Arizona, Stanford have come a long way

Let's coin a term: "Mastrated."

That's the best way to describe how Arizona coach Mike Stoops so perfectly combines "mad" and "frustrated" on the sidelines. He gets that look. He shakes his head and looks down, hands on his hips. He gesticulates wildly like he's possessed. He talks to himself. He finds someone else to talk to. Loudly. You know the look. If you've watched the Wildcats regularly play, you know it well.

On Oct. 20, 2007, Stoops was at his most mastrated. His Wildcats had just dived into the jaws of victory but suffered another defeat, this time a 21-20 loss to Stanford and its first-year coach Jim Harbaugh, who was two games removed from the historically shocking upset of No. 2 USC, a 41-point favorite. It is also fair to say that Wildcats fans were just as mastrated as Stoops, who'd lost five of six games and fell to 9-21 Pac-10 play after three-plus seasons.

Harbaugh was starting to hint that he might be something special as a coach. Stoops was expected to be fired at season's end.

Ah, but things are never predictable. Stoops and the Wildcats rallied to win three of their final four games, and he survived. Since that day of extreme mastration versus Stanford, Stoops is 18-9 in Pac-10 games.

And now he leads his No. 15 team north to visit No. 13 Stanford on Saturday.

Harbaugh's charmed ride has continued as expected. He took over a team that went 1-11 in 2006 and he has produced improvement each season. Arizona went 2-10 in 2003 before Stoops was hired, but its transformation took more time. Perhaps that's because Stanford last went to a Rose Bowl after the 1999 season, while the Wildcats haven't been since a few moments before the Big Bang. Or never, if you prefer to hear it that way.

The winner Saturday remains in the Rose Bowl race. Or, failing that -- the top non-AQ team is likely headed to the Rose Bowl if Oregon plays for the national title -- a second BCS bowl berth for the Pac-10, which hasn't happened since 2002.

Stoops' sideline demeanor is actually much more under control these days than it was in 2007, though mellow will never be a term used to describe him on gamedays. He's also an advocate of keeping his team at an even keel over a 12-game schedule. But there's no pretending what this game could mean for the winner.

"We wouldn't be playing on national TV at five o'clock if it wasn't an important game," he said. "You don't have to say much."

You don't have to say much, but it feels as though Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck said it best.

"As the season is winding down, with four regular-season games left for us, we're definitely approaching each game as if it were life or death," he said.

Few things, of course, are more important than life and death, though more than a few Pac-10 fans would give the Rose Bowl a slight edge. Particularly long-suffering Wildcats fans.

There are plenty of interesting storylines, starting with Luck vs. the Pac-10's best defense. If Luck, touted as the potential top pick in the NFL draft this spring if he opts to leave after his redshirt sophomore season, were to, say, complete 21-of-35 passes for 423 yards with three touchdowns -- as he did in last year's game at Arizona -- his Heisman Trophy stock might skyrocket. Got to win, though, which he didn't in Tucson in 2009.

"I think he is very deserving of being in consideration for the Heisman Trophy," Harbaugh said. "I really do believe that Andrew is having that kind of season."

Luck will need to watch out for Wildcats defensive ends Ricky Elmore and Brooks Reed, who rank Nos. 1 and 2 in the conference in sacks, with eight and 5.5, respectively.

On the Arizona side at quarterback, there's ... who? It appears that Nick Foles, who missed the past two games with a dislocated knee cap, will get the call. All he did last year against Stanford was complete 40-of-51 for 415 yards with three touchdowns.

But backup Matt Scott was impressive filling in for Foles, and he brings an added ability to run with the ball. It's likely he will get some snaps, too. That could complicate things for Stanford's defense. Or send mixed signals to the Wildcats offense.

Whoever is calling the signals, he figures to test a Stanford defense that has dramatically improved but still can be vulnerable against speedy offenses, particularly in the passing game. It's not just that Oregon gained 626 yards vs. the Cardinal -- the Ducks do that to everybody -- it's also that USC passed for 390 yards, Notre Dame for 307 and Washington State for 298.

If Arizona wins, it could potentially set up a huge showdown at Oregon on Nov. 26, though the Wildcats need to avoid overlooking USC on Nov. 13. If Stanford wins, it would be in good position to run the table and finish 11-1. The Cardinal likely will be favored at Arizona State, at California and against Oregon State.

But a special run only starts with a W on Saturday.

"Oh no question," Harbaugh said, "this is a great opportunity."