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Better Know An Iowa Football Opponent 2010: Arizona Wildcats (Part Two)

The off-season is a long and tiresome trudge, so how can we best get through it?  By looking ahead to next year, of course.  So, in the spirit of forward thinking, we present a team-by-team look at Iowa's 2010 football opponents (with looks at Illinois and Purdue thrown in for good measure so our Big Televen brethren don't feel ignored).  Next up: the Arizona Wildcats.  Road opener?  In the desert?  Is this where we gulp?

In case you missed it... PART ONE


Brooks Reed has Mitch King hair.  Oh hell.

ARIZONA WILDCATS (@ Tucson, AZ; September 18, 2010; 930pm CDT; ESPN)

OK, what should we expect when Arizona doesn't have the ball?  They don't return a lot... but what they do return is pretty damn good, actually.  Up front, both of last year's defensive ends return and both Brooks Reed and Ricky Elmore have had strong seasons in the past.  In 2009, Elmore finished second in the Pac-10 in sacks (10.5) and was named Honorable Mention All-Pac-10.  Reed missed a handful of games with a knee injury, but had 8.5 sacks in 2008.  Arizona will be breaking in some less-experienced faces at DT, though -- Dominique Austin and Lolomana Mikaele are the favorites to start, although Jonathan Hollins, Justin Washington, and Sione Tuihalamaka will all be in the mix there, too.  What they lack in experience (they totaled 16 tackles, 3.5 for loss in 2009), they make up for in vowel-laden names and glorious hair.

Behind them, Arizona will be suiting up more new guys at linebacker.  All three starters from a year ago are gone, Jake Fischer, Derel Earls, and Paul Vassallo are the favorites to start after spring practice.  Fischer had seven tackles a year ago (one for loss), while Earls and Vasallo were JUCO standouts before arriving in Tucson as part of Arizona's 2010 recruiting class.  


To be fair, Trevin Wade is much better at defending passes than hauling down a runaway freight train like A-Rob.

The secondary features Zona's only other returning starters in CB Trevin Wade and SS Robert Golden.  Wade was a standout a year ago (second-team All-Pac-10) and should again be one of Arizona's best defensive players.  He had fourteen passes defended, including five interceptions, and was one of the top tacklers on the team, recording 71 tackles, including 53 solo stops.  Iowa fans should already be well-acquainted with Wade's skills, though -- a year ago he hopped in front of a particularly egregious STANZIBALL and ran it back, the first of many (many) Rick Sixes a year ago.  Stanzi may want to avoid his side of the field a bit this fall.  The other returning starter, Golden, racked up 41 tackles and a pair of interceptions.  Marcus Benjamin (7 tackles, 1 TFL in 09) and Lyle Brown (4 tackles) are expected to battle for the CB spot opposite Wade, while Joe Perkins (25 tackles, 1 INT) is expected to man the FS slot.  

The defense also features one other significant change -- like the Arizona offense, the defense will be breaking in new co-defensive coordinators.  LB coach Tim Kish and DB coach Greg Brown will share defensive playcalling duties after Mark Stoops headed to Florida State to continue the Stoopsification of college football in all conferences across America and revive their formerly fearsome defense.  As with the offense, we won't really know what changes -- if any -- they'll be making to the defense until the season kicks off in September.

And just how "special" are their special teams?  Arizona returns both kicking specialists and their primary kick returners from what was a generally strong special teams outfit.  Kicker Alex Zendejas made a solid 17/22 field goals (including 2/3 from 40+), but missed three extra points (38/41), which has to be a little concerning.  Punter Keenyn Crier had a 35.1 yard net punting average in 2009, although he was first-team All-Pac-10 in 2008.  Where Arizona really excelled was in the return game -- Bug Wright averaged 17.5 yards per punt return and had one return for a touchdown, while Travis Cobb averaged 25.4 yards per kick return and also ran one back for a touchdown. 

Alright, brainiac, what's gonna happen?  You can make a pretty strong case that no other road game on Iowa's schedule is causing quite as much angst among the fanbase as this one.  Granted, Michigan has the brand name and the Big House and just Northwestern has the recent track record of success against Iowa, so there's some concern regarding those games, too.  But the road trip to September has been circled with dread ever since the schedule was released -- and the really curious part is that it has very little to do with the actual Wildcat team that will be taking the field that night.  Based on returning talent, coaching prowess, and preseason expectations Arizona is roughly similar to Michigan State -- and, no offense to Sparty, but no one's doing Pepto shooters to calm down about the prospect of that game.  No, the agita about the Zona game has quite a bit to do with where it's being played and when it's being played.  So how much of that concern is justified?


