TOLEDO, Ohio - That defense you were stressed about?
Those newcomers who made you worry? They dictated.
That scheme you doubted? It defied expectations.
The Arizona Wildcats opened their 2010 season with a blastoff Friday night, defeating Toledo 41-2 in a nationally televised game from the Glass Bowl.
That Arizona won wasn't a surprise; the Wildcats were two-touchdown favorites against a slower, smaller MAC team. How they won, however, surprised just about everybody wearing a throwback-inspired white helmet - and the head coach - on a crisp September evening.
Arizona's defense was its mutually agreed-upon weak spot throughout training camp. The four returning starters and seven newcomers struggled to stop the Wildcats' offense in drills, and seemed lost, timid and weak during all three public scrimmages.
Friday's performance was the exact opposite - sharp, aggressive and, most of all, effective.
"It was," cornerback Trevin Wade said, "pretty much a surprise."
• Arizona's defense held Toledo's offense scoreless, the Rockets' only points coming on a safety when UA guard Conan Amituanai was called for holding in the end zone during the second quarter. "I wish that 2 was a zero," Wade said with a smile. "It'd be a lot better."
• Toledo gained just 183 yards, 250 fewer than its per-game average a year ago. The Rockets averaged just 3.6 yards per play, a plodding pace so boring that most of the 25,907 fans were gone by the end of the third quarter.
"It was a big disappointment," Rockets coach Tim Beckman said.
• The Wildcats leaned on their newcomers, transfers, and down-the-depth chart players
Linebacker Paul Vassallo, playing in his first Division I game following a stellar junior college career, led the team with 10 tackles. Derek Earls, another JC transfer linebacker, turned the game with a second-quarter interception. Justin Washington, an afterthought at defensive tackle, had one of the team's two sacks.
Reminded of the Wildcats' previous struggles, defensive end Ricky Elmore could only smile and shake his head.
"From where we were two weeks ago to where we were today - leaps and bounds," he said. "Our heads were in the right place, we were ready to play, and it showed."
Toledo only threatened once. Austin Dantin connected with Eric Page for a pass midway through the third quarter that moved the Rockets to Arizona's 9-yard line. The Wildcats stuffed two consecutive runs, then watched as Dantin overthrew his receiver in the end zone. Toledo went for it on fourth-and-goal from the 3; Arizona flushed Dantin to the left and forced him to make a tough pass in traffic. He bounced it.
"We were up 28-2 at the time, and we came up with more big plays inside the 10-yard line," coach Mike Stoops said. "You always get confidence from that; that's something you need."
The Wildcats had their offensive stars, of course.
Quarterback Nick Foles was stellar, completing 32 of 37 passes for 360 yards and two touchdowns. One of the scores went to Juron Criner, who caught 11 passes for 187 yards and ended up on SportsCenter's "Top Plays" - twice. Tailback Nicolas Grigsby may have turned the game with a 36-yard dash three minutes before halftime. Though he finished with only 53 yards on eight carries, his two touchdowns gave the Wildcats some much-needed breathing room.
But it was the defense - criticized mercilessly for weeks in practice - that stood out.
The Wildcats planned it that way.
Wade and the UA defensive starters met repeatedly in the days leading up to Friday's opener. The topic: First impressions.
"We talked about not re-establishing what we had, but about establishing what we had," co-defensive coordinator Tim Kish said. "It was us defining who we're going to be in 2010. It was our first chance to make a statement."
The Wildcats' performance Friday spoke volumes.
What, were you worried?
"We have a long way to go and we have to make a lot of corrections, but I like what we have out here," Kish said. "We have a chance to be very good on defense down the road."
On StarNet: Read Ryan Finley's blog this week for a report card of Arizona's game against Toledo at go.azstarnet.com/finley
• What: The Citadel at Arizona
• When: 7 p.m. next Saturday
• TV: Channel 58
• Radio: 1290-AM, 107.5-FM, 990-AM (Spanish)
Two new Cats made an impact:
10 Tackles for LB Paul Vassallo, a transfer from Sierra Community College in Rocklin, Calif.
1 Sack in his first play as a Cat for redshirt freshman DT Justin Washington