The record: 2-3.
The victories: a non-bowl game qualifier and a Division I-AA school.
The losses: Non-BCS conference team, as well as a rout at the hands of Cal.
Controversy: Where does one begin? From a disheartened fan base and second guessing the head coach to questioning the direction of the program, all the bases have been covered.
Final Record: 10-4
If you thought I was talking about the state of Arizona football, you’re wrong. I’m actually rehashing the events of Oregon State’s 2006 football season, a season that saw them begin their campaign in a fashion not unlike Arizona’s this year but end it like a conference title contender.
The Beavers opened 2006 as expected with a 56-17 blowout of Eastern Washington. The positive vibes continued as they led Boise State 14-0 early in their second game of the season. But then the Broncos scored 42 straight points and wound up winning, 42-14. The Beavers recovered in time to beat Idaho the following week 38-0, but were then blown out at home by Cal, 41-13, and then lost a stunner to Washington State 13-6.
The media was speculating about head coach Mike Riley’s future, fans were declaring the season “over” and Pac-10 teams who were looking ahead on their schedule began to consider their game against Oregon State as an easy win.
For Arizona, the parallels in 2007 are eerily similar. One of Arizona’s two victories this year is over Division I-AA Northern Arizona. Arizona has actually lost to two non-BCS conference teams (BYU and New Mexico) this season. They also trailed Cal 28-3 before finally scoring some points in making a 45-27 loss look somewhat respectable.
For Oregon State, something clicked in their sixth game. They beat Washington on the road 27-17 and then traveled down to Tucson and won another close game 17-10. Although Washington and Arizona were ranked 9th and 10th in the conference at the time, a win on the road is a win on the road and Oregon State’s confidence began to grow.
How much it actually did grow was shocking?
The Beavers followed up their victory over Arizona with an incredible 33-31 win over #3 USC. They would use that momentum to then springboard themselves to five more wins (including a 39-38 bowl game victory over Missouri) to finish the season against only one loss.
That’s right. After starting the season 2-3, the Beavers then went 8-1 to finish 10-4.
It was reported that if you asked 40 players and 10 coaches what changed during the week of the Washington game you’d get 50 different answers.
Strangely, that is exactly what the feel around the Arizona football offices and around the tunnels of McKale Center was leading into the Washington State game last weekend.
No player or coach could explain it, but for some reason Arizona players and coaches were smiling in the hallways and walking around with a pep in their step despite losing at home to New Mexico a few days earlier.
Then the unexpected happened.
The team exploded for 48 points and 567 yards of total offense against Washington State. Quarterback Willie Tuitama threw 5 TD’s and better yet, no INT’s. True freshman tailback Nicholas Grigsby got the start and used incredible vision and quickness in carving his way through the Cougars defense for 186 yards on 30 carries. Tuitama connected on four passes of 65, 57, 27 and 22 yards, and each was to a different receiver. The team was a perfect 5-5 in the Red Zone.
Better yet, for an Arizona team that has lost its fair share of games in the fourth quarter, the Wildcats this time closed out WSU by scoring 28 unanswered points after Wazzu tied the game at 20-20 early in the third.
The production wasn’t only on the offensive side of the ball. Arizona limited WSU to 71 yards rushing and forced Alex Brink into throwing two interceptions. Defensive Coordinator Mark Stoops also called a more aggressive game in the second half that helped the Arizona defense get off the field by limiting the Cougars to just 7-16 on third down conversions. Stoops also played Devin Ross and Ricky Elmore, and both youngsters rose to the occasion.
Elmore played tenaciously in containing his end and pressuring Brink. Ross had two pass break ups on long passes where he was blanketing a Cougars receiver on both plays.
I was in attendance for the USC versus Washington State game on Sep. 22 and watched every snap of the Arizona versus Washington State game on television last weekend. I honestly saw no difference in how easily both teams handled the Cougars.
From what I’m told, the Wildcats have that same mysterious confidence this week and it’s not simply because they won a football game last Saturday.
Does all this mean that Arizona will go 8-1 the rest of the way, win a major bowl game and walk off into the sunset as winners?
History says why not?
Oregon State, like Arizona, also struggled in 2005 so it’s not like their early 2006 losses were aberrations. In fact, Oregon State was a mediocre 5-6 that season with a Pac-10 record of just 3-5. So, losing games for them was sort of in the cards. After starting 2-3 in 2006, it looked like business as usual but then the proverbial light bulb went on and the Beavers made their incredible run.
If lightning could strike the Beavers, then surely it can strike Arizona.
Actually, what if it already has and it’s just too early to tell?
If the Wildcats can find a way to upset the Beavers on the road this weekend, they will again be shadowing the path of Oregon State as Arizona will be coming off consecutive conference wins in advance of a showdown with the mighty Trojans.
I can go on and on about the similarities but of course all this is much easier said than done. The truth is the Beavers are again off to a 2-3 start of their own and I’m sure they’re telling themselves, “last year we started 2-3 and finished 10-4. We can do it again!”
Well, they certainly can. But so can Arizona.