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Arizona's foundation sound for present and future

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Arizona, the Pac-10's only program that hasn't played in a Rose Bowl, averaged three wins per season from 2002-2005. At the beginning of the 2008 season, the pundit consensus was coach Mike Stoops sat upon a decidedly hot seat.

And then there is the right now: If the 17th-ranked Wildcats (6-2, 4-1) win their final four games, starting with a visit to California on Saturday, they will go to the Rose Bowl. They might even go if they win just three of four.

Even if such lofty goals aren't reached, there's a sense -- hinted at during the preseason -- that Stoops' program has turned the proverbial corner.

Coaches for Pac-10 powers sense it. Coaches for Pac-10 teams that are trying to transform in the same way see it, too.

"They are solid in all three phases of their team -- defensively, offensively and special teams," Washington State coach Paul Wulff said. "They've got good team speed. They've got good size. They've got maturity. They've got players who have been in the system. They have a tremendous amount of confidence."

In a 48-7 win over Wulff's Cougars last weekend, Arizona scored touchdowns on a kickoff return and a punt return. It outgained the Cougars 471-185. That's all three phases.

Arizona ranks among the nation's top-25 in rushing offense, total offense, scoring offense, rushing defense, total defense, punt returns and kickoff returns. Sophomore quarterback Nick Foles ranks 20th in the nation in passing efficiency. The line has surrendered four sacks, tied for fewest in the nation.

Conference coaches talking about Arizona's gradual transformation -- the deliberate pace nearly cost Stoops his job -- most often site two elements: 1. speed; 2. coaching.

"I think they have as good of team speed as anybody around," UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel said. "Oregon and they, in my mind, are the fastest teams that we've seen all year, and that includes Tennessee."

Coaching defense runs in the Stoops family's blood. Older brother Bob rose to prominence as Steve Spurrier's defensive coordinator at Florida. Mike was Bob's defensive coordinator at Oklahoma, and now Mark does the same for Mike with Arizona.

"They are very sound," Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said of the Wildcats defense. "They are well-coached. They know what they are doing. They are assignment sound. And they know their jobs and their roles and they execute it really well... Something they do well in comparison to other teams in the country is their DBs have excellent ball skills and they've been that way for years."

But Arizona didn't make its real move until it found some offense, which arrived when Stoops hired coordinator Sonny Dykes away from Texas Tech before the 2007 season.

The year before Dykes arrived, Arizona ranked 115th in the nation in total offense, gaining just 253 yards per game. In 2007, that number bounced to 385 yards per game. Last year, it was 402 yards. This year, it's 449.

"The biggest difference in Arizona is offensive efficiency," Oregon State coach Mike Riley said. "That had been the missing ingredient for them."

Did we mention that Dykes has a sophomore quarterback and three of his top-four receivers are underclassmen, and that doesn't include the potential return of tight end Rob Gronkowski, who's redshirting this season because of a back injury? Or that all three tailbacks are expected back next fall?

In other words, despite the early struggles and early heat from impatient fans, Stoops appears to have built a solid foundation for the future of the program.

Of course, the present is rife with potential, too, not that Stoops is mentioning to his players the program's first Rose Bowl as motivation.

"I don't have to do that," he said. "Our kids certainly understand what's at stake every time we step on the field."

Stoops admits that last year the program was satisfied with playing in a bowl game -- any bowl game -- for the first time since 1998. That isn't the case this year and won't be going forward.