December 29, 2009

Stoops says Huskers will be toughest test yet

SAN DIEGO - Arizona head coach Mike Stoops knows his team came literally a few seconds short from punching its ticket to the Rose Bowl, but in his mind, the Wildcats still have a golden opportunity to take another giant step forward.

After losing a heartbreaker in double overtime to Oregon late in the season, Arizona's chances of winning the Pac-10 Conference title were all but lost. Still, the Wildcats rebounded by winning their final two games, including a 21-17 win over USC in their regular season finale.

During his Holiday Bowl press conference at the Omni Hotel San Diego on Tuesday, Stoops said Wednesday's showdown with Nebraska would be a perfect chance for his team to continue its momentum and set the tone for another push for a conference championship next season.

"Playing a program as such as Nebraska - one of the elite programs in football - I think it's been good for our players to understand the significance of their program and understanding what it's going to take play a team like this," Stoops said. "I felt very good about our practices. (Nebraska) had our full attention from Day 1."

Though Arizona (8-4) and Nebraska (9-4) are separated by only a half game in the overall standings, Stoops said a win over a team with the Huskers' prestige would be a huge boost for the Wildcats' national perception as an up-and-coming contender.

He said last season's 31-21 win over then-No. 16 BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl was the biggest victory since he took over the program in 2004, as the Wildcats built off the momentum gained from that game and carried into this year.

Now with a chance to notch a win over a team with Nebraska's history of success, Stoops said Arizona could make another big jump in the eyes of media and fans as well as in their own self-confidence.

"I think it's certainly very important for us to end the season in the top 15, top 20 or wherever (a win) puts us in to catapult us into next year like it did a year ago," Stoops said. "I think BYU probably did as much for our program as any win we've had in a lot of years. Going and winning that game I think gave us a lot of confidence going into this season to move forward and expect more of ourselves. I think the more and more you win, the more you expect and want.

"Anytime you can play a program like Nebraska, that gains your attention very quickly. We understand what their program stands for - the excellence in a lot of different ways. It's gives us an opportunity to see where we're at against a quality perennial power."

Arizona, Nebraska share many similarities

If anyone can relate to what Nebraska's Bo Pelini has gone through during his first two seasons as a head coach, it's Stoops.

Along with being childhood friends back in Youngstown, Ohio, the two coaches and their respective programs share numerous similarities in coaching styles as well as how things have played out on the field.

On Tuesday, Stoops compared his Wildcats and Pelini's Huskers and said both programs revolve around the same philosophies and beliefs the coaches learned growing up together.

"There are some similarities between Nebraska and Arizona," Stoops said. "I think it's been very well documented about Bo and I being very closely developed in Youngstown and what our core beliefs are and philosophical beliefs are for our programs.

"I think we're very similar in how we built our teams and what we believe it takes to be successful."

Stoops praises NU defense

If reputation alone isn't enough to say Nebraska's defense will be the toughest unit Arizona will have faced all season, then the stats will certainly back up the claim.

The Huskers have allowed just 11.2 points per game this season, which is easily the fewest of any team the Wildcats have played to date. Not only that, NU's 19 interceptions this year are more than any team in the Pac-10, and it also comes into the game with 42 sacks and 103 tackles for loss.

Of course, senior defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is the marquee name on Nebraska's defense, as he ended the regular season as one of the most decorated defensive players in college football history.

However, Stoops said Suh is only one piece of a deep and all-around talented Husker defensive unit.

"I think Nebraska by far and away is the most complete defense we've played," Stoops said. "When you look at their physical style, when you look at their personnel and you look at the way they're structured, that will be our greatest task. Ndamukong Suh is a great player, but their defense goes way beyond one player.

"It's the system, it's the way they set it up, the way they play. It's an attitude. That will be our greatest challenge, playing all 11 of those guys."

Stoops credited Pelini for instilling a tough and physical mentality within his defense, which he said was one of the biggest reasons for the Huskers turnaround the past two seasons.

"Their physical toughness and their mental toughness, I think with any good team you have to have a balance of that," Stoops said. "They're not going to beat themselves. They're going to make you beat them, and that's what we have to have the mindset of. They're not going to give us anything. You've got to go out and earn it."

Arizona's offense not to be overlooked

It might be hard for most fans to name even one player on Arizona's offense this season, but that doesn't mean the Wildcats' don't pack a punch when they have the football.

Led by sophomore quarterback Nick Foles, who took over as the starter after the third game of the year, the Wildcats feature a balanced offensive attack that put up 2,000 yards rushing and 3,000 yards passing this season.

Though it may not have the same star power as other teams in the Pac-10, Stoops said his offense has been as productive as he could have hoped for.

"This is a very complete team that we bring here," Stoops said. "I don't think we jump out at you at any one particular position, but I think we're very complete. I've said that at the beginning of the year that I thought this was our best group of players."

Stoops pointed to Foles in particular as one of the biggest reasons for Arizona's offensive success. After the stumbling out of the gates against Iowa in Week 3, Foles replaced fellow sophomore Matt Scott in the fourth quarter and held on to the job the rest of the year.

Despite essentially not playing the first three games of the season, Foles passed for 2,437 yards and 19 touchdowns in just nine starts.

"Obviously the quarterback position had to develop and come through for us, and certainly Nick Foles is a guy we feel comfortable leading this program into the future," Stoops said. "I think that's an extremely critical position to win at the level of competition that we compete at, and we feel like we have an elite quarterback that will be tested in a big way tomorrow."

Brotherly love

***Stoops talked about losing defensive coordinator and younger brother Mark Stoops after Wednesday's game, as Mark will take over as the defensive coordinator at Florida State under new head coach Jimbo Fisher.

Mike Stoops said he's tried not to think about what life will be like not having his younger brother by his side on the sidelines for the first time in five seasons.

"I've had a hard time thinking about it," Mike said. "I've been trying to stay away from it as much as possible. He'll be missed in a lot of ways. For me personally, to be able to rely on a brother - I think Bo could probably say the same thing - I don't know if there's anyone you trust more than your brother that puts it all out there and understands how important it is."

Though he's obviously sad to see Mark leave, Mike still had to throw one last big brother jab in there for good measure.

"Mark's made probably 90 percent of the calls over the last six years, (and) I've made 10 percent," he said. "I made all the good ones. The bad ones are usually his."

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