No. 14 Wildcats face Cal in Pac-10 opener
TUCSON, Ariz. – Arizona’s thriller over Iowa was a nationally televised breakthrough for the Wildcats football program. In many ways, Saturday night’s Pac-10 opener against California is a bigger game.
No. 14 Arizona, the only Pac-10 school never to play in the Rose Bowl, can ill-afford an early conference loss if it is to end that drought.
“Every win makes the next game bigger, so it’s actually more important than Iowa,” Arizona wide receiver Dave Roberts said. “If we lose to Cal, then the Iowa game doesn’t mean anything.”
Coach Mike Stoops believes his team has matured enough to realize consistency is what builds a champion.
“Iowa wasn’t going to define us one way or another,” he said. “The accumulation of the whole 12 games will define who you are. It certainly was a character-building experience, but that is all it was.”
The Wildcats (3-0) send their prolific offense against a California team that surrendered 497 yards in a 52-31 loss at Nevada last week.
The Bears (2-1) need to handle Arizona’s spread attack a lot better than they did Nevada’s triple option.
“I’m hopeful that we rebound and I think they understand that preparation and focus is needed to bounce back against this group,” Cal coach Jeff Tedford said, “because this is a high-powered offense that we’re playing this week as well.”
Arizona enters the game with its highest national ranking in 11 seasons and featuring an offense that centers around junior quarterback Nick Foles, who has completed 79 percent of his passes through three games.
His most impressive moment came after Iowa defensive end Broderick Binns intercepted a pass and rambled 20 yards for the tying touchdown in a game Arizona had led by 20 points.
Foles responded by completing five of six passes for 76 yards in the game-winning touchdown drive, culminating with a 3-yard scoring pass to William “Bug” Wright.
Foles remembers a much different kind of finish at Cal last year.
The Bears took a 17-16 lead on Giorgio Tavecchio’s 22-yard field goal with 4:46 to play. Arizona responded with a drive that reached the Cal 25-yard line but Foles then made a crucial mistake, catching his own deflected pass and trying to throw it again.
Arizona lost 14 yards and a down, pushing the Wildcats out of range for a game-winning field goal try. Shane Vereen clinched Cal’s 24-16 victory with a 61-yard touchdown run with 1:21 to go.
“That was a huge learning moment, just to end the game like that with a penalty on myself,” Foles said. “I learned a lot from it. It’s tough because you put it on yourself when you do that sort of thing. I did put it behind me. You have to move forward, and you have to grow and learn from it, and that’s what I did.”
Each team could be missing an important player. Arizona’s big-play wide receiver Juron Criner has a turf toe injury and Cal linebacker Mike Mohamed could sit out his second game in a row with a sprained toe.
The Bears rolled up 507 yards against Nevada but committed five turnovers.
Vereen is back and is off to a terrific start with 324 yards rushing in three games. He gained a career-best 198 yards against Nevada and needs just nine yards to reach 2,000 for his career.
California also has racked up yards through the air, with Marvin Jones catching 21 passes, tops in the Pac-10.
Senior quarterback Kevin Riley threw for 277 yards and a touchdown at Nevada but was intercepted three times. One of the picks was returned 66 yards for a touchdowns after the Bears had cut the lead to 24-21.
Riley said he made “some critical mistakes, especially that pick six that changed the game, but all you can do is learn from it.”
“This is a new week, a new opponent,” Riley said. “I still have plenty of confidence in myself and this offense.”