YEAR OF THE CATS
With 16 starters back from a 12-1 team, Arizona is sitting pretty
This is an article from the April 5, 1999 issue
Arizona coach Dick Tomey always has been able to fit his ego
comfortably under his baseball cap. At age 60 he still plays for
a Tucson city league baseball team. "They limit me to first
base," he says of his teammates, most of whom are in their 20s,
"and our second baseman has to have great range." Yet Tomey's
modesty has limits. A visitor had barely settled into a seat in
Tomey's office last week before Tomey began rattling off the
Wildcats' recent accomplishments on the football field. "We've
won 16 of our last 17 games," he said. "Only two Pac-10 schools
in the last 19 years had a better final ranking than we had [No.
4] last season. We've finished in the top 10 twice in the last
No, Arizona still hasn't been to a Rose Bowl. But with 16
starters returning from a 12-1 team that beat Nebraska 23-20 in
the Holiday Bowl, the Wildcats could make a run for the Rose this
season. They'll face their first big test on Aug. 28, when they
meet Penn State in the Pigskin Classic.
Tomey avidly pursued the game against Penn State. "I just felt
if we were ever going to play a preseason game, this would be
the [Arizona] team to do it with," he said. But during the
Wildcats' 6:30 a.m. spring practices, Tomey has his players
thinking more about archrival Arizona State than about the
Nittany Lions. Last fall the Sun Devils were picked to win the
Pac-10 but lost their season opener to Washington, went into a
tailspin and finished 5-6. Lesson learned, the Arizona players
say. "You have to understand," says junior quarterback Ortege
Jenkins, "that you don't get anything for free."
The Wildcats say they're willing to put in the hard work needed
for a great season, and Jenkins and senior quarterback Keith
Smith, who split the signal-calling duties last year without a
word of complaint, have infused the team with a spirit of
unselfishness. The two quarterbacks were a dynamic duo: Smith
(10 starts) would have finished second in the nation in passing
efficiency last season, but he fell 15 attempts short of the
minimum. Jenkins (three starts) made the play of the year, doing
a flip over three Washington defenders into the end zone with
:04 left to give Arizona a 31-28 win.
When Smith, Jenkins and three teammates gathered for dinner last
week, the subject of preseason rankings arose. "How about 29th?"
"I don't know," senior wide receiver Dennis Northcutt said. "I
kind of like the idea of being Number 1."
Judging from the table's reaction, Northcutt might as well have
sneezed on the chips and salsa. Still, the Wildcats--who are
likely to be ranked in the Top 5--know they will sneak up on no
one. Tomey is quick to remind his team that Penn State won't be
Arizona's only early-season challenge. A week after the Pigskin
Classic, the Wildcats play at TCU, which surprised USC 28-19 in
the Sun Bowl. In fact, Arizona's defense is spending most of
spring practice preparing for the Horned Frogs' option. As an
infielder, Tomey may have limited range, but as a football coach
he covers all the bases.
Surprise Season Opener
KANSAS TAKES THE HIGH ROAD
The most compelling reason for Kansas to agree to play Notre
Dame in the Eddie Robinson Classic in South Bend on Aug. 28? It
may not be the $1 million payday or the Jayhawks' belief that
the Irish won't do to them what Florida State did (blister them
42-0) in the 1993 Kickoff Classic. Actually, the main reason may
be that the matchup gives Kansas a chance to make Kansas State
the target of ridicule.
The Jayhawks' challenging nonconference schedule next fall makes
K-State's traditional group of patsies--Temple (2-9 in 1998),
Texas-El Paso (3-8) and Utah State (3-8)--look even more feeble
than usual. In addition to the Irish (9-3), Kansas will play Cal
State-Northridge (7-4), San Diego State (7-5) and SMU (5-7).
HOGS WANT TO BE LIKE MICHIGAN
Though their teams were opponents in the Citrus Bowl on New
Year's Day, the Arkansas and Michigan staffs got along so well
that Razorbacks offensive line coaches Mike Markuson and Mark
Hutson traveled to Ann Arbor last Thursday to learn more about
the Wolverines' run-blocking techniques. Michigan rushed for 204
yards in its 45-31 Citrus Bowl victory.
"They do a better job with the counter than we do," Arkansas
coach Houston Nutt says. "They were steady and persistent
against our defense." The teams fit the cardinal rule governing
the off-season swapping of information: They don't plan to play
each other again anytime soon.
SYRACUSE HAS BIG SHOES TO FILL
Syracuse coach Paul Pasqualoni lost not only quarterback Donovan
McNabb from last year's 8-4 team but also offensive coordinator
Kevin Rogers, who now holds the same title at Notre Dame.
Rogers's replacement? His predecessor, George DeLeone, who
coordinated the defense last season. Though sophomore Madei
Williams appears to be the heir to McNabb, junior tailback Dee
Brown, an option quarterback in high school, also will be taking
snaps.... Colorado junior strong safety John Sanders made the SI
All-Bowl (INSIDE COLLEGE FOOTBALL, Jan. 11) team last season
after recovering one fumble, forcing another, intercepting a
pass and making eight tackles in the Aloha Bowl against Oregon.
He'll never play again. An MRI taken before spring practice
revealed that Sanders has a bruised spinal cord, which he
suffered in a game in November against Missouri, and a narrowing
of the spinal column, which doctors say makes him more
vulnerable to paralysis than normal.