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Gimino: Cats aim for more than a lower-tier bowl

Washington State quarterback Kevin Lopena (9) and Arizona quarterback Willie Tuitama (7) walk off the field after Arizona's 59-28 win.

Washington State quarterback Kevin Lopena (9) and Arizona quarterback Willie Tuitama (7) walk off the field after Arizona's 59-28 win.

Toss a little confetti. Maybe do a little dance. Arizona is back in the bowl business.

Which doesn’t feel quite as exhilarating as it should.

That’s not to dismiss the due credit to coach Mike Stoops.

He inherited a program lower than an inchworm, and now that program can, usually, run and pass and play defense all in the same game, often rather well.

In this era of bowl proliferation, Arizona reached the magical midlevel six victories required for postseason eligibility by beating up on poor, defenseless Washington State on Saturday, winning 59-28.

The math of the situation makes the Cats a 100 percent lock for a bowl.

The Pac-10 has seven bowl slots for its teams. There is no way the league will have more than seven eligible teams. There you have it. Arizona is in.

Now, the real work begins.

That’s why the certainty of Arizona’s first bowl appearance since the 1998 Holiday Bowl isn’t the hallelujah moment of the season. The chorus is just getting warmed up. Or not.

“We know as a team what we want to accomplish,” sophomore running back Nic Grigsby said Saturday. “We just don’t want to accomplish six wins.”

The good feeling of getting to 6-3 can still be entirely wiped out by a lousy finish.

If that happens, the Wildcats would, emotionally, be right back to where they were in 2006 and 2007.

Frustrated. Wondering why they can’t truly turn the corner. Curious about Stoops being the right man for the job.

“It has been a difficult journey,” Stoops said. “Wins are a lot more difficult than sometimes people think.”

Arizona has three games remaining – at Oregon on Saturday, vs. Oregon State on Nov. 22 and vs. Arizona State on Dec. 6.

It would not stun me if UA went 0-3, or 3-0, or any combination in between.

Oregon has a sensational running game. That is the most dangerous kind of matchup for Arizona, which is improving, but young and depth-challenged on the defensive line.

The Ducks have a good running quarterback, Jeremiah Masoli, and the best combination of running backs in the league. Jeremiah Johnson averages 6.2 yards per carry. LeGarrette Blount averages 7.1.

If the Wildcats win at rowdy Autzen Stadium on Saturday, it will be their best victory of the season.

Then comes Oregon State, a hot, scary team that has owned Arizona in recent seasons.

The Beavers are aggressive on defense, and they’re another team that can run the ball all day. Jacquizz Rodgers is bidding to become the first true freshman to lead the conference in rushing.

Another tough one.

Then comes the regular-season finale against Arizona State.

Senior quarterback Rudy Carpenter is 3-0 against Arizona. No matter how much the Sun Devils might be struggling at that point of the season, you’d have to be crazy to discount Carpenter’s ability to single-handedly inspire ASU to another victory in the series.

This last quarter of the season is UA’s toughest. The Wildcats have gone 2-1 in each three-game segment of the season. Doing so again would be great.

At this point, finishing 6-6 is unacceptable.

Losing to both Oregon schools and beating Arizona State to finish 7-5 . . . that would do.

Going 8-4 – let’s say, splitting against the Oregon schools and beating ASU – would be a fine accomplishment that could net Stoops conference coach of the year honors.

A three-game sweep? Let’s make Stoops the Tucson Man of the Year and hope that another school doesn’t try to sweep him off his feet.

Arizona still has some pencil-thin possibilities for the Rose Bowl, but those permutations aren’t really worth talking about right now.

If the Wildcats win out, the Holiday Bowl likely would be the happy destination against a Big 12 school, possibly even Oklahoma if the Sooners stumble down the stretch.

Mike Stoops vs. brother Bob Stoops? How’s that for a five-star bowl matchup?

If they lose out, the Cats could be stuck, for example, playing Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl on Christmas Eve. Not much national appeal there.

This could be one of the most satisfying football seasons in UA history, or simply a season in which Arizona did the minimum necessary.

“We have come a long way,” said senior quarterback Willie Tuitama.

And there’s a long way to go.

Anthony Gimino’s e-mail: agimino@tucsoncitizen.com

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For all of the stories that were archived by the Tucson Citizen newspaper's library in a digital archive between 1993 and 2009, go to Morgue Part 2

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