Wildcats hope to play spoiler to Ducks' national title dreams
West Virginia loves the Arizona Wildcats. But not as much as Kansas does. Or Missouri. Heck, the entire Big 12 is head over heels for Arizona this week.[+] EnlargeOtto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesOregon's title hopes and Dennis Dixon's Heisman chances are on the line Thursday night.
But no place loves Arizona more than Oklahoma, where a little brotherly love could go a long way toward elevating the Sooners into the national title game. This fraternal Hallmark card, of course, would be a gift from Arizona coach Mike Stoops to big bro Bob on Thursday night when the Wildcats take on No. 2 Oregon in Tucson (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET).
A couple of weeks back, OU coach Bob Stoops pointed out during his weekly media chat that brother Mike's Wildcats had won in Oregon's fearsome Autzen Stadium in 2006 -- dominated 37-10, in fact -- so why couldn't Arizona pull another upset and eliminate the chief obstacle impeding the eventual Big 12 champion from playing for the national title?Considering that Oregon and Oklahoma have played three times since 2004 -- the Sooners winning twice, the Ducks once in highly controversial fashion -- let's just say there are certainly grounds for the Stoops brothers to talk shop this week. "Shoot, I'm just trying to help myself, help our kids," said Mike Stoops, downplaying the fraternal angle. "There's a lot of people pulling for us there are a lot of teams that need help." That's just one of the many reasons this Pac-10 tilt feels heftier than the nearly two-touchdown mismatch that oddsmakers believe it to be. Beyond BCS implications, there's the Heisman Trophy race, which many now believe is Oregon quarterback Dennis Dixon's to lose. Dixon is the nation's fourth-rated passer, and the dual-threat QB leads an offense averaging 511 yards and nearly 43 points per game -- numbers compiled without the benefit of a schedule padded with directional schools and I-AA patsies. That certainly gets an opponent's attention, particularly an opposing defense looking to distinguish itself on a national stage. "It would be great to ruin his Heisman Trophy campaign and to knock off the No. 2 team in the country -- that's something you dream about," Arizona senior linebacker Spencer Larsen said. "But they're going to have a chip on their shoulders. I'm sure they're confused about what happened last year, and they are going to come in here wanting revenge." Therein lies another source of pregame tension. Larsen counts last year's win over the Ducks as one of the highlights of his career. For Dixon and his teammates, it was a decided embarrassment. The Ducks turned the ball over six times, including three Dixon interceptions, and surrendered 230 yards rushing in a white-flag effort against one of the nation's worst running teams. It became the second loss of a dreary four-game Oregon slide that was capped by a humiliating 38-8 defeat to BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl. That spiral into the muck was lowlighted by Dixon's benching and teamwide dissension. "Last year, we had a lot of finger-pointing on the team," Dixon said. "It's kind of hard to win games when you've got finger-pointing." Suffice it to say that game functioned differently for Arizona. It was the Wildcats' third consecutive conference victory and fourth in five games, and it seemed to presage great things for 2007, despite a season-ending loss to rival Arizona State.With 19 starters back and a fancy new spread offense that would showcase quarterback Willie Tuitama's considerable passing skills, the general feeling was Arizona would almost certainly qualify for its first bowl game since 1998 and might even threaten the top third of the conference. Embarrassing losses to BYU and New Mexico followed by a 1-4 start in conference play crushed those expectations and provoked talk that Stoops' fourth season might be his last. A recent vote of confidence from the school president guaranteeing Stoops' job in 2008, however, took the heat off at the administrative level, and consecutive wins over Washington and UCLA have mostly quieted a grumbling fan base. If the Wildcats upset the Ducks and then Arizona State, they'll match last year's 6-6 mark, and they would have a decent chance to receive a bowl invitation. Still, in August, Arizona's players didn't dream of merely becoming spoilers fighting for a low-rung bowl. "I've thought a lot about that -- what we are missing," Larsen said. "We should have been top contenders this year and maybe that's it: We thought we were going to be a lot better than we were. "But these are the types of games that put teams on the map. We had a lot of expectations coming into this year that didn't quite pan out, but this is a way to still get something out of it." So there's the possibility of a highly motivated Arizona team trying to prove itself and salvage its season sneaking up on an Oregon team that's too busy admiring its own reflection in the mirror. After all, the Ducks last year climbed as high as No. 11 in the national rankings before their season split apart at the seams. Not a chance, said Dixon. "That's what happened to us last year," he said. "We started off real well and we had high hopes and everybody started looking ahead. This team is different. I like that." Yet in the age of the BCS, winning is not always enough. Many will tune in to the ESPN broadcast looking for Dixon and the Ducks to record style points as well as a victory. How the broadcasters talk about Oregon -- positively and negatively -- will be debated on message boards and will undoubtedly register with pollsters. And Ducks fans are particularly sensitive, believing they were gypped out of the national title game in 2001 and a BCS bowl in 2005. "My history with the BCS is not very good," said Oregon coach Mike Bellotti, after trying his darnedest to say he's not even thinking about the BCS. So there you have it: A Stoops mind meld, national title and Heisman Trophy implications, a nice revenge angle and promising material for a potential BCS controversy. What else could any college football fan want? Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.Kevin Terrell/Getty ImagesCan Mike Stoops and the Wildcats pull off the upset for the second straight year?
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