The one highlight from Iowa's last trip to the desert.


CONCERN #1: Iowa doesn't play well west of the Missouri River.  Since 2000, Iowa's played the following west-ish games:

- 2000: vs. Kansas State (@ Kansas City, MO); L, 27-7
- 2000: vs. Nebraska (@ Lincoln, NE); L, 42-13
- 2001: vs. Texas Tech (@ San Antonio, TX); W. 19-16
- 2004: vs. Arizona State (@ Tempe, AZ); L, 44-7
- 2006: vs. Texas (@ San Antonio, TX); L, 26-24

That's a grand total of five games out of the 125 total games Iowa played in the Aughts -- not much of a sample size.  The sample size is even smaller when looking at games that more closely mirror this one (i.e., played far west in a different time zone) -- it's a grand total of one, the 2004 debacle in the desert against Arizona State.  That was a horrific game, but should it really retain so much boogeyman power over us six years later?

CONCERN #2: Iowa doesn't play well in night games.  Since 2000, Iowa's played the following games with true (i.e., 6pm CDT or later) night starts:

- 2001: vs. Texas Tech; W, 19-16
- 2002: vs. USC; L, 38-17
- 2004: vs. Arizona State; L, 44-7
- 2006: vs. Ohio State; L, 38-17
- 2006: vs. Texas; L, 26-24
- 2007: vs. Syracuse; W, 35-0
- 2007: vs. Wisconsin; L, 17-13
- 2008: vs. Minnesota; W, 55-0
- 2009: vs. Penn State; W, 21-10
- 2009: vs. Michigan; W, 30-28
- 2009: vs. Michigan State; W, 15-13
- 2010: vs. Georgia Tech; W, 24-14

That's an overall record of 7-5, including wins in the last five in a row.  As above, the one outlier is the Arizona State game, since it not only took place at night but in a different time zone than the Central or Eastern time zones in which Iowa plays 99% of its games.  (In fact, the game was even later than planned that night thanks to a lightning storm that delayed the start.)  A year ago, with three night games on the schedule, Ferentz opted to spend more time practicing at night to acclimate his team to nighttime conditions -- judging by the results, the revamped practices worked well.  One would expect more nighttime practices this summer/fall, although Ferentz probably won't opt for too many practices that begin at 9:30pm CDT.

CONCERN #3: Iowa doesn't play well in non-conference road games.  Since 2000, Iowa's played the following non-conference games away from home:

- 2000: vs. Kansas State (Kansas City, MO); L, 27-7
- 2000: vs. Nebraska (Lincoln, NE); L, 42-13
- 2001: vs. Iowa State (Ames, IA); L, 17-14
- 2001: vs. Texas Tech (San Antonio, TX); W, 19-16
- 2002: vs. Miami (OH) (Oxford, OH); W, 29-24
- 2002: vs. USC (Miami, FL); L, 38-17
- 2003: vs. Iowa State (Ames, IA); W, 40-21
- 2003: vs. Florida (Tampa, FL); W, 37-17
- 2004: vs. Arizona State (Tempe, AZ); L, 44-7
- 2004: vs. LSU (Orlando, FL); W, 30-25
- 2005: vs. Iowa State (Ames, IA); L, 23-3
- 2006: vs. Florida (Tampa, FL); L, 31-24
- 2006: vs. Syracuse (Syracuse, NY); W, 20-13 (2OT)
- 2006: vs. Texas (San Antonio, TX); L, 26-24
- 2007: vs. Northern Illinois (Chicago, IL); W, 16-3
- 2007: vs. Iowa State (Ames, IA); L, 15-13
- 2008: vs. Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh, PA); L, 21-20
- 2008: vs. South Carolina (Tampa, FL); W, 31-10
- 2009: vs. Iowa State (Ames, IA); W, 35-3
- 2009: vs. Georgia Tech (Miami, FL); W, 24-14

