Football, Game 2: The Citadel vs. Arizona

Gametime:  10 pm ET, September 11.

Telecast:  KWBA, local channel 58 in Tucson, and on Fox College Sports Pacific (FCS-Pacific), joined in progress; announcers are Dave Sitton, John Fina, and sideline reporter Glenn Howell

There won’t be many schools this season who will face in consecutive weeks opponents as different as Chowan and Arizona.  Chowan is a small Division II school in North Carolina.  Arizona is a large Division I (FBS) school, the flagship university of a populous western state.  Chowan has about 1,100 undergraduate students. Arizona has 30,000.  Indeed, Arizona has more undergraduate and graduate students than The Citadel has living alumni.

The difference is reflected in the football teams as well, of course, and thus The Citadel’s football team has its work cut out for it this week as it ventures to Tucson, the longest trip in program history.  Since The Citadel has never played Arizona (or any Pac-10 school) before, let’s take a brief look at the history of the University of Arizona’s football team.

The Wildcats (originally just known as the “Varsity”) started playing football in 1899, 14 years after the school’s founding.  Keep in mind that Arizona didn’t become a state until 1912 (it was the 48th and last of the contiguous states).  It had been a recognized U.S. territory since 1862.

The first official coach of the football team was “Pop” McKale, for whom the McKale Center (UA’s basketball arena) is named.  McHale also coached the basketball team for a time and was the school’s longtime director of athletics.

McHale was also a central figure in the story of Arizona’s great tradition, its motto “Bear Down”.  In 1926, Arizona quarterback and student body president John “Button” Salmon was critically injured in a car accident after the first game of that season. McHale regularly visited Salmon in the hospital until Salmon’s death on October 18.

During the coach’s final visit, Salmon told McHale to “tell them…tell the team to bear down.”  McHale reportedly told the team just that, repeating Salmon’s words during a game against New Mexico State which the Wildcats managed to win, 7-0.  It’s a tale not unlike Knute Rockne’s “Win one for the Gipper” speech for Notre Dame.

Ever since, “Bear Down” has been the official slogan for all of the university’s athletic teams.

Salmon is one of two players to have his jersey retired at Arizona.  The other, running back Art Luppino, led the nation in rushing twice in 1954 and 1955.

Arizona first joined a conference in 1931, becoming a charter member of the Border Conference, and remaining in that league until it disbanded in 1961.  Other schools in the league included Texas Tech, UTEP, New Mexico, New Mexico State, and Arizona State.  They were joined at various times by Hardin-Simmons, Northern Arizona, and West Texas A&M.  The Wildcats won three league titles while in the Border Conference and played in one bowl game during that time, losing the 1949 Salad Bowl (yes, Salad Bowl) to Drake (yes, Drake).

Arizona then became a founding member of the Western Athletic Conference (WAC). That league was basically a merger of the Border and Skyline Conferences, except not every school in those leagues was invited (New Mexico State, for example).  Also in the original WAC:  Arizona State, BYU, Utah, New Mexico, and Wyoming.  Arizona won two league titles in the WAC and played in one bowl game, the 1968 Sun Bowl (losing to Auburn).

Arizona and Arizona State gradually outgrew the WAC, mostly because the state of Arizona was outgrowing (by percentage) most of the other states in and around the mountain time zone.  The development of air conditioning helped produce a population boom in the state, and the increase in population/resources trickled down to the state universities.  The two schools joined the Pac-8 (renamed the Pac-10) in 1978, and have remained in that conference since then.

The hallmark of the program in that time, much to the frustration of  Arizona’s fans, has been its inability to make a trip to the Rose Bowl.  Its rival, Arizona State, has been to the big game twice (winning once), but the Wildcats have never been.  Arizona has come close on two occasions, both times under the direction of Dick Tomey.

