Alamo Bowl notes: Motivation, matchups, making a predictionby Anthony Gimino on Dec. 29, 2010, under Sports
Motivation isn’t hard to come by for the Arizona Wildcats.
“We lost four straight,” said senior running back Nic Grigsby, “and we don’t want to end on a fifth one.”
Doesn’t get much simpler than that for tonight’s Alamo Bowl matchup against Oklahoma State.
The Wildcats have been claiming that their preparation has been much better than last season. Arizona was past its expiration date when it showed up for the 2009 Holiday Bowl against Nebraska, having spent more than a week in San Diego over the Christmas Holiday.
This time around, coach Mike Stoops worked the team hard in Tucson before giving them a few days off before Christmas.
“The focus has been tremendous with our players,” defensive coordinator Tim Kish said at an Alamo Bowl press conference this week. “The energy level has been up, the enthusiasm has been up.”
A better prepared team doesn’t necessarily mean a winning team, but at least the Wildcats might have a fighting chance against the 10-2 Cowboys — unlike last year in a 33-0 bowl loss to Nebraska.
Bug is back
Arizona junior receiver Bug Wright is back in Stoops’ good graces after being suspended indefinitely late in the regular season because of a violation of team rules.
Wright will handle punt return duties against Oklahoma State, giving the Wildcats a potential jolt on special teams. Wright’s punt-catching has been an adventure at times, but he’s also a threat to score at any time.
The combination of those skills makes him the anti-David Douglas on punt returns … but the punt-catching risk is worth the potential reward.
A good omen?
Oklahoma State had to replace four starters on the offensive line before this season and still had the nation’s most prolific offense, averaging 537.6 yards per game. Arizona will have to replace all five of its starting linemen next season, which will loom as one of the team’s major question marks. But it can be done.
Back in the preseason …
As senior editor of Lindy’s College Football Annuals, I’m in charge of ranking every team in the country, from No. 1 to No. 120. In compiling the list right after spring ball, I thought Arizona and Oklahoma State were as close as could be. I ranked the Wildcats 38th nationally and the Cowboys 39th.
I took some grief on the Arizona message boards when I picked the Cats to finish sixth in the Pac-10. They ended up in a three-way tied for fifth … which averages out to sixth. At least I got something right.
For Lindy’s, I picked Oregon to finish second in the league (this prediction came before USC’s sanctions from the NCAA). At least I didn’t pick the Ducks to end up fifth in the Pac-10, as one writer did in a summer vote of the league’s media.
That honor belongs to Arizona Daily Star columnist Greg Hansen (sorry, Greg, couldn’t resist).
(Speaking of Hansen, he mentions in today’s “Mr. Football” column that Arizona’s oldest player of the Pac-10 years is former linebacker Adrian Koch, who was 26 as a senior.
I can think of one that was older — wide receiver Cullen Plousha, who was with the team from 1992 to 1994 and was 27 years ago as a senior. Plousha, like Koch, was a Marine before attending Arizona.)
Oklahoma State scored at least 33 points in 10 games, went for more than 40 eight times, topped 50 on three occasions and hit 65 twice.
“They have a phenomenal offense, but I have a lot of trust in our defense,” said Arizona offensive tackle Adam Grant. “I hope Brooksy and Ricky have a great night, that’s all I can hope for.”
Senior ends Brooks Reed and Ricky Elmore are a formidable pass-rushing pair, but Oklahoma State has allowed only nine sacks all season.
If the Cats are to win, they might have to score in the 40s. They’ve won a few shootouts in recent seasons, but Arizona is only 3-14 under Stoops when the opponent scores at least 30 points.
Matchup to watch
Arizona’s offense is at its best when quarterback Nick Foles is targeting star junior receiver Juron Criner. Oklahoma State will counter with 6-foot All-Big 12 cornerback Andrew McGee, who had five interceptions in the regular season.
Who wins the special teams?
How will Arizona’s Alex Zendejas react after having those two extra point attempts blocked in the regular-season finale against ASU? He says those low kicks are a focus issue, but something technical must be afoot, because I can’t believe he would have focus problems on either of those blocks against the Devils.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma State has two players out because of academic ineligibility, including All-American punter Quinn Sharp, who averaged 46.2 yards in the regular season. Now, the Arizona defense just has to get some stops and force the Cowboys to punt.
The Cowboys also will be without long-snapper Marc Yerry.
The Arizona defense couldn’t slow down either of the two elite offenses it played against this season — Stanford and Oregon. Oklahoma State is another one of those, with balance and top-notch skill all over the offense, led by receiver Justin Blackmon and quarterback Brandon Weeden.
But I’d be most worried about the Wildcats slowing down the Cowboys’ running game, featuring senior Kendall Hunter, who has rushed for 1,516 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Stopping the run has been the defense’s main problem during the four-game losing streak. The Cats allowed four rushing touchdowns through eight games … and 11 in the past four.
I’m going Oklahoma State 38, Arizona 28 … with Hunter winning MVP honors.
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