This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2004, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
When Utah's Urban Meyer looks at the Arizona Wildcats, what he sees is startlingly familiar - from the renewed commitment of the players under a new coach to the fundamental and ferocious defensive system.
"A lot like our program when we started here," he said.
The Wildcats should be so lucky.
Coming off a miserable season that got former coach John Mackovic fired, the Wildcats are trying to move up from the ground floor of their rebuilding effort under new coach Mike Stoops - the heralded former defensive coordinator at Oklahoma - and a victory over the No. 17 Utes at Arizona Stadium on Saturday would represent a big step.
But it might be too much to ask for the Wildcats to zoom into the national rankings as quickly as the Utes did once Meyer took over last season. Though Meyer goes on and on about the talent they have, one of his former assistant coaches said the roster is not as well-stocked in Tucson as it was in Utah.
The Utes "were pretty loaded when we got there last year," said Mike Tuiasosopo, who coached defensive tackles under Meyer last season before joining the Wildcats. "But just like there, or at any program that's headed in the right direction, the biggest thing is changing the mindset."
No small task, that.
The Wildcats had fallen on such hard times since their last good season in 1998 that players rebelled against the imperious Mackovic and sunk to unprecedented levels of apathy and animosity. The 2-10 record
was their worst since 1957 - coincidentally, the last time the Utes had won an outright conference championship before last season.
"The attitude of our team, the work ethic of our team . . . was nowhere near a major-college level," Stoops said. "The players didn't work hard enough or prepare hard enough, and eventually you're not going to get many good results. That's the first thing we changed."
The second was to bring in that Oklahoma defense.
The Sooners allowed just 15.3 points and 259.6 yards last season, and Stoops hopes the scheme that fostered it can blossom in the desert, where the Wildcats allowed 35.8 points last year. He was encouraged by a 21-3 victory over Division I-AA Northern Arizona in the season opener last weekend - the Wildcats had not allowed so few points since their previous meeting with NAU two years ago - and believes his players have caught on quickly.
"Definitely," he said.
The Utes have been watching film of the Sooners in preparation for the game, and Meyer said he's impressed with the savage simplicity of the 3-4 scheme, and that it reminds him of the Utah defense under coordinator Kyle Whittingham.
"Extremely well-coached," he said. "There's a lot of defenses out there that are 'Star Wars' defenses, you know, they run all over the place and you don't know where they're coming from. That's not well-coached. That's taking chances and it's feast or famine."
Still, the Wildcats were picked to finish last in the Pac-10, and their offense might be the bigger question.
Junior running back Mike Bell is the centerpiece of the offense after earning second-team All-Pac-10 honors last season, and the Wildcats appear willing to ride him hard despite installing a new spread offense under coordinator Mike Canales.
Bell carried the ball 34 times for 116 yards against NAU, out of 65 plays the Wildcats ran. He rushed for 910 yards last season, and sees the Wildcats becoming far more successful because of the changes Stoops has made.
"People like going to practice now and like being around their coaches," Bell said. "I see us winning a lot more games, and hopefully we can get to a bowl game."