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September 22, 2010

Arizona looks to build on Iowa victory

TUCSON, Ariz. - Toilet tissue didn't hang from trees like it would at Auburn. There were no charred couches like there might be at West Virginia. No tower was illuminated in school colors like it would have been at Texas.

There was nothing around the Arizona campus Monday afternoon to indicate that -- less than 48 hours before -- the Wildcats had upset ninth-ranked Iowa 34-27 to post one of the greatest football victories in school history.

And that really wasn't surprising.

"This is the West, man," an official within the UA athletic department said. "This isn't the SEC."

So, victories aren't celebrated at Arizona at like they are at Auburn, Alabama or LSU? Maybe that's because the locals in Tucson are a little more laid-back.

Or maybe they just haven't had enough recent experience.

Arizona is the only Pac-10 member that hasn't played in the Rose Bowl. This is the program that opened the 1999 season ranked fourth and promptly was annihilated by Penn State 41-7. This is where players staged a near-mutiny against then-coach John Mackovic in 2002. This is where "Revenge of the Nerds" was filmed; the football team lost in that movie, too.

Times definitely have changed.

The victory over Iowa, which featured quarterback Nick Foles leading a clutch winning drive in the fourth quarter, shows that under the guidance of coach Mike Stoops, the Wildcats have grown up. The next step is proving they've matured.

It took Stoops, 48, who replaced Mackovic in 2004, four seasons to reverse Arizona's fortunes, but now the Wildcats are seeking their third consecutive winning season, a feat not seen here since 1993-95.

They've climbed to 14th in the national polls, their highest rank in more than a decade, and when they face California in the Pac-10 opener Saturday, they will be aiming for their first 4-0 start since '98.

"I think everyone always believed we were going in a positive direction," said Stoops, who endured back-to-back 3-8 finishes in his first two seasons in Tucson. "Five or six years ago, we were just trying to get better and build a program. But we couldn't have done this [beat Iowa] if we hadn't done the things we did a year ago. We're building."

That much is as clear as the autumn desert sky.

Building it up
A season-by-season look at Mike Stoops' tenure at Arizona:
20088-5Las Vegas
Foles, a junior who is ninth in the nation in passing yards, has developed into one of the best quarterbacks in the nation. He has a slew of exceptional receivers, led by Juron Criner, and Nic Grigsby heads a deep group of running backs. Cornerback Trevin Wade has All-America potential, and the defense already has 11 sacks.

Heading into the season, there were concerns about the middle of the defense and the offensive line. But defensive tackle Justin Washington and middle linebacker Derek Earls have solidified the interior. Meanwhile, the offensive line held its own against Iowa's celebrated defensive front; Adrian Clayborn, the Hawkeyes' All-America end, managed only three tackles and no sacks.

"It's amazing. When I first got here, the goal wasn't to win the Rose Bowl. It was just to go to a bowl game," fourth-year junior receiver David Roberts said. "Everybody didn't expect to win. Now, everybody expects us to win. We expect everybody to step up.

"Now, we think we can go to the Rose Bowl."

Beating Iowa certainly makes that goal seem more attainable because of the manner in which Arizona won.

Arizona dominated the first half and took a 27-7 halftime lead, but Iowa rallied and tied it at 27 when defensive end Broderick Binns returned an interception 20 yards for a touchdown with eight minutes left in the game. But Arizona blocked the ensuing extra point to maintain the tie. Foles then completed four passes on a nine-play, 72-yard drive that ended with a 4-yard TD pass to William "Bug" Wright.

The Wildcats' defense had four consecutive sacks on the following series (one was waved off because of an offensive penalty) to protect the lead.

"What that showed us is what we didn't know about this team," first-year quarterback coach Frank Scelfo said. "At no point in time had we had to face adversity, so who are we?

"I saw a team that, when it was tied up, all of a sudden got a blocked extra point, a score and four sacks. We're a hard-nosed, play-to-the-end-and-don't-get-affected football team."

But are they a mature team? Will they follow up an emotional victory with an equally intense effort? Or will they have a mental hangover?

"We haven't accomplished anything, so I don't know why they would," Stoops said. "Beating Iowa won't define us one way or the other.

"Our goal is to win a championship. We have as good a chance as anybody."

Arizona has won big games before. In 2007, the Wildcats upset second-ranked Oregon, which had lost starting quarterback Dennis Dixon early in the game to a season-ending knee injury. Still, it was a tremendous victory that put the Wildcats one win away from ending what was then a nine-year bowl drought.

They lost the next game to Arizona State and finished 5-7 and bowl-less.

The Wildcats claim the euphoria of beating Iowa disappeared when the sun rose over the Rincon Mountains on Sunday morning. Then, they say, their focus turned directly to Cal, which beat Arizona 24-16 last season.

"We're not satisfied," Foles said. "That was a good win, but we're moving forward. We have a lot of corrections to make."

Roberts echoed those thoughts.

"If we lose to Cal, then beating Iowa doesn't mean anything," he said. "Every game gets bigger."

That means every victory gets bigger, too. Therefore, it would stand to reason that the celebrations would get bigger, too.

With another win or two, Arizona fans might even be celebrating like SEC fans. There are, after all, plenty of tall Saguaro cacti in the desert to roll in toilet tissue.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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