THE MADNESS OF MIKE STOOPSThis is the year in which most Arizona fans assumed Mike Stoops would be leading the Wildcats to their first bowl game in eight seasons. Instead, the Cats are 4-5 and AD Pete Livengood has been forced to give Stoops a public vote of confidence. What happened?
When Stoops was announced as the Cats' head coach in late 2003, Tucson became a football town, if only for a couple of weeks. Stoops-mania recalled the atmosphere in Berkeley as Old Blues watched Jeff Tedford's Oregon offense dismantle Colorado in the 2002 Fiesta Bowl. There are important differences, though, between the two situations, and those differences help explain what separates Tedford's Bears from Stoops' Wildcat program.
Tedford made a natural progression - from OC at a 'progressive' Pac-10 school to Head Coach at a sister institution. At Cal, he could essentially replicate what he had learned in Eugene, adding his own twists here and there. JT had already read the blueprint of how to win in the Pac 10 - score bunches of points, pressure the passer, and get yourself some really good cornerbacks.
Mike Stoops' progression was anything but natural. He helped shape some great teams at Kansas State and Oklahoma who won with a simple formula. They played sound defense, didn't make mistakes, and had enough offensive firepower to outscore the opponent without getting too fancy. Call it the Big 12 formula. Oklahoma didn't outscheme anyone on offense, they just bludgeoned them into submission with a power running game and effective change-of-pace passing.
I'm not suggesting that the Big 12 formula can't work in the Pac 10. You could argue that Don James' great UW teams of the late 1980s and early 1990s were essentially Big 12-style teams. But I am suggesting that this philosophical divide at least partially explains Stoops' early difficulties in Tucson.
Under Stoops, Arizona has played very good defense. They're holding opponents to an average of 19 points per game, which includes the 45-point debacle against LSU. Stoops' first recruiting classes have been highly ranked, though they are likely to suffer some academic attrition. The Cats are drawing 50,000+ to most home games.
So why are the Cats 10-21 in the Age of Stoops? Because they run the least effective and least imaginative offense in the conference. They have rushed for 687 yards this season. That's not a typo: Arizona averages just over 75 yards per game on the ground (and that's counting some recent improvement).
The Cats' most dangerous weapon is sophomore QB Willie Tuitama, a guy regarded by some Bears' fans as a recruiting miss for Tedford. Tui lit up the Pac 10 last year with his strong if not always accurate arm and his impressive ability to scramble out of pressure and generate big plays. The Cats have built their offense around Tui, which made perfect sense until he suffered two concussions - against LSU and UCLA - that limited his playing time and effectiveness.
Stoops has no Plan B because he didn't bring in the type of coordinator who could scheme his way to victory. Arizona's entire offense hinges on Tui's athleticism and playmaking and without him at full effectiveness, they can't move the football to compete in this conference. I think back to the USC-Oklahoma Orange Bowl blowout in 2005 - time after time Norm Chow put the Sooners in impossible situations that translated to big plays and scores. Norm Chow's gone, but the conference is still filled with enough smart coordinators and explosive offensive talent to put at least 21 points on the board every Saturday. And 21 points has been more than enough to beat Arizona on most of those Saturdays.
Stoops' only solution has been to kick OC Mike Canales to the curb, demoting him to co-coordinator alongside TE coach Dana Dimel in early October. If he wants to compete in the Pac 10, he'll need to start over in the offseason and bring in a dynamic coordinator who can scheme with the best of them. Without a major change, UofA will struggle to convince blue-chip offensive talent to choose Tucson over LA, Berkeley, Eugene or even Tempe. And Stoops will continue to lose, the Big 12 way.