Extra prep time will come in handy
By Anthony Gimino
TUCSON -- Arizona has a bye week to prepare for top-ranked Oregon next Friday, and there is no shortage of things to work on as the Wildcats somehow try to avoid a three-game losing streak.
Offense, defense, special teams, strategy ... here are four areas to watch.
Let's start with special teams.
After last week's 24-21 loss to USC, coach Mike Stoops said the coaching staff would have to look at everything going on in special teams and, perhaps, make some changes.
Here's one: Starting placekicker Alex Zendejas will replace Keenyn Crier in pooch-punting opportunities. Distance control has been a problem for Crier, especially earlier in the season. Zendejas got a chance last week against USC, angling a 35-yard spiral out of bounds at the 6-yard line.
"He does a great job of directional punting, and that is what we need," said special teams coach Jeff Hammerschmidt.
The other change will be with personnel on kick coverage.
"It's been pretty much my fault, but we've been getting away with using some backup guys who are out there helping," Hammerschmidt said.
"But when you go down for the first kickoff against USC, and three guys miss tackles in space, you kind of go, 'Wait a minute, we're playing USC and we have to play with the same kind of guys.' For us to do that, there are some starting guys who are going to have to step up and be on everything."
For the Oregon game, that means deploying starting linebacker Jake Fischer, nickel safety Adam Hall, starting linebacker Paul Vassallo, starting cornerback Robert Golden and others on kick coverage.
Hammerschmidt pointed to the fact that the coaches inserted athletic defensive end D'Aundre Reed into kick coverage during the USC game.
"I said, 'OK, here is where you line up and here is where you run down,' and he ran down and made the tackle. We need to do that with about four guys," Hammerschmidt said. "We're going to wear them out a little bit."
Arizona's first drive last week reached the USC 15-yard line. A couple of sideways passes later, the Wildcats had moved back to the 17. Then, Zendejas missed a 34-yard field goal.
Another red-zone failure.
In the past two games, Arizona has put up a very acceptable total of 818 yards of offense. Problem is, that has translated to only 38 points.
Out of nine red zone chances in those two games -- a potential of 63 points -- Arizona has managed 31 points, whiffing entirely on four chances. Here is the breakdown:
Against Stanford: Punt (after an intentional grounding penalty), field goal, touchdown, turnover on downs, touchdown.
Against USC: Missed field goal, touchdown, fumble, touchdown.
The Wildcats also had a near red-zone failure in each week. Against Stanford, Nick Foles was intercepted at the Stanford 12 on a play that started from the 28. Against USC, a fourth-down conversion to the Trojans 25 was called back because of penalty ... and the Cats had to punt.
Are there any easy answers? Arizona doesn't have a particularly physical running game, it lacks a middle-of-the-field threat (perhaps sophomore WR Terrence Miller is emerging) and its bread-and-butter screen passing game hits a wall close to the line of scrimmage.
Arizona isn't huge up front on the defensive line, and the Wildcats were pushed around by the physical style of Stanford and USC in the past two weeks. UA allowed a combined 422 yards on the ground in those games.
Now comes Oregon, which is more fancy than physical, but if the Cats can't stop quarterback Darron Thomas and running back LaMichael James in the read-option game, they're going to have no chance.
"We just happened to play two styles that are more north and south," Stoops said.
"Oregon can play north and south, but a lot of their runs are east and west as they use their speed and utilize the field laterally more than those other two teams."
A speed game better suits Arizona's defensive skill set, but here's another problem: No sacks in the past two games. That has something to do with how Stanford and USC schemed on offense, and it has something to do with Arizona not being able to stop the run and get those teams into obvious passing downs.
Oregon, with its whose-got-the-ball deception, has allowed only eight sacks all season.
"These last three games -- boot, play-action, run. It's so frickin' hard to know when it's pass," said defensive end Brooks Reed. "It's so annoying."
If all else fails, Arizona has to try something, right?
The story of the week in the Pac-10 has been the accusations that Cal defenders faked injuries on the field last Saturday, preventing Oregon's go-go offense from doing what it does best -- overwhelm opponents with its fast pace.
"Obviously, it happens," Arizona defensive end Ricky Elmore said of faking injuries, "but I don't think it's going to be part of our game plan."
Of course, what else is he going to say?