Citizen Staff Writer
Arizona’s senior class still has work to do.
Quarterback Willie Tuitama set a host of school career passing marks to help UA snag its first postseason berth in 10 years. But he’d trade those records for a win Saturday over Arizona State, resulting in an invitation to the Las Vegas Bowl.
Of the 11 seniors heading into their final game at Arizona Stadium, only receiver B.J. Dennard has actually played – and beaten – the Sun Devils. Dennard, now a reserve, was a starter as a true freshman when UA won 34-27 in 2004.
“I don’t plan on coming up short,” Tuitama said, when asked if a fourth-straight loss to ASU would leave an incomplete feeling. “A (win) would be huge. We are definitely a whole lot better team. It comes down to when we step on the field if we are ready to play. I guarantee you we will be.”
There won’t be another chance for redemption for a senior class on the verge of UA’s first winning season since 1998. The group will be introduced before the game.
“I will look back at my time here as a heck of a journey with a lot of highs and lows and something I am proud of,” offensive guard Joe Longacre said. “It has meant a lot to me to finish the way we have.”
Finishing means beating ASU.
“It is nice to know we are going to a bowl game, but all we want is this game more than any bowl game possible,” Tuitama said. “That’s our mindset.”
Tuitama is UA’s career passing leader in yards (8,602), touchdowns (63), attempts (1,204) and completions (737). He’s also first in total offense with 8,127 yards.
His top target, Mike Thomas, is UA’s all-time receptions leader with 246 and No. 3 in yards (3,127). The seniors have engineered five wins over top-25 foes since 2005 (UCLA, Cal (twice), Oregon and Washington State).
While ASU (5-6) isn’t ranked this year, it has won three straight and can go to its fifth straight bowl game with a win.
UA coach Mike Stoops also had a win over a top-25 team in his first year, when the Cats beat No. 18 ASU at Arizona Stadium. Fifth-year seniors Ronnie Palmer, Jason Bondzio, Brandon Lopez and Longacre were on the sideline that day, watching Dennard (the other fifth-year senior) and the Wildcats win to finish 3-8.
“That first one (over ASU) was the sweetest,” Palmer said. “That was a bad year for us. We were struggling. It was coach Stoops’ first year. To win that game to end the season was big.”
The Wildcats have suffered painful losses to ASU since 2004:
2005 (ASU 23, UA 20): Arizona was rolling in Tempe with a 20-5 lead in the third quarter before a rash of injuries took their toll.
Tuitama hurt his ribs; tailback Mike Bell, who had 117 yards rushing, left with a leg injury; fullback Gilbert Harris was knocked out; tailback Chris Henry suffered a blow to the head; tight end Brad Wood blew out a knee and Thomas was used a decoy because of a broken hand.
“It was unbelievable,” Tuitama said. “It was bad.”
The insult was ASU getting a late 71-yard Terry Richardson punt return, a two-point conversion and a last-second 20-yard field goal by Jesse Ainsworth.
2006 (ASU 28, UA 14): The Wildcats needed a win to earn a bowl berth. But ASU took a 21-0 lead by the end of the first quarter at Arizona Stadium behind QB Rudy Carpenter’s TD throws of 7, 26 and 38 yards.
“We didn’t react very well in that game,” Stoops said. “I think they were more prepared and they beat us to the punch.”
Arizona (6-6) still was eligible for the postseason, but there were no bowl slots available.
2007 (ASU 20, UA 17): The Wildcats jumped out early with a Rob Gronkowski TD catch. But after that, Tuitama was intercepted twice and UA was held to 44 yards rushing.
“We were tight last year. We pressed throughout that game, for whatever reason,” Stoops said. “We just didn’t execute very well. We had to work extremely hard to get anything.”
The Wildcats (5-7) were left without a bowl trip again.
If Arizona were to lose Saturday, it would likely go to the Hawaii Bowl and ASU would go to the Las Vegas Bowl.
Regardless of the outcome, UA seniors hope the “younger guys learn from this and get the program going in the direction it needs to go,” said Bondzio, the Wildcats’ kicker.
“The younger guys seem anxious . . . eager to win,” he said.
The UA-ASU rivalry
UA Category ASU
16-13-1 record 13-16-1
8-7 at home 6-8-1
8 wins by 7 or fewer 4
671 points 738
4,522 rushing yards 4,127
5,450 passing yards 7,331
UA’S SENIOR CLASS
13 Jason Bondzio* Place-kicker
4 B.J. Dennard* Wide receiver
23 Marquis Hundley Cornerback
75 Joe Longacre* Offensive line
45 Brandon Lopez* H-Back
25 Adrian McCovy% Linebacker
32 Nate Ness Safety
33 Ronnie Palmer* Linebacker
10 Mike Thomas Wide receiver
66 James Tretheway Offensive line
7 Willie Tuitama Quarterback
*Fifth year seniors
% Applying for NCAA medical hardship