Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Holiday Bowl Notes: Arizona 31, BYU 21

Spread Offense:

Arizona quarterback and Holiday Bowl MVP Willie Tuitama – 24-of-35, 325 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions – spread the wealth against BYU in the Las Vegas desert. For the last two seasons, slot receiver Mike Thomas has been Tuitama’s top target with sophomore tight end Rob Gronkowski’s 672 receiving yards second on the team and his 10 touchdown receptions leading the way.

Naturally Thomas and Gronkowski were the receiving stars of the game, right? Not so much.

Lanky junior Terrell Turner, who had just one 100-yard game his season, hauled in four balls for 111 yards, including a 71-yard catch-and-run on the opening drive. Tuitama hit Turner in stride as he ran down the seam, allowing the Texas native to register the longest reception of his career. It wasn’t a perfect day for Turner--he allowed a potential 60-yard touchdown pass to sail through his hands later in the game on a perfectly thrown ball by Tuitama — but he had to be happy with his performance. Sophomore Delashaun Dean caught a season-high seven passes and his 88 receiving yards were the second most in his young career.

Meanwhile, Rob Gronkowski wasn’t even the most productive Gronkowski. Older brother Chris caught passes of 19 and 24 yards out of his fullback position to bookend a 65-yard touchdown drive which put the ‘Cats up 24-14 late in the third quarter.

Overall, Tuitama looked sharp, taking what the defense gave him most of the night. The senior did a nice job stepping up in the pocket to avoid pressure – pocket presence is still something he’s working on. The strong-armed signal caller will be remembered in Tucson for bringing home the Wildcats’ first bowl win in 10 years.

"This was five years in the making. It all came together in the last month of the season," Arizona coach Mike Stoops said afterwards. "I couldn't be more proud of these seniors who brought Arizona back."

Defensive Notes:

* You have to love the way Ronnie Palmer (8 tackles) plays football. The senior linebacker was flying all over the field, laying big hits on BYU quarterback Max Hall when asked to blitz. Against the run, he was able to penetrate the backfield, and delivered a big hit in coverage to break up a pass play. Simply put, he just loves to hit. At 6’3” and 245 pounds, the senior linebacker has good size but may lack the speed to play at the next level.

* Fellow linebacker Xavier Kelly does have the speed. Built more like a safety than a linebacker (5’11”/215 pounds), the junior out of Texas covered the most ground of any defender, recording a game-high 15 stops, including a sack and strip of Hall, one of three fumbles the ‘Cats forced.

* Senior Marquis Hundley had some nice coverage on the day, including covering everybody’s All-American Austin Collie one-on-one at times. He made a great interception by running with Collie stride-for-stride, turning when Collie looked for ball and finishing the play with a nice two-handed snag, showing off his ball skills. Watching, you got the feeling that Hall was used to completing that kind of pass in Mountain West play, particularly when throwing it to his favorite target, Collie.

* Filling in for Hundley after the senior got dinged up was freshman Trevin Wade, who almost had a pick of his own. His play should come as no surprise for anyone who follows Arizona football--Wade had four interceptions in a backup role and should be ready to take on more responsibility next season.

Record Setters:

Austin Collie turned in his 11th straight game with at least 100 receiving yards – an FBS record – wow! That’s serious consistency at a very high level for the BYU junior. What else can you say? Arizona’s Mike Thomas set the all-time Pac-10 receiving record with career grab number 257. It came when Arizona called a time out to throw a short route to Thomas on the game’s final play to pass Derek Hagan, who attended rival Arizona St. I understand why Coach Mike Stoops did it…not sure if I would have.


It appeared Arizona was taking advantage of busted coverages and missed assignments all game long by BYU. The Cougars’ DBs were often fooled by simple hesitations in the Wildcats’ routes, leaving targets wide open. A couple of times BYU defenders were caught peaking in at the quarterback as well. Play-action fakes left fullback Chris Gronkowski uncovered on both of his receptions.

All around shoddy tackling by BYU was also a factor in this contest. Not to be outdone, the offense was sloppy as well. A third-and-one at the Arizona 19-yard line turned into third-and-16 after the Cougars committed three straight penalties. Adding insult to injury, kicker Mitch Payne missed a 40-yard field goal attempt.

Photo Credit: Mark A. Philbrick/BYU