Saturday September 4th, 2010

TOLEDO, Ohio -- Arizona co-defensive coordinator Greg Brown stepped out of the tiny visitors' locker room at the Glass Bowl late Friday, looked up at the scoreboard and smiled. Fifty-one weeks ago, Brown had emerged from the same cramped locker room after one of the most embarrassing nights of his professional career.

"Redemption" was the word Brown chose. It fit. Friday, Brown's defense allowed zero points in Arizona's 41-2 win at Toledo. Last September, Brown's Colorado defense allowed 54 points in a 16-point loss.

Brown wasn't the only one redeemed Friday. Though the opponent wasn't elite, the win provided a fresh start for a bunch of Wildcats who finished last season on the business end of a Nebraska shutout in the Holiday Bowl. "Everybody always talks about the Holiday Bowl," Arizona quarterback Nick Foles said. "It's something people will probably always talk about. We've just got to show what kind of team we are."

These Wildcats believe they are the kind of team that can bring the program its first Pac-10 title. They know how close they came last year. A blown 12-point lead in the fourth quarter at Washington and a double-overtime loss to Oregon were the difference between the Holiday Bowl and the Rose Bowl.

No matter the opponent, a shutout -- for the defense; the offense allowed a second-quarter safety -- in a road game clear across the country on national television is a fine start. Especially considering the fact Arizona trotted out three linebackers who hadn't started a Division I game before. Two (junior-college transfers Derek Earls and Paul Vassallo) were making their Division I debuts. Sometimes they played like rookies. Sometimes they played like veterans. But they played aggressively, and that made Coach Mike Stoops happiest.

"We didn't do anything special," Stoops said. "Our kids played hard. You get away with a lot of mistakes when you play hard."

The boxscore won't reveal many mistakes. Foles completed 32-of-37 passes for 360 yards and two touchdowns. Nic Grigsby ran for two touchdowns, including a sidewinding 36-yarder. The defense allowed the aforementioned zero points and only 183 yards.

In person, the busted coverages and missed assignments weren't so hard to spot. But neither was the speed and athleticism on defense. Cornerback Trevin Wade said Earls intercepted passes with regularity during the Wildcats' seven-on-seven drills during the summer. So Wade wasn't surprised in Friday's second quarter. On one play, the Rockets motioned into a five-receiver set, leaving Earls alone to cover the slot man. Toledo quarterback Austin Dantin targeted Earls immediately. Earls tipped the pass, then intercepted it -- just like they taught him at the North Dakota State College of Science.

Sure, Arizona's stingy defensive stats came against a MAC team. But consider the other Pac-10 team that has played a game this season. USC went on the road against a WAC team Thursday and surrendered 36 points and 588 yards.

Nationally, the Pac-10 is considered a finesse league built on high-powered offenses. That's a misconception of sorts. The offensive styles vary, and some schools (Oregon, Stanford and USC, for example) try to smash opposing defenses. But which team dominated the conference for most of the past decade? USC, the one that always had a great defense.

Stoops, a defensive guy, knows a wide-open Pac-10 will be won by the team that complements its high-octane offense with a suffocating defense. "This league is going to come down to stops on defense," Stoops said. "There are some really prolific offenses. If you don't play defense, you're going to get run over."

It was only Toledo, but it was a start. The Wildcats will know a lot more about themselves after they face Iowa at home on Sept. 18, but at least they can make the necessary corrections between now and then without the pain of defeat. "Football is like anything," Stoops said. "It's a game of confidence. We're going to learn in a much happier setting than if we lose."

Just ask Brown, who coached on the last BCS-conference team to visit the Glass Bowl.

Unlike his Colorado counterpart Mike Bohn last year, first-year Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne could leave the Rust Belt with a smile. Last September, Bohn left the Glass Bowl while wrestling with two cold facts: He needed to fire his coach, and his athletic department didn't have the cash to drop the ax. All Byrne had to do Friday was take a picture with his wife under the scoreboard and cradle the game ball Stoops had thrown to him in the locker room.

"He tossed one to just about everybody," Byrne said. "He felt bad for me and gave me one."

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