Greg Hansen : Sluggish UA must pick up pace with long road ahead

2009-09-13T00:00:00Z Greg Hansen : Sluggish UA must pick up pace with long road aheadOpinion by Greg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
September 13, 2009 12:00 am  • 

Not long ago, beating NAU any time, by any score, created such joy that Mike Stoops almost blew the budget dispensing game balls.

That was 2004. Arizona beat the Lumberjacks 21-3 and Stoops said, "This is pretty special; that was as tough as any game I've ever played in."

Look it up. Word for word. "This is pretty special."

The Wildcats then lost seven consecutive games and, yes, memories of that opening night victory over the Lumberjacks had to carry Stoops through a difficult first season, 3-8.

Compare that to Saturday's 34-17 victory over the Lumberjacks, in which the nicest thing you can say is that it moved Arizona to within four games of bowl eligibility and that NAU drove back to the forest with a $380,000 check, which means it might be able to balance the budget.

The Wildcats huffed and puffed but couldn't put the Lumberjacks away until late in the third quarter. They seemed preoccupied with the thought of playing at Iowa on Saturday and not playing NAU Saturday night.

Stoops was notably subdued, almost monotone in his post-game media briefing. The most upbeat thing he said was "we didn't punt all night, did we?"

Arizona didn't punt, and it gained 559 yards. Yet it was a strangely unfulfilling night.

It wasn't until Nicolas Grigsby bolted up the middle for 94 yards that the Wildcats and what remained of 50,623 fans got off the sofa. Meanwhile quarterback Nick Foles tidied up the place, a sharp and promising passing debut, but it's difficult to make much sense of it because he was throwing against a Big Sky secondary and was never under much of a rush.

This was a luxury that Arizona probably won't get until Washington State visits Arizona Stadium on Nov. 7. In that context, it was a worry-free night, something to cherish now that the next three games are on the road against Iowa, Oregon State and Washington.

"The thing that bothers me is that we've had too many turnovers in two games," said UA offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes. "We're just a little-above-average offense, or maybe average, right now."

The problem with playing a pair of teams from the Mid-American and Big Sky conferences, Central Michigan and Northern Arizona, to open the season is that it's difficult to maintain energy for 60 minutes. It's hard enough doing it on opening night; doing it in Week 2 is defying football's psychological gods.

"Sometimes these games can affect you in some ways that you're not as sharp mentally as you need to be," Stoops said. "Great teams do it every week, but it's hard."

Perhaps that's why Arizona's receivers dropped so many passes Saturday. Boredom.

"We throw a million balls in practice, and we don't have a problem with drops," said Dykes.

Another factor is that Arizona's blueprint for offense is triggered by tight end Rob Gronkowski, who has yet to suit up, and by receiver Delashaun Dean, who was banged up again Saturday and hasn't gotten on track.

Unless Gronkowski and Dean are productive, the Wildcats have little choice but to become a running team. And how far is that going to take them if Iowa and Oregon State can sit on Grigsby in all the key strategic situations?

So no wonder Stoops appears and sounds frustrated. The clock is ticking, and it's a rush job.

"The next two games are going to be huge for us," he said. "We're anxious to move past these two games."

There's some recent in-state history, none of it good, to a September struggle against NAU. Three years ago, the Lumberjacks and Arizona State were tied at 14 entering the fourth quarter in Tempe. And although the Sun Devils rallied to win 35-14, ASU didn't really get on track all season.

Dirk Koetter was fired after a 7-6 season, much of it traceable to the sluggish getaway against NAU.

This isn't to suggest that Stoops' job is in any danger. That's silly. He's 18-13 over his last 31 games.

It's just that he, as many coaches, is fighting through some bad fortune. Without Gronkowski, Arizona is a different team. It makes the whole process, including the breaking-in of sophomore quarterback Matt Scott more difficult.

"In these first two games, we've gotten ahead early, and that makes you want to possess the ball and control the clock," Dykes said. "We want to be smart, and doing that sometimes makes the games a little ugly. But, hey, we wanted to be 2-0, and we're 2-0."

The Wildcats will embark on their three-game roadie not with momentum but with determination to get better.

"We want to play at a place like Iowa," sophomore safety Robert Golden said. "We want to go to a place that gets you excited, where you have to play like your hair's on fire."

Now we'll see if Arizona can light the match.

Contact columnist Greg Hansen at ghansen@azstarnet.com or 573-4362.

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