That works out to an overall record of 10-10; take out the bowl games and it drops to 5-7.  Take out the neutral site games and it drops to 4-6... and those true road wins came over Iowa State (twice), Miami (OH), and one of Greg Robinson's many godawful Syracuse teams.  So, yeah, non-conference road games have been a bit of a struggle.  On the other hand, once again there really haven't been that many: 12 in the regular season, two of which were neutral site games (00 Kansas State and 07 Northern Illinois), and five of which were against Iowa State (a series which became a magnet for weird shit in the Aughts).  Iowa's non-conference road game track record against non-neutral site, non-Iowa State, non-bowl game opponents boils down to just five games: 00 Nebraska, 02 Miami (OH), 04 Arizona State, 06 Syracuse, and 08 Pitt.  Iowa flat-out stunk in 2000, but wound up having good teams in three of the latter four seasons listed and still played relatively poorly in those games -- if you want to wring your hands over something, this might be it.  That said, Iowa still won two of those four games and debate still rages about whether they would have won the 08 Pitt game had Stanzi played in the second half.  

CONCERN #4: Iowa doesn't play well in road openers.  Since 2000, Iowa's played the following road openers:

- 2000: vs. Kansas State (Kansas City, MO); L, 27-7*
- 2001: vs. Purdue (West Lafayette, IN); L, 23-14
- 2002: vs. Miami (OH) (Oxford, OH); W, 29-24
- 2003: vs. Iowa State (Ames, IA); W, 40-21
- 2004: vs. Arizona State (Tempe, AZ); L, 44-7
- 2005: vs. Iowa State (Ames, IA); L, 23-3
- 2006: vs. Syracuse (Syracuse, NY); W, 20-13 (2OT)
- 2007: vs. Northern Illinois (Chicago, IL); W, 16-3*
- 2008: vs. Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh, PA); L, 21-20
- 2009: vs. Iowa State (Ames, IA); W, 35-3
* -- Iowa also lost their true road opener (@ Nebraska, 42-13) in 2000.
** -- Iowa lost their true road opener (@ Iowa State, 15-13) in 2007.

That's an overall mark of 5-5 in road openers, or 4-6 if you use the true road opener (@ISU) from 2007.  That's not quite as abominable as you might have thought, although even the wins were rarely pretty.  The '02 win over Miami (OH) was far nervier than it should have been for one of the all-time great Iowa teams.  The '06 Iowa team wasn't exactly hot stuff, but needing two overtimes (and a completely insane goalline stand) to defeat a lousy Syracuse squad?  Yeesh.  And the meh-tastic win over a bad NIU team in '07 should have been a clear harbinger that that Iowa team had problems. 

CONCERN #5: Big Ten teams struggle when they play Pac-10 teams on the road.  Since 2000:

- 2000: Ohio State 27, Arizona 17 (bowl team beat non-bowl team)
- 2000: UCLA 23, Michigan 20 (bowl team beat bowl team)
- 2001: Illinois 44, Cal 17 (bowl team beat non-bowl team)
- 2001: Oregon 31, Wisconsin 28 (bowl team beat non-bowl team)
- 2001: UCLA 13, Ohio State 6 (non-bowl team beat bowl team)
- 2001: Washington 23, Michigan 18 (bowl team beat bowl team)
- 2002: Wisconsin 31, Arizona 10 (bowl team beat non-bowl team)
- 2003: UCLA 6. Illinois 3 (bowl team beat non-bowl team)
- 2003: Oregon 31, Michigan 27 (bowl team beat bowl team)
- 2003: Washington 38, Indiana 13 (non-bowl team beat non-bowl team)
- 2004: Arizona State 44, Iowa 7 (bowl team beat bowl team)
- 2004: Wisconsin 9, Arizona 7 (bowl team beat non-bowl team)
- 2004: Indiana 30, Oregon 24 (non-bowl team beat non-bowl team)
- 2005: Purdue 31, Arizona 24 (non-bowl team beat non-bowl team)
- 2005: Cal 35, Illinois 20 (bowl team beat non-bowl team)
- 2005: Arizona State 52, Northwestern 21 (bowl team beat bowl team)
- 2006: Cal 42, Minnesota 17 (bowl team beat bowl team)
- 2007: Ohio State 33, Washington 14 (bowl team beat non-bowl team)
- 2008: Cal 38, Michigan State 31 (bowl team beat bowl team)
- 2008: USC 35, Ohio State 3 (bowl team beat bowl team)
- 2009: Oregon 38, Purdue 36 (bowl team beat non-bowl team)

