By Charles Renning
2005 Arizona football season opener
Arizona at Utah • 4 p.m. (ESPN) • Salt Lake City
Arizona Daily Wildcat
September 2, 2005
Going into today's season opener, the Arizona football team will have a lot on its mind.
The Wildcats will be thinking about avenging last year's loss to Utah, the national television audience, starting the 2005 season away from home and maybe the possibility of a bowl game down the road.
But the No. 1 thing on everyone's mind is just getting a win.
"It's going to set a big tone for our season," said senior defensive end Marcus Smith. "If we can go in there and beat them it will put us on the map. It'll set our season off on the right foot."
Arizona opens its 2005 season today at 4 p.m. in Salt Lake City against a Utah team that finished 12-0 last year, including a 23-6 win over the Wildcats at Arizona Stadium. The game will be broadcast at 4 p.m. on ESPN.
"It's a big game. Any time you play on national TV and have a big audience, you want to play well," said second-year head coach Mike Stoops. "We'd like to go out, play well and show improvement. If we do things the right way, we'll have a good opportunity to win. If we go out and make mistakes in the red zone, give up big plays, get beat up front, our chances will diminish a great deal."
All of those aspects Stoops highlighted were issues that hurt his squad last season when they fell to Utah.
In that game, the Wildcats gave up 17 first-half points to the Utes and scored just six points in five trips inside the Utah 20-yard line, playing the 2005 Fiesta Bowl champion to its closest game of the year.
"Once we get into the red zone, we have to be able to run the ball and pass it," said senior running back Gilbert Harris. "We have to get points every time we're in the red zone. We can't come out with no points like we did a lot of times last year."
Although Arizona still thinks about the missed opportunities from last year's contest, the Wildcats are out to prove they are a different team.
"We know what we have to do to win and play better," Stoops said. "Our kids have a lot of confidence and are anxious to go out and show what they've done over the past year. I anticipate us to play very well."
All of the personnel losses Utah suffered over the offseason should help the Wildcats in their bid to win on opening day for the sixth straight year.
Gone are quarterback, Heisman Trophy finalist and NFL No. 1 pick Alex Smith, former head coach Urban Meyer, offensive coordinator Mike Sanford, leading rusher Marty Johnson, and top receivers Steve Savoy and Paris Warren.
Former defensive coordinator Kyle Whittingham has taken over the reigns at Utah and brought in Oregon's offensive coordinator to handle those duties.
Also in is sophomore quarterback Brian Johnson, who will get his first collegiate start tonight.
Stoops said he expects Utah's offense to be a combination of what Utah and Oregon ran last season, with Johnson being the unknown factor.
"We've got to see how this quarterback reacts. We don't know a lot about him," Stoops said. "I think as the game goes on, we'll have a pretty good feel for what his strengths and weaknesses are."
Stoops said that with returning defensive starters tackle Steve Fifita, back Eric Weddle and linebacker Spencer Toone, Utah's defense will be its strength, and for the Wildcats to be successful, they must match the Utes' physicality.
"Their physical strength will be interesting to see, and that's an area where I felt we've made a lot of improvement over the past year," Stoops said. "Hopefully, we'll be a more physical team. We need to be strong at the line on both sides of the ball."
Although many players and coaches agreed they'd rather have opened the 2005 season at Arizona Stadium, a first game on the road will say a lot about what the year will hold.
"Everyone likes starting the season at home, but that's just how it is," Stoops said. "You have to be more focused and prepared to go on the road. You have to play better, and hopefully we'll be able to do that."
"When we go on the road we can show we're a lot tougher than we were last season," said sophomore cornerback Antoine Cason.
Home or road, the Wildcats are just hoping to feed off of last year's season-ending, 34-27 win over ASU and carry the good vibes over to 2005.
"We're still riding that win, so coming out and getting a win in the opener will help with our confidence and give us momentum heading into our other games," Harris said.
"That would be a perfect starting point," said senior running back Mike Bell about a first-game win. "We ended (last year) on a good note, so if we could start on a good note (this season), it would be great for our program and (Tucson)."