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Arizona football preview: Breaking down the schedule, game by game

Arizona has six home games in 2011, including September showdowns vs. Stanford and Oregon. Photo by Chris Morrison-US PRESSWIRE

Here it is. The 12th, final — and longest — installment of our summer Arizona football preview.

This time, we’re taking a look at the Wildcats’ schedule one game at a time. It’s not just who you play, it’s when you play them … and Arizona is going to have to be at its best early in the season.

For a slideshow version of all the various weekly breakdowns, check out our Gannett partner, The Arizona Republic, at azcentral.com. You can start at the beginning and work your way through all of it.

But first, onto the schedule breakdown:

NAU, Sept. 3

This should snap Arizona’s five-game losing streak, as the Wildcats take on a team from the Football Championship Subdivision for the seventh time in coach Mike Stoops’ eight seasons.

This will be the fifth time Stoops has faced the Lumberjacks; the previous times have all been victories for Arizona, including a 21-3 decision in Stoops’ first game. The Wildcats also beat NAU 31-12 in 2005, 45-24 in 2007 and 34-17 in 2009.

The Jacks entered camp looking for a new quarterback but can rely on their running game, led by Zach Bauman, who rushed for 1,059 yards last season and earned second-team All-Big Sky honors. NAU has 11 returning starters from a team that went 6-5 last season.

“With the likes of Zach Bauman and Giovannie Dixon and Jamaal Perkins, we have three quality running backs,” said coach Jerome Souers, entering his 14th season at NAU. “We’ll always have balance in our offense. But with guys like those in the backfield, if they are not paying attention to the run, we’re going to run the football.”

Oklahoma State recovers the ball after Bug Wright muffed the catch on the first punt of the game. Photo by Matt Strasen-US PRESSWIRE

@ Oklahoma State, Sept. 8

It’s a rematch of the Alamo Bowl, a game that quickly went sideways on Arizona, starting with a muffed punt by Bug Wright that led to a short touchdown drive for the Cowboys with about four minutes gone.

A variety of other Arizona errors and turnovers made it a non-competitive game, as Oklahoma State went on to a 36-10 victory. On the bright side, the Wildcats held the Cowboys — who finished third nationally in total offense and scoring offense — to a season-low 312 yards.

The Cowboys, No. 8 in the USA Today preseason poll, lost offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen to West Virginia, but they return the bulk of their attack, including 27-year-old quarterback Brandon Weeden and Biletnikoff Award-winning receiver Justin Blackmon, who caught 20 touchdown passes last season.

One of the nation’s best and most experienced offensive lines, led by tackle Levy Adcock, figures to be trouble for a young Arizona defensive front.

Stanford, Sept. 17

How much of Stanford’s success was built around the fiery personality of coach Jim Harbaugh? We’ll find out. He’s off to the San Francisco 49ers, leaving former Cardinal offensive coordinator David Shaw in charge.

“We have different personalities, but at the same time … when somebody crosses the line, I’ll be nose to nose with them,” Shaw said. “I might not be yelling, but I’ll be dead serious.”

Shaw is just about the luckiest new head coach in college football, inheriting Heisman frontrunner Andrew Luck, considered to be the best NFL quarterback prospect in decades. Luck was 23 of 32 for 293 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions, in a 42-17 win over Arizona last season.

The Cardinal, ranked sixth in the preseason USA Today poll, also has an outstanding collection of running backs, led by Stepfan Taylor, and its physical, downhill style has been problematic for the Cats. Stanford has accumulated 1,532 total yards against UA in the past three seasons.

Mike Stoops vs. Stanford: 2-4.

Oregon, Sept. 24

Oregon, the preseason favorite to win the Pac-12, brings its high-powered offense to Tucson. The last time the Ducks were in Arizona Stadium, the Wildcats nearly pulled off the upset — who can forget the students prematurely pouring out of the stands in the final minute? — but Oregon scored with six seconds left and pulled out a 44-41 win in double overtime.

