KEY LOSSES courtesy of NationalChamps.net
OFFENSE: Terrell Turner-WR, Chris Gronkowski-HB, Mike Diaz-OT, Herman Hall-OG, Adam Grant-OT, Rob Gronkowski-TE
DEFENSE: Earl Mitchell-DT, Donald Horton-DT, Xavier Kelley-WLB, Vuna Tuihalamaka-MLB, Sterling Lewis-SLB, Devin Ross-CB, Cam Nelson-FS, Corey Hall-NB
SPECIAL TEAMS: No losses
Jon’s Point Spread Prediction (the number he thinks Vegas will open with): Iowa -3
Before Arizona plays Iowa: The Wildcats will play at Toledo to open the season, then they will host the Citadel. They play Iowa on September 18th, a game that will likely be played under the lights.
The first thing that jumps out at you when examining Arizona for next year is what they were able to accomplish in 2009; they finished 8-5 with a 33-0 loss to Nebraska in their bowl game, but they have to feel good about their 8-4 record, which was also a 6-3 mark in the Pac 10. That’s progress for Mike Stoops, at least in my opinion.
Their defense ranked #25 in the nation, allowing just 322 yards per game in the Pac 10, good for the second best mark in that offensive minded league. They allowed 120 rushing yards per game, which was 29th in the nation and just under 24 points per game, which was 53rd best in the nation, but not horrible. They were also a top 25 team in sacks per game.
That’s the good news for them on the defensive side of the ball. The bad news is that Arizona loses 7 of its 11 starters from that group. They return their talented pair of bookend defensive ends Brooks Reed (HM All Pac 10 in ’08) and Ricky Elmore, but Earl Mitchell at defensive tackle (2nd Team All Pac 10) is a key loss. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz likened him to Jonathon Babineaux. The Wildcats must also replace their entire starting linebacker crew, which means they lose 5 of their front 7, in addition to one cornerback and one safety named Cam Nelson (2nd team All Pac 10). Elmore finished 20th in the nation in sacks in 2009.
The reverse is true of the offense, as the team returns quite a bit of firepower. Gone is 2nd team All Pac 10 lineman Adam Grant, and they also lose Herman Hall and Mike Diaz from the offensive line, but they return three linemen with starting experience, including 2nd team All Pac 10 performer Colin Baxter.
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Running back Nic Grigsby returns, and he averaged close to 60 yards per game this year, but he was up over 100 yards per game when October began. He suffered a shoulder injury against Oregon State in late September and saw just 26 carries after his 11 for 75 yards against Iowa. Through the Iowa game, he had 49 carries for 400 yards. He has rushed for nearly 2,500 yards in three years with the program, so he’ll be looking to go out with a bang this year, his last as a Wildcat. Keola Antolin replaced Grigsby in the backfield for much of the year (he had one rush for 34 yards against Iowa) and finished with 114 rushes and 637 yards, but never topped 100 in any game.
Nick Foles will return as the settled starting quarterback. He was the player that came in late in the Iowa game, basically winning the job from that point on in the season. He’ll want to improve off of that performance, in addition to his 6 of 20 for 28 yard performance against Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl. The Wildcats gained just 46 yards through the air, likely the second best pass defense performance of the bowl season behind Iowa’s tally against Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl.
Despite not being the full time starter until their fourth game of the year, and only completing 12 passes through their first three games, Foles threw for 2,486 yards and 19 touchdowns to just 9 interceptions. He will certainly be a much improved player and should have command of the Wildcat offense, a team that likes to balance things on the ground and through the air. They are probably the most ‘Big Ten’ like program of any in the Pac 10, outside of Stanford.
Foles will return four of his five top targets, as he really spread the ball around during the season. Each of those four caught at least 31 passes, with three of the four catching 42, 43 and 45. Juron Criner, a 6-4 target, led the way with 45 grabs for 582 yards and an impressive nine touchdowns. Gone is Rob Gronkowski, a player Iowa did not see because he missed the season with an injury. He was one of the nation’s top tight end prospects entering the 2009 season.
Place kicker Alex Zendejas made 17 of 22 field goals last year, and he returns for the Wildcats as does their punter.
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On the whole, the Arizona offense should be potent enough to cause some concern for Iowa, but the strength of the Iowa unit will be its defense. The Wildcats allowed just 13 sacks all season, 10th best in the nation. That’s always a real good number, but it’s even more impressive considering Arizona does not run a spread offense that gets rid of the ball quickly. Their defense will be a different story. The game could come down to a matter of just how much Iowa’s offensive line has grown through the summer camp and first two games. If the Hawks can get to 3-0 at this point, they will host Penn State in their Big Ten opener somewhere close to or inside the Top Five in the rankings.
Iowa will have played Eastern Illinois and Iowa State before it heads west, which will be its first road game of the year. The Hawks have won seven of their last eight games away from Kinnick Stadium, and have allowed just 10.88 points per game in those eight contests. Ohio State’s 27 points is the most Iowa has allowed during that stretch, then comes the 14 that Georgia Tech scored against Iowa in the Orange Bowl. However, 7 of those points came on a pick six. The 13 points Iowa allowed against Michigan State would be next in line.