When looking back on Saturday's 23-13 win over Washington, the UA football team's defensive coaching staff will find plenty to love and, likely, plenty to leave.
Tops on the former list should be the work of redshirt freshman cornerback Wilrey Fontenot. After already suffering three botched attempts at a defensive touchdown this season - tripping on an interception return and having two fumble returns called back, alas - Fontenot picked up a loose ball late in the third quarter against the Huskies and took it 33 yards for the score. The play was the first defensive touchdown all year for the Wildcats and put the team ahead 16-13.
Tops on the latter list, though, should be two plays showcasing the lack of mental focus on the part of Arizona of late. After halting the Huskies on their first two possessions and building a 9-0 lead, the Wildcats forfeited 10 points on two inane first-quarter penalties. A roughing-the-kicker call on fourth down led to a quick Washington touchdown, and a roughing-the-punter infraction, which followed an Arizona fumble, pushed the Huskies into field goal range. Washington kicker Evan Knudson converted the 42-yarder, and the Wildcats suddenly faced a one-point deficit.
Against such lower-tier competition as the Huskies, mishaps like these might fly. But with the final two games of the schedule looming, in what clearly will be the hardest test for this team thus far, Arizona must find defensive consistency.
Not to beat up further on the Wildcats' beleaguered D. It's arguably the most improved area on the squad, giving up 15 fewer points per game than in 2003.
Oftentimes this year, it's kept Arizona in games it otherwise had no business in (see Wisconsin). But even the best defenses falter, and, as mistakes tend to be magnified on a 2-7 team, very little can go wrong the next two weeks against No. 1 Southern California and No. 21 ASU.
Arguably the best thing going for Arizona this weekend is the venue. The only time Arizona has defeated a top-ranked Trojans team was 23 years ago, when a Republican president was in office and the unranked Wildcats upended USC 13-10. (Not that I'm hinting anything.) The last time Arizona traveled to Los Angeles, in 2000, it also brought home a victory. But even a calendar year is time enough for productive change, and this year's opposition - now ranked a spot higher than before last year's game in Tucson - now features two bonafide Heisman Trophy candidates, quarterback Matt Leinart and running back Reggie Bush. Leinart may regret not playing in Arizona Stadium, as the junior clawed the Wildcats for almost 300 yards passing and four first-half touchdown passes there last November, while Bush, known to some as The President, solemnly swears to move the chains throughout the game.
Diagnosing a battle plan for a defense that allowed 45 points and nearly 600 yards of offense the last time out isn't easy. Perhaps the best advice is to simply ask yourself, "Who are you going to stop?" Bush and backfield partner LenDale White are together averaging 144 rushing yards per game, and Leinart has thrown 20 touchdowns on 64.1 percent accuracy. As with most good teams, the quality of one offensive aspect depends on the efficiency of the other. If Arizona's defensive line can find a way to contain Bush and White - not factoring in the former player's triple-threat potential - the onus falls on Darrell Brooks, Antoine Cason and Fontenot in particular to find a way to confound a relatively weak receiving corps (sans Mike Williams, that is). If it occurs the other way around, and Leinart joins California's Aaron Rodgers with an uncharacteristically slow start against the Wildcats, a depth-weak defensive front must prepare for some thunder and lightning in the flats.
Should Arizona survive its trip to the Coliseum, it returns home for a bye week before taking on ASU.
At the beginning of September, the Sun Devils were a bit of an enigma. Their talent-laden roster limped to a 5-7 record in 2003. But then quarterback Andrew Walter rediscovered his form of 2002, when he and future NFL talents Terrell Suggs and Shaun McDonald led the team to its most recent bowl game. The Sun Devils rolled over No. 16 Iowa 44-7 on Sept. 18 and have since spent the majority of the season in the national rankings. Walter, who was selected Monday as the Pacific 10 Conference's Co-Offensive Player of the Week for his 415-yard, four-touchdown day against Stanford, has had one of his best seasons, totaling 2,498 yards and 25 touchdowns in nine starts.
Fortunately for Arizona, the fifth-year senior Walter is still prone to inconsistency in pressure situations. In Arizona State's two losses this season - though against No.1 USC and No. 5 California - Walter averaged 210 yards passing, threw no touchdowns, was sacked 11 times and led the team to just seven points.
This year's rivalry game will happen Nov. 26 in Tucson - at a time of year when bowl contenders are stepping up their efforts. Figure that the Sun Devils will run the table from now until then, a likely task with a lone home match remaining. They'll then enter Arizona Stadium seeking a whole lot more than the Territorial Cup, the game's customary prize. If Arizona's defense stays sharp, and avoids the kind of errors that have come to personify this squad, then the coaches will find plenty more to love in the coming weeks.
,i>- Tom Knauer is a journalism sophomore. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.