By Ryan Casey
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Tuesday, November 29, 2005
All right, they lost.
The good news? You know that gap that existed between the former Tempe Normal School and Arizona, the one that used to resemble the Grand Canyon?
It's gone now, more closely resembling one of Tucson's potholes.
In 1999, the Arizona football team was trounced 42-27 in front of 68,102 mustard-clad faithfuls in Tempe. The Wildcats fell 30-17 and 34-20 in Tucson in 2000 and 2002, respectively, and 28-7 two years ago.
I know, I know, 23-20 still doesn't sound too encouraging. But think of it this way: Willie Tuitama, Mike Bell and Brad Wood beat the Sun Devils 20-12 until they each went down with injuries.
It doesn't help much that your starting quarterback, running back and tight end are watching from the sidelines - or in Tuitama's case, throwing on the sidelines, despite tremendous pain, in a desperate attempt to convince yourself you can throw the ball with half the zip you normally do.
Nor does it help that your top receiver (super frosh Mike Thomas) has had surgery on his hand earlier in the week and is used primarily as a decoy.
Arizona was without its top four weapons offensively (five, if you count injured running back Gilbert Harris) and was still in position to win the ball game, an impressive fact in itself.
Sure, the Cats didn't bring the Territorial Cup back to Tucson for the second straight year, but this year's 3-8 version of Arizona football could wipe the field with last year's 3-8 version of Arizona football.
Don't believe me? Scoring was up almost 10 points (22.9 per game in 2005, compared to 14.9 the year before), and the offense was able to move the ball down the field more efficiently (19 first downs per game versus 16).
Even yardage saw a marked improvement, as the team averaged nearly twice as many yards through the air (229) as in 2004 (115).
The key to these improvements? Youth. Arizona head coach Mike Stoops has reinvigorated the program with his recruits, from Tuitama on down. Eight starters - all but one at a skill position - will be back on offense next year, and nine more will be coming back on defense.
That's fairly unusual in today's college football landscape, but you can bet your "Got Wood?" T-shirt that each player will be tested in spring ball, as Stoops has made it clear that no one in his program is given anything: Everything is earned. He plays the best players available to him on every given Saturday (or Friday), meaning that whoever deserves to play will be on the field, not the sidelines.
The 17 returning starters obviously give Stoops a dimension not yet seen in his days as a college football head coach: depth.
With the seasoned vets returning with yet another year under their belts (or five games, in Willie's case), he can focus even more on developing next year's crop of Stoops' Troops, as most vets have become acclimated to his system.
Where's the heat on the Sun Devils' hits?
Now for a little side vent.
The reason Tuitama went down Friday? Sun Devil safety Zach Catanese, coming on a blitz, lined up the young signal-caller and hit him well after he should have.
Yes, I know: It's football. But while hitting the quarterback is part of the game, there are times when it is necessary for a defender to let up.
Tuitama immediately sprang back up after a few big hits earlier in the game, but this time he stayed down, hunched over in pain.
Yes, I know: It's football. But while I know that hitting the quarterback is part of the game, there are times when it is necessary for a defender to let up.
While the hit may or may not have been intentionally malicious (Tuitama sustained two broken ribs on the play), it seems like we've seen this before.
Remember what Matt Leinart said after USC's matchup with ASU earlier this year? After taking a hit from the Sun Devils' Robert James, Leinart was a little confused while talking to the media the following week.
"I don't understand the philosophy of cheap shots, but I'm not one to talk about that," Leinart told The Associated Press. "Maybe people do want to knock out a quarterback from what I've accomplished. It's just normal."
"I remember throwing it," Leinart continued. "I saw him coming from like five yards away. ... I didn't think he was going to hit me, but he did."
Don't forget that Sun Devil fans cheered as the Trojan quarterback lay motionless on the ground.
Why is it that ASU seeks to increase its shot at winning by taking shots at opposing quarterbacks? The world may never know.
"I rushed getting the pass off, and then I got hit," Tuitama said after Friday's game. It was the extent of what was to be heard about the hit from the soft-spoken 18-year-old entrusted with the future of Wildcat football.
For Tuitama, it wasn't the first time he has been hit hard in his young career, but it had better be the last time a Sun Devil takes a cheap shot at a quarterback.
Ryan Casey is a journalism junior and the sports director at KAMP Student Radio. His radio show can be heard Wednesdays from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. on 1570 AM or at www.kamp.arizona.edu.