The grand total?  A 7-14 record for the Big Ten.  Ouch.  That's not so good.  But let's take a closer look at those results.  A handful of those losses are by Indiana and Illinois, who were far and away the weakest teams in the Big Ten over the course of the decade.  Most years, those teams had enough trouble beating MAC teams at home, let alone traveling thousands of miles and a few time zones to take on a team.  Minnesota also contributed a loss, but fuck Minnesota, because they suck.  We know this to be true.  Michigan also contributed three losses to the total; is it Iowa's fault that the Pac-10 is their kryptonite (much like the SEC is for Ohio State)?  And so forth.  Yes, the Big Ten has a poor track record in Pac-10 road games, but how much should the sins of the Big Ten weigh on Iowa's shoulders?  

What so much of this angst really boils down to is that aforementioned 2004 Arizona State game.  It's become one of the premiere boogeyman games of the Ferentz Era among fans.  It's always in the discussion when road games, early season games, or non-conference games get brought up.  It's the Alamo of 00s Iowa football: remember the ASU game!  But aside from the superficial similarities (ranked Iowa team, going on the road to Arizona, playing late at night), what really are the similarities between these teams and their 2004 counterparts?  That Iowa team was led by a sophomore Drew Tate making his first road start -- not exactly an ideal situation.  This Iowa team will be led by a senior Ricky Stanzi, a player's who started (and won) multiple road games and who's been remarkably clutch in the fourth quarter.  That Iowa team was in the throes of 2004's Runningbackmageddon.  This Iowa team will hopefully have better luck keeping a healthy contingent of running backs.  This Iowa team has Adrian Clayborn, arguably the best defensive player at Iowa since Bob Sanders and a slew of players who've played in (and won) road games against top opposition.  That Iowa team had some excellent players (Matt Roth, Jonathan Babineaux, Chad Greenway, Abdul Hodge, Sean Considine), but they didn't have a fraction of the road game track record that the 2010 crew has.  

And, most importantly, that Iowa team had never experienced anything like that: a road trip that far west and that late at night.  Ferentz has shown an aptitude for tweaking preparations when things go awry.  After the team was distracted and overwhelmed by the postseason honors and attention during prep for the 2003 Orange Bowl, he made changes to the bowl prep routine.  Those changes have seemed to pay off quite well: a 4-2 record in six subsequent bowl games and they've been competitive in every game.  Granted, none of the Iowa players on the 2010 team were around to experience the poor preparations and disastrous in-game experience of the 2004 ASU game, but none of them were around for the 2003 Orange Bowl, and they were certainly much more prepared for the 2010 Orange Bowl than the 2002 Iowa team was back in 2003.  Ferentz, O'Keefe, Parker, and most of the other coaches were around in 2004 and they likely do remember that game and have some theories about what went wrong. Considering that Iowa hasn't seemed unprepared or uncompetitive in a single game since the miserable 2007 season, it may be worth giving them the benefit of the doubt here.

Finally, this team, or rather, the core of this team, the guys who've been starting since 2008 -- Stanzi, DJK, Vandervelde, Clayborn, Ballard, Hunter, Sash, and Greenwood -- have made a living out of busting trends and proving doubters wrong.  For a long time under Ferentz Iowa teams couldn't come from behind to win, couldn't win on the road, couldn't beat top-ten teams, couldn't win big games... and then 2008 Penn State and Daniel Murray happened.  And then the entire goddamn 2009 season happened.  They proved they could come from behind to win (a virtual necessity with Stanzi gifting the opposition a touchdown every other game), they proved they could win on the road (something they did over and over and over a year ago), they proved they could beat top-ten teams (thanks, Penn State), they proved they could win big games (hello, Orange Bowl).  They went on the road to Ames last September, a place that's seen as much heartache and lousy Iowa play as any non-conference destination in the Aughts... and they pounded the holy hell out of them, 35-3.  They went to Happy Valley and Madison and East Lansing and won.  They went to Columbus and... well, didn't win (sigh), but did take Ohio State to OT with a freshman QB making his first-ever start.  They certainly didn't crumble under the pressure.  So, yeah, bring on the Zona Zoo and six years of nightmares about that debacle in the desert... it can't be worse than what this team has already overcome.