In 1993, Arizona shared the Pac-10 title with UCLA and Southern California, but lost a tiebreaker to UCLA for the Rose Bowl berth.  This is the only time the Wildcats have claimed even a piece of the Pac-10 crown.  Arizona had lost earlier in the season to UCLA, but as late as November 14 still had a shot at Pasadena after a UCLA loss. However, the Wildcats blew a 20-point lead and lost to California, 24-20, eliminating them from Rose Bowl consideration.

The Wildcats did rebound from that disappointment, beating their rivals in Tempe and then dominating Miami 29-0 in the Fiesta Bowl to finish the season 10-2, with the bowl game arguably being the pinnacle of Arizona’s “Desert Swarm” defense, which was the national identity of the program in the mid-1990s (and personified by Tedy Bruschi).

The Fiesta Bowl victory was a major reason why Sports Illustrated ranked Arizona No. 1 in its 1994 preseason issue, but after starting the campaign 4-0 the Wildcats were upset at home by Colorado State.  Arizona also suffered road losses to Oregon and Southern California and finished with a Freedom Bowl loss to Utah and a disappointing 8-4 season.

In 1998, Arizona finished 12-1, losing only to UCLA (albeit at home by four touchdowns).  However, the Wildcats were looking good for a Rose Bowl appearance anyway, as the Bruins completed their Pac-10 schedule undefeated and were poised to play for the mythical national title at the Fiesta Bowl.  That would have sent Arizona to the Rose Bowl.

Unfortunately for Arizona (and the Bruins, as it turned out), UCLA had to play a December game originally delayed by a hurricane against the Hurricanes — and lost to Miami, 49-45.  That result meant the Bruins took the berth in the Rose and the Wildcats had to settle for the Holiday Bowl (which they won, beating Nebraska).

When I was looking at Arizona’s football history, and wondering what was preventing Arizona, a big school in a BCS conference with success in a lot of sports other than football, from grabbing the brass ring, one thing stood out.  It must have stood out to Joe Tessitore and Rod Gilmore too, because while calling the Wildcats’ 41-2 dismantling of Toledo last Friday on ESPN, they mentioned (and marvelled at) the following factoid:

Arizona hasn’t had a quarterback drafted by the NFL since 1985.

Think about that.  There can’t be that many BCS programs who have gone that long between QB draft picks.  In fact, that QB (10th-round pick John Conner, who did not throw a pass in the NFL) is the only quarterback out of Arizona drafted since 1972 (when another Wildcat signal-caller who never played in the league, Brian Linstrom, was selected in the 16th round).  It’s not like Arizona’s been running the wishbone all this time, either.

Arizona’s football program has had three different quarterbacks make a total of 29 starts in the NFL, none since 1974.  So in all the time UA has been in the Pac-10, it’s never developed an NFL quarterback.

It’s hard to win big games, or even get to big games, without a pro-caliber quarterback.  Since 1975, only one Arizona alum has thrown a TD pass in the NFL — a punter, Josh Miller, who did it for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2003 (an 81-yard pass play, incidentally).  Here is a little chart comparing alums from Arizona, The Citadel, and a mystery school:

TD passes thrown in the NFL since 1975

Arizona — 1

The Citadel — 1

Mystery School — 0

If you’re wondering, the graduate of The Citadel with a touchdown pass is Stump Mitchell.  Now, that mystery school that hasn’t had a grad with a TD toss in the NFL in the last 35 years?  Well, it’s a school that has quite a bit in common with Arizona on the athletics front.  It’s a “basketball school” that has won multiple titles in other sports, but hasn’t been able to parlay its success in those sports into a nationally prominent football program.

Like Arizona, a good argument can be made that the reason for that has a lot to do with never having an “NFL ready” quarterback.  What school is that?  Why, it’s the BCS school The Citadel played last season.

North Carolina.

I wrote about UNC’s football history in my preview of The Citadel’s game against the Heels last year.  At the time, I noted that the overall QB rating for players from The Citadel to have thrown a pass in the NFL (which would be just two, Mitchell and Paul Maguire) was exactly 100 points better than their UNC counterparts (119.6-19.6). Arizona is a little better than North Carolina in this respect (47.7), but again the mighty Bulldogs prevail.

