Sometimes playing like a scared underdog is the best way to get the job done.
Arizona is favored by 28 points in Saturday’s opener with Idaho, and the Wildcats should be favored against Toledo and New Mexico before opening Pac-10 play against UCLA on Sept. 20.
Ricky Elmore believes UA’s young defense, which returns three starters, shouldn’t listen to the oddsmakers.
“If you’re playing scared, you know you have to do things right all the time,” the UA defensive end said. “Sometimes that’s a lot better way to play because your adrenaline rush is 24/7. You have the mental focus to get the job done.”
It seems like a strange way to succeed, but recent history shows the theory works. The Cats play better against ranked teams or squads perceived to be stronger than UA.
“They know they have to be 100 percent sharp or you can get embarrassed, and that’s a good lesson,” UA defensive coordinator Mark Stoops said.
Last season, letdowns against teams including Stanford and New Mexico hurt the Cats’ bowl chances. This season, UA’s defense knows it can’t stumble in the first three nonconference games.
The lesson: Play Idaho as if the Vandals were the USC juggernaut.
“Our best defenses are always against the best teams. We play perfect because we know we have to play perfect,” Elmore said. “It is like, ‘Oh, no, we have to be good.’ Our whole defense is young. We are playing as if you mess up once, you’re not going to be out there. We’re playing not to mess up.”
Arizona is 5-1 against ranked teams in November, and was competitive against USC for long stretches over the course of the last three years.
“A better way to describe it than being scared is you don’t want a bunch of good athletes to play robotic,” linebacker coach Tim Kish said. “We want to be able to use our athleticism and to be flying around with reckless abandon. You still have to understand and fit in the scheme.”
The Wildcats were far from flawless a year ago, allowing 27 points and 372 total yards per game. A unit with 10 returning starters didn’t step up.
One reason might have been the safety blanket of having Pac-10 leading tackler Spencer Larsen and 2007 Jim Thorpe Award winning cornerback Antoine Cason on the field.
The two made up for a lot of miscues by others.
“It is possible we may have relied too much on those guys. We have to be a defense that plays a team game, defensively do things right, do the little things. I think we have better players than people,” UA coach Mike Stoops said. “They just need an opportunity to go out and have a chance to establish themselves.”
The middle of the defense is the strong suit, with safeties Cam Nelson and Nate Ness present, along with senior linebacker Ronnie Palmer.
The surrounding cast is green, but playing quicker and with an edge.
No players are more out to prove they can get the job done than starting corners Devin Ross and Marquis Hundley.
The two are replacing a pair of four-year starters in Cason and Wilrey Fontenot.
They have received rave reviews from the coaching staff.
“We have not defined who our playmakers are yet but we will,” Mike Stoops said.
Pos. Player Starts
DE Brooks Reed -
DT *Earl Mitchell -
NT Lolomana Mikaele 1
DE D’Aundre Reed -
SLB Adrian McCovy 1
MLB Ronnie Palmer 28
WLB Xavier Kelley -
FS Cam Nelson 12
CB Devin Ross -
CB Marquis Hundley 1
FS Nate Ness 6
*Mitchell started 12 games on offense in 2007