The arguably toughest month in Arizona Wildcats football history is, depending on how you look at it, either the kiss of death or a reason to believe.
Linebacker Derek Earls prefers to stay optimistic. Two days after losing 37-10 to No. 6 Stanford and despite being outscored by 50 points over the last two games, he and his Wildcats teammates say they're ready for more.
"We think it's great," Earls said. "It defines who you are. We get to go up against bigger schools and show what Arizona is and what we do. These teams are hard to play, and they might be losses, (but) I think it's good for us."
The latest slog in the Wildcats' hell month comes Saturday at Arizona Stadium, when they take on No. 9 Oregon - their third straight opponent ranked in the Top 10. Things get a little easier after that, but not much: The Cats must travel to USC, which is likely to be ranked in the Top 25 if it can beat Arizona State this week in Tempe. If that happens, it will mark the first time in program history that Arizona has played four ranked teams in a row.
Coach Mike Stoops said Monday that he's already seen some positive results from Arizona's September struggles.
The Wildcats have improved their dismal rushing statistics, though they still rank 116th nationally with 55.67 yards per game. An embattled offensive line appears more sound with Kyle Quinn at center and Chris Putton and Trace Biskin at the guard spots, though the tackles aren't quite as consistent. Even the secondary, Arizona's biggest weakness in its first two games, appears to be making strides.
"The thing you look at is, are we improving? Are the kids playing hard? That's the big thing right now," Stoops said.
"We knew this would be the challenging part of our schedule. … These are great challenges for us, but our players are handling it well. These games need to make us better in September to make us better in November."
Zendejas starts again
It's official: Alex Zendejas is the Wildcats' starting kicker. Again.
Stoops said Monday that Zendejas, the UA's starter in 2009-10, will get the call Saturday against Oregon.
The senior replaces Jaime Salazar, who has missed three of the four field goal attempts and one of eight PATs this year. Salazar, a junior-college transfer, beat out Zendejas for the starting job in training camp.
"We're going to give Alex his job back, and we'll see what he does this week," Stoops said. "There wasn't a huge difference in camp, but Jaime was a little more consistent. He hasn't kicked as well as we would have liked from a certain range in."
Zendejas said his work ethic did not change during his time as a backup,
"Just to get another chance at it, it's good," he said.
Hall, Fischer closer
At least two injured Wildcats are getting closer to making their 2011 debuts.
Safety Adam Hall could practice full-speed as soon as next week, Stoops said Monday, though he's more likely to return for the UA's Oct. 8 game at Oregon State. Fischer could return by then, or a week or two later.
"They're doing more each week," Stoops said. "They're doing 7-on-7 (in practice), but they're not tackling live."
Hall and Fischer are both recovering from offseason knee injuries. Both were hurt in spring drills: Hall tore his ACL in practice, and Fischer was injured in the spring game.
Tailback Greg Nwoko also seems poised for an October return. Hall, Fischer and Nwoko traveled with the team to Stillwater, Okla., last week, and have taken an active role on the team while rehabbing.
• Next week's game at USC will kick off at 12:30 p.m. and be televised by Fox Sports Net. The UA's first Pac-12 road contest will be its fourth consecutive nationally televised game.
• UA's Justin Washington played defensive end against Stanford, but Stoops said the sophomore will move back to defensive tackle when senior Mohammed Usman returns from an ankle injury.
• What: No. 9 Oregon at Arizona
• When: 7:15 p.m. Saturday
• TV: ESPN or ESPN2
• Radio: 1290-AM, 107.5-FM, 990-AM (Sp)