What will this mean on Saturday?  Not much, since it’s probable the Wildcats have finally found themselves an NFL prospect at QB in Nick Foles.  Foles is a native of Austin (went to the same high school as Drew Brees) who began his collegiate career at Michigan State before transferring to Arizona after one season.

He has NFL size (6’5″, 245 lbs.) and a good arm.  Last season he completed 63% of his passes for 19 TDs (9 interceptions).  His yards per attempt was not that high (just over 6 yards), but he was only sacked 13 times all season (so not a lot of negative plays).  His three 300-yard games included a 4-TD effort against league champion Oregon.

Foles isn’t the only impressive skill-position player on the Wildcat offense.  Nic Grigsby, when healthy, is an outstanding running back.  Grigsby averaged over seven yards per carry last season.  His problem was a bad shoulder that cost him three games and limited him in several others.  He appears to be healthy now.  Then there is Juron Criner, a rangy 6’4″ wideout who hauled in nine touchdowns last season.

Criner had a ridiculous game against Toledo on Friday, catching eleven passes for 187 yards and a touchdown.  Forty-five of those reception yards came on a one-handed, falling-down circus catch in the third quarter.  His TD grab was almost as good.

Arizona had to replace seven defensive starters from last season, but you would have never known it against Toledo, which did not score on the Wildcat defense (the Rockets’ only two points came on a safety called for offensive holding in the end zone).

Arizona is as good a bet as any team to make a run at the Pac-10 title.  Oregon, the defending champ (and coming off a 72-0 demolition of hapless New Mexico), probably has to be the favorite, but if the Ducks slip it’s possible the Wildcats could be the team to make the move to the top and claim the school’s first Rose Bowl trip.

Arizona was picked in the middle of the conference pack in most preseason polls, likely thanks to getting manhandled 33-0 in the Holiday Bowl by a certain Mr. Suh and Nebraska.  Its most recent impression among those who vote in pre-season polls was not a good one.  Otherwise, I think a team with the talent (particularly on offense) that Arizona has might have been nationally ranked to start the season.

Arizona’s coach is Mike Stoops, also known as “Bob Stoops’ brother”.  He has very slowly built the program since arriving in 2004 (wins per year:  3, 3, 6, 5, 8, 8).  Some Arizona supporters have become a bit impatient.  He needs to have a good year this year.  He’s probably going to have one, so I wouldn’t assign him “hot seat” status, but if the Wildcats were to tank this season, I think he would be out the door.

It could be a long night for The Citadel.  In fact, it would be surprising if it weren’t.  The problem is that the defense is going to have some matchup problems (particularly with Criner), and will not be likely to get much help from the offense.

Last season against BCS foe North Carolina the defense got no help from the offense either, but the UNC offense wasn’t dynamic enough to take full advantage of its field position and time of possession.  As a result, the Bulldogs lost, but only by a 40-6 score.  Arizona may not have as good a defense as UNC did, but The Citadel’s offense will be worse (as it is still in its embryonic stage in the triple option) and the Wildcat offense is considerably more talented than the Heels’ O was.

I wrote about some on-field things that concerned me in my review of the Chowan game.  I am hoping that the blocking improves, that the quarterbacks get more comfortable taking the snap and making the proper reads, and that the defense does a better job in assignments and tackling.   Against Arizona, I don’t really expect to see much visible progress from the offense, although I am willing to be pleasantly surprised.

I do think that the one player who might not be physically out of place in the game for The Citadel’s offense is Domonic Jones.  I could see him making a play or two.  First, of course, the QB has to get him the ball, or at least give him a chance to get the ball.

On the other hand, I do expect the defense, even against a squad as talented as the Wildcats, to avoid multiple mental errors and not miss tackles.  That should happen. If it doesn’t, things could get ugly.

I’ll be watching anyway…

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