopping Smith will be priorities one and two for Arizona. The junior won his 10th game in 11 starts at quarterback for Utah, scoring three times in the first half alone and helping pile up 582 yards of total offense. He amassed 431 of those yards himself, compared to the Wildcats' 307 total against NAU.

Brooks believes playing the Lumberjacks makes the Utes' spread offense seem much less daunting.

"It's a big tuneup," he said. "They do a lot of the same things (as NAU) in their motions and different trades and everything. It was good to get out there and communicate and get comfortable with something we're going to do next week."

Brooks added that downing the Utes will take quite a few performances likethose of Cason and Fontenot.

"As long as we execute as a team," he said, "we can play with anybody."

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