Arizona defense can’t stop rushing attack
PALO ALTO, Calif. – The Stanford University football team designed the perfect blueprint for success against Arizona in its 24-23 victory Saturday: run the ball and take UA tight end Rob Gronkowski out of the game.
The rest of the teams on Arizona’s schedule, with the exception of Washington State, are capable of both.
The Wildcats can try to make adjustments, but facing a physical rushing attack from an opponent isn’t easy for them to handle.
“We knew after the first series what we were going up against,” Stanford center Alex Fletcher said. “We knew that we could have our way with them up front.”
New Mexico was the first to exploit UA’s weakness against the run with 221 rushing yards in a 36-28 victory in September.
California tailbacks Shane Vereen and Jahvid Best will arrive for a 7 p.m. kickoff Saturday at Arizona Stadium with one thing in mind: run until the Wildcats prove they can stop them.
Best, bothered by an elbow injury, is averaging 105 yards per game. Vereen rushes for 74 yards per game.
USC’s stable of backs will use the power running strategy. It’s also what Oregon’s tandem of LeGarrett Blunt and Jeremiah Johnson will try. Oregon State’s Jacquizz Rodgers – the player who ran over USC for 186 yards – will take his shots at Arizona.
The Wildcats know what’s ahead after the Cardinal had 286 of their season-high 438 total yards on the ground.
“We had guys out of position,” UA coach Mike Stoops admitted. “It has to do with our structure and getting our kids prepared. I think our coaches have to take some of the responsibility for that.”
Arizona had no answer for Toby Gerhart, who rushed for 116 yards despite missing part of the second quarter with an injured thumb. Anthony Kimble filled in for 110 yards, with 70 of those coming on one play. It was the first time in seven years Stanford had two backs reach 100 yards in the same game.
“We were used to Gerhart’s (slower) speed and not used to this speed back coming in and juking,” defensive end Ricky Elmore said of Kimble. “It was a 1-2 punch we were not ready for.”
The Wildcats also weren’t prepared for third-string quarterback Alex Loukas coming in to operate an option attack on the final two Stanford drives. Loukas had runs of 4, 16, 5 and 7 yards on the game-winning possession.
Gerhart tied the game on a 1-yard run with 25 seconds left and Aaron Zagory kicked the winning point after touchdown.
“The triple option is something we haven’t seen,” Elmore said. “People didn’t react and were all freaked out. People got flustered.”
The Wildcats might need to bring their linebackers and safeties up, put eight or nine players close to the line of scrimmage and take their chances with cornerbacks defending opposing receivers one-on-one.
UA is still ranked No. 1 nationally against the pass. Part of the reason for that is that Stanford threw just 24 times, including only seven times in the second half.
“It was very embarrassing and disappointing,” UA safety Nate Ness said. “We credit ourselves to stop the run . . . coach Stoops believes in smash-mouth football. We were in the right position. We just didn’t finish.”
If stopping the run was not problematic enough, the Wildcats will be spending hours trying to figure out how to get Gronkowski – a threat to score every time he touches the ball – more catches.
Gronkowski, after catching five touchdown passes in eight receptions the previous games, was a nonfactor Saturday.
The offense was ineffective. Coincidence?
Quarterback Willie Tuitama did not throw a touchdown pass for the first time this season. Tailback Nic Grigsby was limited to 66 rushing yards, with 25 coming on a touchdown run that gave UA a 10-7 lead in the second quarter.
Stanford bracketed Gronkowski with linebacker and safety help. They also closed around Pac-10 leading receiver Mike Thomas.
“They did a good job of taking Robbie away,” UA offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes said. “He was open a couple of times, but we threw it to another guy.”
Gronkowski had a 9-yard catch in the first quarter and a 21-yard grab in the middle of the field in the fourth. That was it.
He was never found on three drives inside the red zone, an area of specialty for Gronkowski. The Wildcats settled for field goals despite having the ball at the 1, 5 and 6-yard lines.
“When we got to the red zone they put two guys on him and that is why we went (another direction),” Tuitama said.
It was the wrong direction.
Upcoming rushing threats
Arizona will face some teams that like to run the football in the second half of the season:
Opponent Rush Avg. Rank
California 180 36
USC 164.6 46
Washington St. 97.5 111
Oregon 275.1 6
Oregon State 164.3 47
Arizona State 83.6 116
California (4-1, 2-0) at Arizona (4-2, 2-1)
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Arizona Stadium
Radio: 1290 AM, 107.5 FM
Series: Cal leads 13-12-2
Last meeting: California 45-27, 2007
Bear bits: California, which was idle last week, is the only team unbeaten in Pac-10 play. Quarterback Nate Longshore has taken over a Bears offense that is averaging 39 points per game. Tailback Jahvid Best is rushing for 105.5 yards per game, but he has been hampered the past two games with an elbow injury. He is questionable for the UA game.
BY THE NUMBERS
3 – Turnovers caused by Arizona. The Wildcats didn’t turn the ball over, but still lost to the Stanford Cardinal.l
4 – Passes caught by UA receiver Mike Thomas, for only 31 yards. He didn’t have his first catch until midway through the third quarter.
5 – Games won by Stanford over the past six times the two teams have met.
6 – Drives by UA – among 10 total drives – that lasted four plays or fewer.
30 – Passing yards Arizona QB Willie Tuitama needs to become the school’s all-time leader in that category. He has 7,589 career yards.