By Ryan Casey
Arizona Daily Wildcat
September 1, 2005
The second of September. Nine-slash-two. It marks the beginning of a crucial five-game stretch to open the 2005 Arizona football season.
Last year, one win - on Thanksgiving weekend - left a satisfied taste in the mouths of the Wildcat faithful, but it's a new chapter for Wildcat football this year.
Beating ASU for the second year in a row would be monumental, but it simply wouldn't quench the thirst of the Arizona Wildcat football team.
"We're beyond where we used to be in terms of our satisfaction, and losing is not something that we approve of any more," said senior safety Darrell Brooks. "(Our) priorities have changed. We're trying to get to a bowl game."
The stretch that includes road games in Salt Lake City, Berkeley, Calif., and Los Angeles to face off against three of last year's top-10 teams isn't a kind way to open the season if you are a member of the Arizona football team. It could very well define the Wildcats' season.
"It'll tell us a lot about the character of our team," said junior wide receiver Syndric Steptoe says. "(The first five games) are going to make or break our season."
Arizona opens the season on national television in Salt Lake City to take on a Utah Utes team that beat the Wildcats in Tucson 23-6 last year en route to an undefeated 12-0 season. Fortunately for the Cats, lightning doesn't strike twice, especially when that lightning is minus its head coach, starting quarterback, running back and two top wide receivers from a year ago.
"Utah's a team that we played horrible against and yet we gave them the closest game they had all season," Brooks said.
He's right. Outside of Air Force's 49-35 loss to Utah, no other team came within as few points as Arizona gave the surprising Utes. The 23 points scored by Utah in that game were the fewest managed by its high-powered offense all season.
"We didn't play well, and we have a chip on our shoulder about that," Brooks said.
That chip may prove to come in very handy, as after a matchup with Division 1-AA NAU on Sept. 10, the Wildcats continue a two-game homestand to face a tough Purdue team that returns its entire defense.
Looming Sept. 17, the game against the Boilermakers is yet another decisive game for the Cats. Whether they go 2-0, 1-1 or 0-2, this game against the preseason No. 15 team in the nation will be a turning point in the season.
In the likely case that the Wildcats head into the Purdue game 2-0, they will have the opportunity to head to California with an unblemished record and make some national waves in the process.
If seemingly everything were to go wrong in the first two games of the season, and the Wildcats somehow find a way to lose to lowly NAU at home, the Purdue game will be a chance for Arizona to right the ship.
Moving westward, the Cats close out this thorny five-game stretch in California where they will face two teams that could have met in the 2005 Orange Bowl for the national championship had they not faced off earlier in the season.
After what will probably be a much-needed week off following the Purdue game, the Cats travel to Berkeley on Oct. 1 to face a team in search of a new offensive leader. No longer can the California Golden Bears rely on the arm of Aaron Rodgers, nor will they be able to pitch the ball to J.J. Arrington. Both have found greener pastures in the NFL.
In losing their starting quarterback and running back, it would be easy to equate the Bears to the team the Wildcats face to open the season, but be careful. The Utes don't have Marshawn Lynch, Arrington's replacement. The sophomore, who is on many preseason Heisman watch lists, had an 8.8 yards-per-carry average last season.
Lynch's Arizona counterpart, senior Mike Bell, isn't taking the No. 20 team in the nation lightly.
"We're going to have to take it up two notches and play that much better. That's what it's going to take (to win against California)," he said.
After their matchup in Berkeley, the Cats take on the two-time defending national champions. Sounds fun, right?
Forget about Matt Leinart for a moment, the defending Heisman Trophy winner. Overlook fellow Heisman finalist ("Mr. Everything") Reggie Bush for the time being. Disregard that USC's second team could wipe the field with many teams in this nation. The Cats have hope.
"Anything can happen," said Steptoe, stealing a page from the Book of Clichés.
Bell couldn't hide his excitement when asked about traveling to the Rose Bowl for the second year in a row.
"If we can beat them in there, it'd be even better," he said, a slight smile evident.
The confidence emanating from this Wildcat team is something that Tucson hasn't experienced in quite some time. The first five games don't scare this team.
"How tough?" said starting quarterback Richard Kovalcheck. "It'll be challenging, but we're confident that we can win every single game."
Sophomore cornerback Antoine Cason? Same story.
"How difficult for our five opponents are those games going to be?" he said. "This year we want to take it a step further, and we will take it a step further."
The main difference in this team - now in its second year under head coach Mike Stoops - from the Mackovic years is that team goals come above individual ones.
Bell said he has just one such goal.
"To win, man, to win," he said. "That's all I want. Whatever it takes to win."
Call me crazy, but I think this team wants to win.