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Wildcats say they can play with the Utes

Coach thinks team gained confidence in last year's game

Arizona is entering its second season under coach Mike Stoops with a little swagger.

So much so, in fact, that the Wildcats aren't letting low expectations from the Pac-10 media or Friday's game at Utah faze them.

"Our kids know they can match up and play with anybody. We're not intimidated by going to Utah and playing," Stoops said. "Our kids are looking to play well and they're looking forward to a great challenge."

Though the Utes have won 16 straight games over two seasons, including a 23-6 decision over Arizona in Tucson last September, Stoops is optimistic about the season opener at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

"Our kids gained a lot of confidence in playing Utah last year. I thought we did some decent things," Stoops said. "We could have played a whole lot better and I'm sure Utah feels like they could have done some things better."

The Wildcats held the Utes to season lows in points scored and total offense (326 yards).

"I thought we played decently at times last year when we played Utah. I thought we had a pretty decent game plan," Stoops said. "But we got out of our gaps a few times and let them run some plays that really we should have defended better. You can always play better and learn from your mistakes. And I think we will."

In last year's game, the Wildcats were stopped three times inside the red zone and turned the ball over twice. The latter led to 10 points for the Utes.

"I think that was probably the tell-tale sign," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "We won the turnover battle."

A goal-line stance just before halftime also allowed the Utes to keep the Wildcats at a distance. Such shortcomings, though, may be a thing of the past for Arizona.

"I just think we are a much different football team than at any time last year," said Stoops, who doesn't think much of the Pac-10 media's prediction of an eighth-place finish.

The Wildcats, he explained, bounced back from a 1-7 start in 2004 to win two of their last three games. Stoops points to 100 percent participation in the team's voluntary offseason conditioning program as evidence that things are changing.

"You'll see a different team in the way we look, play, the way we run, our attitude, speed, size and quickness," Stoops said after his league's preseason poll was released.

Though the Wildcats won just three games last season, they did finish the year on a high note — a 34-27 victory over 18th-ranked Arizona State.

Other positives were strong showings in close losses to Wisconsin (9-7) and Washington State (20-19).

"I was happy with some of the improvements we made as a football program," Stoops said. "We showed some good improvement throughout the year."

Arizona's transition and adaptation, along with an element of revenge from last season, has Whittingham expecting the Wildcats to give the Utes all they can handle.

"I'm positive that this year they are going to be a much better football team than they were last year," he said.

While Utah will find out if it can adequately replace Alex Smith and several other mainstays from last season, Arizona is eager to improve on last year's 3-8 record. Stoops is most anxious about his team's offense — where he expects the most improvement. The Wildcats averaged 14.9 points per game in 2004.

Stoops likes what Arizona's receivers have done in camp. He's also impressed with running backs Mike Bell, Gilbert Harris and Chris Henry. Bell, a Doak Walker candidate, rushed for 950 yards last season. He managed just 36 on six carries against Utah— fumbling the ball and suffering an injury on his first attempt.

"We've seen all the film through last year and we know his capabilities," Whittingham said. "Any time you are a 1,000-yard rusher in the Pac-10, you're a good running back."

Bell, thus, will be a focal point of Utah's defense, which linebacker Spencer Toone says is committed — first and foremost — to stopping the run.

Other possibilities have also been addressed.

"We've got to be ready for any changes they may have made in the offseason," Whittingham said. "It's a chess match. You're always trying to stay one step ahead of your opponent."


Season opener

Arizona at Utah

Friday, 6 p.m.

Rice-Eccles Stadium

TV: ESPN

Radio: Hot Ticket, 700AM


E-mail: dirk@desnews.com