UA, ASU football open 2010 season with must-win games

While the on-field scenarios are completely different, our Pac-10 representatives have one thing in common as they open their seasons this weekend.  Each has much to lose if they take the competition too lightly.

University of Arizona has its collective eye on a trip to the Rose Bowl, the optimism buoyed by matching 8-5 records the past two years.  A loss to the University of Toledo, a member of the Mid-American Conference, would be a confidence-killer.

Arizona State also can’t afford to lose to a rebuilding Portland State program, which hasn’t had a winning season in three years.  They need every win they can get just to help head coach Dennis Erickson hold on to his job another year.  ASU is coming off of two consecutive losing seasons, the first time the program has dipped that low in over 60 years, and the boosters are growing uneasy.

The UofA game, which will be nationally televised tonight, might be considered the David v. Goliath match-up of the opening week.  The two teams have met just twice, in 1985 and 2008, and the Wildcats have outscored the visiting Rockets by a combined 64-26.

Toledo is putting a young team on the field, led by a sophomore quarterback who played in seven games last year as a true freshman, and started just three of those.  It has just 11 seniors on this year’s squad, four of whom are listed as starters.

The Rockets are 0-for-4 against Pac-10 teams and are coming off a disappointing 5-7 record.

However… they have a new coach this year and a new attitude that makes them believe the program is headed back to the glory days of yore when they were able to beat major-conference teams like Michigan, Penn State, Iowa, Pitt, Kansas, Minnesota and others over the past 10 years.

Nigel Burton was an assistant coach for the Vikings before taking over the reins this year and being charged with rebuilding a program that enjoyed seven-of-eight winning season until 2006, when Jerry Glanville tried his hand, unsuccessfully, at running the program.

PSU has a history of sneaking up on good teams.  In 2000, the Rockets marched into Penn State and beat the Nittany Lions, 24-6, and exploded in a game against Colorado last year, beating the Buffaloes, 54-38.

The Wildcats, on the other hand, collapsed during their last game of the 2009 season when they lost to Nebraska, 33-0, in the Holiday Bowl.  But they have four new offensive and defensive coordinators and a more seasoned quarterback in junior Nick Foles, who threw for 2,486 yards and 19 touchdowns last year.

If the Cats can overcome the loss of seven starters on defense, their offense will put the points on the board.  The Cats return more than 4,400 career rushing yards with this team, lead by senior tailback Nic Grigsby, who has accumulated about 2,400 of those yards by himself.

While Toledo plays the underdog in that game, it’s kinda hard to tell who gets the underdog role in the ASU v. Portland State game tomorrow.

The Sun Devils are coming off a season that ended with six losses.  Portland lost its final five games of the 2009 campaign.  ASU went 4-8 last year, while Portland finished 2-9, its worst record since 1982.

This is the first time the two teams have met, so there’s no history to analyze.  But we do know that the Vikings have played Pac-10 teams eight times in the history of the program – but haven’t won one yet.

The Sun Devils don’t want to be the first to fall.

If their defense has anything to do with it, this will become Erickson’s fourth straight home opener victory at ASU.  The defense was ranked 13th in the nation last year and is expected to be one of the best in the country this year.  Five starters return from 2009, including the team’ s leading tackler, sophomore linebacker, Vontaze Burfict, who has been named to the watch list for the Chuck Bednarik Award, which goes to the nation’s top defensive player.

But the offense, which averaged just over 22 points a game last year and finished near the bottom of every major category in the conference, will need to step up right from the first game.

That’s why Erickson brought in a new offensive coordinator this year.  Noel Mazzone has been installing a quick-strike, no-huddle offense and will have a relatively-seasoned quarterback to run it.  Steven Threat was battle-tested in the Big Ten, when he was the signal-caller at the University of Michigan before transferring to ASU, throwing for 1,105 yards and nine TDs.

ASU should be in its comfort zone for the opener.  They are playing at home and, even though the two teams have never played each other, Erickson coached against PSU when he was head coach at Idaho.  He went 4-for-4 in those meetings.

But Mike Stoops has stepped way out of any kind of comfort zone, since his Wildcats are playing on the Rockets’ turf.   The Cats have played Mid-American teams on six other occasions, but always in the friendly confines of Arizona Stadium.  In fact, it’s the first time a Mid-American team has hosted a Pac-10 school.

To make matters worse, the Wildcats haven’t won a non-conference game on the road in almost 10 years.

Both Arizona teams desperately need a win this weekend.  But the Wildcats may have the tougher road to victory.

(Photo: University of Toledo Athletics)