The Ducks have won three in a row in the series, scoring 147 points and gaining exactly 1,500 yards in that span. It could very well be more of the same this season, as running back LaMichael James and quarterback Darron Thomas return to headline Chip Kelly’s frenetically-paced read-option offense.

Oregon has been dogged through the offseason with talk of potential NCAA recruiting violations, but the Ducks under Kelly have been good at shutting out distractions.

Arizona led last year’s game in Eugene, 19-14 at halftime, before succumbing to Oregon’s superior pace and conditioning. The Ducks won 48-29.

Mike Stoops vs. Oregon: 2-5.

Juron Criner beats USC's Josh Pinkard for a touchdown late in the 2009 game. Photo by Gary A. Vasquez, US Presswire

@ USC, Oct. 1

Arizona has good memories of its last trip to the L.A. Coliseum, coming away with a 21-17 victory in the 2009 regular-season finale. The key play came late in the game when Nick Foles lofted a pass to Juron Criner, who made a catch along the left sideline and then twisted and stumbled into the end zone for a 36-yard score. That win propelled the Cats to an 8-4 regular season and a berth in the Holiday Bowl.

USC turned the tables last season. The Trojans gashed the Wildcats with the running of Marc Tyler, who carried 31 times for 160 yards in a 24-21 victory. The Trojans sealed the victory by recovering an onside kick with about a minute to play.

Junior quarterback Matt Barkley is back to lead USC in coach Lane Kiffin’s second season. Barkley will team with sophomore wideout Robert Woods to form one of the top pass-catch combos in the league.

Mike Stoops vs. USC: 1-6. (A Stoops-coached UA team has never scored more than 21 points in a game against the Trojans.)

@ Oregon State, Oct. 8

Oregon State has been troublesome for Arizona — the Wildcats have won only two of the past 12 meetings — and that trend continued last season.

Arizona was 4-0 and had reached No. 9 in the polls before the Beavers won 29-27 in Tucson behind a career-best day from Ryan Katz. He cut a large swath through the UA defense, completing 30 of 42 passes for 393 yards.

The Beavers no longer have running back Jacquizz Rodgers to depend upon, but his brother James — a standout receiver and returner — could be back for this year’s game after tearing his ACL while scoring a touchdown vs. UA last season.

Katz will be in his second year as the starter, which is when quarterbacks typically flourish in coach Mike Riley’s system. This could end up being a “swing game” for two teams generally picked in the middle of the Pac-12, although each has reason to have higher aspirations.

Mike Stoops vs. Oregon State: 2-5.

UCLA, Oct. 20

This Thursday night game comes after a bye week and starts the easier half of Arizona’s schedule. At this point, will the Wildcats be trying to salvage something of their season, or will they be trying to surge toward a Pac-12 South title?

UCLA has been a wreck at quarterback for the past three seasons, so who knows what state that position will be in at this point of the season. No matter what, it looks as if the Bruins’ best weapon is running back Johnathan Franklin, who rushed for 1,127 yards last season, when UCLA hung its hat on the Pistol offense.

Arizona has won four in a row in the series — and here’s a stat for you: The Cats have held UCLA to less than 300 yards in each of the past five meetings.

Backup quarterback Matt Scott filled in last season (319 passing yards) as Arizona held on to win 29-21 in the Rose Bowl.

Coach Mike Stoops vs. UCLA: 5-2.

@ Washington, Oct. 29

Arizona corralled Jake Locker last season, holding him to 183 passing yards and hounding him for a loss of 24 rushing yards. Locker is gone — Keith Price has been named the new starter — but Washington still has dynamic personnel on offense.

Chris Polk rushed for 1,415 yards last season, and Jermaine Kearse (1,005 receiving yards, 12 touchdowns) leads an excellent receiving corps that includes super frosh Kasen Williams.

“The reality of it is we’re not going to be able to rely on that quarterback position like we were able to with Jake for two years,” said third-year coach Steve Sarkisian.

