There are just over 100 miles between the college football towns of Tempe and Tucson, and almost similar hot fall temperatures in both locales. But there’s a lot more sweating going on in the home of the Arizona Wildcats.
Arizona State cancelled its practice in Tempe for today since half of its coaching staff is just coming in off the recruiting trail, and the other half is leaving, taking advantage of the team’s bye week. Having a 4-1 record going into the bye week definitely makes it a more relaxed period for everyone involved – but the recruiting effort never gets a day off.
But down in Tucson, where first-year coach Rich Rodriguez is trying to halt a two-game skid at the University of Arizona, there’s serious preparation going on before the Cats pack their bags and head for California, where they will take on the No. 18-ranked Stanford Cardinal.
Stanford will be the third nationally-ranked team in a row for Arizona, which started the season with three wins but has run aground following loses to then-No. 3 Oregon and then-No. 18 Oregon State.
The blow-out loss to Oregon was a humbling experience for a team that earlier had beaten another 18th-ranked team at the time, Oklahoma State, and had begun to energize a fan base that approached the season with guarded optimism; they had witnessed other impressive schedule starts under former head coach, Mike Stoops, only to have their season unravel in the second half.
A 56-0 walk-over against South Carolina State in the third game put some real wind under their wings, and expectations grew.
But after the Oregon fiasco, the Cats dropped a second straight when a slow start put them in a 17-0 hole against Oregon State, and then a couple of turnovers in the second half helped seal their fate in the 38-35 loss to the Beavers – this time in front of a full house of disappointed fans in Arizona Stadium.
The bottom line: Arizona is 0-2 in conference play.
And how many fans are wondering if their team is really the one that jumped out to a 3-0 start and beat a ranked opponent in its second game, or the one that needed an overtime period to get past Toledo in the season opener?
While Saturday’s meeting with Stanford can’t really be called a ‘must-win’, it can be called a critical game, for a couple of reasons. A third straight loss will derail the momentum that had built in the pre-season as fans had hoped the hiring of a high-profile coach like Rodriguez (despite his failures in three years at Michigan) would bring instant success.
It marks the halfway point of the season, and the Cats would be just a .500 team that would still need three more wins to be bowl-eligible, should they have a strong enough finish to the season to make them attractive to a bowl committee somewhere.
Stanford has lost just one game coming into this one. The Cardinal were a top-10 team before last week. They dropped from No. 8 to No. 18 after they let Washington storm back from a 10-point deficit to pull off the 17-13 upset.
Last year, Stanford was the No. 6-ranked team in the country when they visited Tucson and left with a 37-10 win that was directed by Heisman candidate Andrew Luck, who shredded the Arizona defense for 325 yards, while the Cardinal running game ran up another 242 on the ground.
Arizona should put up more points than last year. The Cats are averaging 538 yards of offense per game, which ranks third in the Pac-12.
And they have one of the best running backs in the Pac-12 this season, sophomore Ka’Deem Carey from nearby Canyon del Oro High School in Tucson, to lead the way. Carey had 115 rushing yards last week against Oregon State, the third time this season he has gone over the 100-yard mark, and then added 68 more on pass receptions.
But it won’t be easy running up those kinds of numbers against Stanford, which ranks third in the conference in defense, allowing 316 yards per game.
A national television audience will be tuned in to watch this meeting on The Farm. The game will be played at noon, which is about seven hours earlier than the start times for their previous five games.
Rodriguez put the team through an early morning practice yesterday, rather than the normal afternoon schedule, just to help prepare the players for an early call Saturday. The head coach said after practice that he wanted to “get their bodies used to getting up earlier.”
Maybe the outcome Saturday comes down to which team wakes up first.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)