Friday, September 21, 2007

Arizona Daily Star: Ground game concerns Air Zona

By Ryan Finley

Through three games, the Air Zona offense has lived up to its reputation as a high-octane passing attack.  Arizona's rushing game, however, needs work. The UA football team averages a conference-worst 88.3 yards per game on the ground.

While some of that is a byproduct of the team's new spread offense, the team's 3.6 yards per carry is also a Pac-10 low. Sophomore Xavier Smith leads the team with 107 rushing yards on 26 carries. Senior Chris Jennings has 89 yards on as many carries. The Wildcats have not scored a rushing touchdown this season.   "We've got to continue to run the football," UA coach Mike Stoops said. "We're close to getting some seams in the run game. We've got to keep working it."

Arizona will not run for the sake of balance alone.  First-year offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes said he will stick with his philosophy in Saturday's Pac-10 opener at California. Dykes will continue to spread the field with short passes but will ask for better runs from his tailbacks.  "We're not worried so much about quality than we are about quantity," Dykes said. "When we can run for 100 yards per game or 120 yards per game, that's when things are going well."

Arizona (1-2) will continue to platoon three players at tailback. Jennings is expected to start, with Smith backing him up. Stoops said true freshman Nicolas Grigsby will "play a good deal" after being benched last weekend because of his inability to pass-block.  Arizona's inability to run the ball also could help explain some of the defense's struggles through the first three weeks.  The UA's offense is averaging 28 minutes 53 seconds a game in time of possession so far this season, meaning its defense must spend roughly 52percent of each game on the field.  Arizona's time of possession is worse now than in 2006, when the team's inability to move the ball led to an off-season overhaul. The Wildcats averaged 30:57 a game last season.  Dykes said there are better ways to measure a good offense than time of possession.  Arizona is fourth in the conference with 22 first downs per game. The Wildcats average eight more first downs a game this season than last year.  "First downs are the things that matter," Dykes said. "When we want to slow the game down, we can slow the game down. When we want to speed the game up, we can speed the game up."

So far, the Air Zona seems to be working. The Wildcats' passing offense is rated first in the Pac-10 with 321 yards a game.  "I think our kids have really taken a grasp of what we're teaching," Stoops said.

Extra points:

● Tyler Lyon's suspension following last week's arrest means Arizona will bring three quarterbacks to Cal this weekend. Willie Tuitama, Kris Heavner and true freshman Bryson Beirne will make the trip as part of the Wildcats' 65-man travel squad.

● Stoops said the personal foul penalty called on Lionel Dotson last week was "not something we teach or we play."  "We haven't been an undisciplined team since we've been here," Stoops said.  Dotson was called for a late hit on UNM quarterback Donovan Porterie following a second-quarter pass attempt. The Lobos were awarded a first down on Arizona's 48-yard line. Stoops said Dotson barely touched the quarterback.

● Despite the Wildcats' record, the Air Zona offense is bound to scare some California fans. The last time the Golden Bears took on a team running a Dykes-led offense, Texas Tech scored 45 points in a 2004 Holiday Bowl victory.

"This is the second time I've played Cal," Dykes said. "Hopefully the second one works out like the first one."

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