Arizona won this matchup with ease last season — 44-14 in Tucson — and has averaged 43.25 points and 478 yards in the past four games against the Huskies.

Mike Stoops vs. Washington: 4-3.

Utah, Nov. 5

Arizona gets its first look at a Pac-12 newcomer, although these programs aren’t strangers. Arizona and Utah have met 36 times, with the Utes leading 19-15-2.

The teams played in each of Mike Stoops’ first two seasons at Arizona. The Utes, ranked No. 17 at the time, beat the Cats 23-6 in Stoops’ second game in 2004. Utah won 27-24 in Salt Lake City in the 2005 season-opener.

Utah’s program has only gotten better since then, including an undefeated 2008 season and three consecutive years with double-digit victories. The Utes are receiving some Top 25 mention in the preseason but the big question is whether they can handle the weekly grind of the Pac-12, as opposed to the Mountain West.

Jordan Wynn, coming off shoulder surgery, is a Pac-12 level quarterback, and head coach Kyle Whittingham will give new offensive coordinator Norm Chow the freedom to run the offense as he sees fit.

The Wildcats will get an up-close look at Colorado mascot Ralphie at Folsom Field. Photo by Ron Chenoy-US PRESSWIRE

@ Colorado, Nov. 12

There will be plenty of familiar faces on the Colorado sideline, including defensive coordinator Greg Brown (who was Arizona’s co-defensive coordinator last season) and defensive line coach Mike Tuiasosopo, who spent seven seasons as an assistant to Mike Stoops.

Going back further, Buffs assistants Rip Scherer and Bobby Kennedy spent time in Tucson, pre-Mike Stoops.

More old history: CU leads the series 12-1, but 11 of those games were played more than 50 years ago. Arizona won the last meeting 24-21 in 1986, coach Larry Smith’s final year.

As for this season, Colorado is rebuilding under first-year coach Jon Embree. The Buffs had five consecutive losing seasons under Dan Hawkins.

Embree says he wants to get back to a physical running style, and he has Rodney Stewart (290 carries for 1,318 yards last season) to try to get that done.

“To be an effective team running the ball, you have to have a physical kind of mindset,” Embree said.

@ ASU, Nov. 19

The rivalry schedule gets shuffled in the first season of the Pac-12, with the game moved off its traditional Thanksgiving week/last-game-of-the-season routine. One thing for sure: It’ll be tough to be Alex Zendejas this week as he relives the 2010 game in which his blocked extra points were the enduring memories from ASU’s 30-29 double-overtime victory.

It’s easy to forget that ASU scored 14 fourth-quarter points against the UA defense … so there was other blame to go around.

Between last year’s thriller — and Zendejas’ game-winning field goal in Sun Devil Stadium in 2009 — the rivalry is in nice stage of friction right now. Consider: Five of the seven meetings in the Mike Stoops era have been decided by a touchdown or less.

ASU’s season appears to hinge on quarterback Brock Osweiler, who directed last season’s victory over Arizona. He repeatedly, and surprisingly, scooted out of trouble with his legs and was lucky when the Cats dropped several potential INTs.

Stoops vs. ASU: 3-4.

Louisiana-Lafayette, Nov. 26

This is nobody’s idea of an ideal regular-season-ending game. It sure would be an improper sendoff to seniors like Nick Foles, Juron Criner, Keola Antolin, Trevin Wade and Robert Golden if the Wildcats’ season has crashed before the finale.

On the other hand, in a more perfect Wildcats world, Arizona Stadium could be welcoming the Pac-12 South champs back home. Who knows?

Anyway, this is the way the schedule fell this season, and it should be an easy win for Arizona, no matter what happens in the first 11 games. Not much is expected of the Ragin’ Cajuns, who were 3-9 last season and then hired Mark Hudspeth to replace Rickey Bustle.

The Cajuns’ best player is senior tight end Ladarius Green, who caught 44 passes last season for 794 yards and seven touchdowns.

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