Arizona has quality talent at multiple positions (QB, RB, WR, C, DE, CB), but there are only two positions where they have a clear-cut advantage over Iowa -- C (regardless of the system, it's better to have a guy with 37 career starts versus a pair of guys who have zero career starts) and CB (Prater and Hyde/Bernstine are solid, but thus far they haven't proven to be as excellent as Wade).  (You could also make a case for taking Foles over Stanzi, although Stanzi seems like a better fit for Iowa's offense and has a proven fourth quarter track record.)  At the other positions where Arizona is strong (RB, WR, DE, SS), Iowa has options that are at least as good -- if not markedly better.  

Mind you, in spite of those positional advantages, the match-ups aren't that lopsided in Iowa's favor.  Stanzi, McNutt, and DJK may give Iowa ample experience and talent in the passing game, but their success is contingent on the new(ish) faces at OT keeping Stanzi upright and the receivers getting separation from Wade.  Hampton, Wegher, and A-Rob form a potent trio of RBs that ought to do well against an inexperienced LB corps and interior DL for the Wildcats... if the Hawkeye offensive line can get a solid push and carve out some holes for them.  Both the Iowa defense and the Arizona offense return many of last year's starters, so there's some logic in expecting a repeat of last year's performance -- if not for three key differences.  First, Foles offers Arizona a much more consistent passer than Scott did a year ago; if he can get their short-passing game clicking, there's a chance that they could wear out the Iowa defense.  Second, we don't yet know if Nielsen and Tarpinian will be able to replace Edds and Angerer's ability to clog passing lanes and cover receivers -- if they can't, it's going to make it more difficult for Iowa to disrupt the rhythm of Arizona's passing game.  Third, the absence of Amari Spievey is going to take its toll; it's not very likely that either Hyde or Bernstine will be able to shut down half the field the way Spievey was able to a year ago.

Frankly, the keys for Iowa in this game are the same as they are in almost every game in 2010: Stanzi needs to protect the ball, the defensive line needs to be able to force the quarterback into bad decisions, and the offensive line needs to open enough holes to sustain a decent running game.  They did all that a year ago (minus Stanzi protecting the ball, of course) and Iowa still has the better, more experienced players and coaches.  Is Arizona's home field advantage and late night start enough to swing things in their favor?  It certainly was for Arizona State in 2004, but that game was one game.  This year's Iowa team appears to have the experience, the leadership, and the talent to avoid a disaster like that.  We'll go with a 7-10 point win for Iowa... with the potential for much more if the defense can be as dominant as they were a year ago.

So how's the rest of their season gonna play out?  Arizona opens the year with a Friday night road game with Toledo; that should be a relatively easy win for Arizona, although beware -- weird things can happen in Toledo on a Friday night.  Just ask Colorado.  They open their home slate with The Citadel; that won't be pretty.  They follow that with three home games in the next four weeks, against Iowa, Cal, and Oregon State (with a bye week in-between the Cal and Oregon State games).  The preseason punditocracy seems to be pegging Cal for a middle-of-the-pack finish and Oregon State with a top three finish; a split seems about right there, especially since the home team has won six of the past seven match-ups (including the last five in a row) in the Cal-Arizona series.  Toss in a road win over Pac-10 bottomfeeder Washington State and 4-2 seems like a realistic record for Arizona halfway through the season.

Unfortunately, the back-half of Zona's season features games with three other teams pegged to finish in the upper-division of the Pac 10: home dates with Washington and USC and a road game with Oregon.  There's also a pair of potentially tricky road games with Stanford and UCLA (although Arizona has won four of the last five against UCLA) and the season-ending rivalry game against Arizona State.  A .500 record seems about right for that stretch, considering that the Pac-10 seems utterly riddled with parity this year (aside from Washington State, who should again be abysmal).  A .500 record in the back-half of the season would leave Arizona at 7-5 for the regular season, which feels right: they have a handful of very good players and a slew of solid options, but they have neither the talent nor the track record to suggest that they're on the cusp of breaking out for a monster season.  For all the talk of their recent revival under Stoops the past two years, they've lost five games each season -- given the parity (seemingly) present in the rest of the Pac-10, the deficiencies in Zona's squad (most notably in the defense), and the uncertainty that comes with bringing in new offensive and defensive coordinators, maintaining the status quo of the last two years seems like a plausible prediction.