Arizona’s Pac-10 football representatives get their first serious tests of the season this Saturday, as both ASU and UofA take on Big Ten opponents – and both nationally-ranked.
The Sun Devils have to travel to No. 11 Wisconsin to meet the Badgers in Randall Stadium. The No. 24-ranked Wildcats get to play in the friendly confines of home as they host Iowa.
That’s the good news for Arizona. The bad news is the Hawkeyes are the No. 9 ranked team in the country.
That makes them the highest-ranked non-conference team to visit Arizona Stadium since then-No. 2 Miami showed up in 1991, leaving Tucson with a 36-9 win.
But Iowa hasn’t won on a road trip out West in more than two decades, going back to the 1987 Holiday Bowl when they beat Wyoming. The Hawkeyes have lost five out of the last six, tying Bringham Young in the only game not considered a loss.
On top of that, they haven’t had much luck against teams from the Pac-10 Conference. In the last three losses to Pac-10 schools, the average margin in those games was 28 points.
That said, Iowa brings with it a defense that is ranked No. 9 among FBS schools, a 227-yard per-game ground assault, and a vertical passing game that is triggered by one of the most impressive quarterbacks in the country. Which is why they are a two-point favorite to break their long drought against teams out in this part of the country.
Ricky Stanzi is a 6’4″ 230 lb. quarterback who hasn’t lost a college game he has started and is looking to extend his 14-game winning streak. The Hawkeyes lost two games last year without him. He was knocked out of the game with Northwestern and unable to start against Ohio State.
The senior is ranked ninth nationally in passing efficiency this season and has completed 70.7 percent of his passes.
And that will make it a great quarterback duel in Saturday’s game, which is expected to draw a capacity crowd to Arizona Stadium. The Cats have their own top gun in Nick Foles.
Foles didn’t start last year’s game against Iowa, a 27-17 loss at Kinnick Stadium, but came in late to finish the game. That was the beginning of a career at Arizona that now includes 12 straight starts for the Michigan State transfer.
This year, the junior is ranked 11th nationally in passing efficiency and has completed 49-of-59 pass attempts for an 83 percent accuracy rating. Under the tutelage of the Cats’ new quarterbacks coach, Frank Scelfo, Foles has already racked up 574 yards in the air.
His favorite target is wide receiver, Juron Criner, who has 12 catches in just two games, for 236 yards and a touchdown. The 6’4″ junior was injured in the second quarter in last week’s win over The Citadel, but has been practicing this week and should be on the field Saturday.
The Wildcats have one of the more explosive offenses in the country and they have eight starters back this season. Nic Grigsby is healthy again and has rushed for 160 yards and five touchdowns so far. And when he’s not in the backfield, Greg Nwoko takes over; he’s gained over 100 yards and two scores.
But Stanzi directs an effective running game as well, with a pair of running backs that have been very productive in just two games. Sophomore Adam Robinson has taken the lead with 265 yards and four TDs, while Jewel Hampton balances the backfield, averaging better than four yards a carry. Hampton missed all of last year with a torn acl.
Both teams have been putting big numbers up on the board in their first two games of the season, with UofA outscoring its opponents 93-8 and Iowa going 72-14.
The series between the two is tied at 6-6, but Iowa has won four of the last five. The one UofA win… 1998 when the Cats beat the Hawkeyes in Tucson, 35-11.
Last year, the Hawkeyes’ defense controlled the Cats’ spread attack, allowing just 253 yards and hanging on to the ball for 38 minutes of the game.
But that defense was orchestrated by Iowa’s defensive coordinator, Norm Parker, considered one of the best in the business. He will miss Saturday’s game, as his fight with diabetes took a turn for the worse this week and he had to be hospitalized.
And last year’s game was played in Iowa. On Saturday, the Hawkeyes will have to deal with the effects of playing in a different time zone, the heat of the Arizona desert, and a late starting time.
And the full house that is expected will be wearing Arizona red, to create a “Red Out”environment. The student section, the infamous Zona Zoo, will be given 15,000 white pom-pons to stand out in the sea of red.
All these distractions may prove to be enough to give the Wildcats a slight edge this Saturday. But it won’t help much if the boys can’t keep the game close.
This one could go either way, turning on a single play or two.
So, those of you in the Zoo… keep those pom-pons a-waving.