The Bears defense will see some familiar themes when they line up against quarterback Willie Tuitama and the Arizona offense Saturday afternoon. The Wildcats run a version of the spread offense, which is something Cal has seen multiple times already this season, and secondly, the coach in charge of running the Arizona spread is Sonny Dykes – who held a part in the explosive Texas Tech aerial attack the last eight years.
Hoping to increase scoring this season, Wildcats coach Mike Stoops brought in Dykes to implement his version of the spread offense in hopes of maximizing the skills of the physically gifted Tuitama and his athletic albeit inconsistent receiving core.
To put it lightly, Arizona's offense was mediocre last season, averaging a meager 16.6 points per game and 253 total yards in the offensive-happy Pac-10. But, through three games so far in the new year, the Wildcats have seen a massive improvement moving the ball down the field.
Arizona is tops in the conference in passing offense so far this season, having garnered an average of over 321 yards per game through the air. Tuitama – who battled through a myriad of nagging injuries throughout his career – ranks second in the conference in total offense, fourth in passing efficiency and second in passing yards per game.
"Our offense has gotten better every time we've stepped onto the field," Stoops said. "Our protection has been good. We've allowed only four sacks in three games. We've been able to throw it down field a great deal."
When talking about Tuitama, the 6-foot-3, 206-pound junior gun-slinger who hails from nearby Stockton (Calif.), has certainly looked a whole lot more comfortable running his team's offense this season. One of the beauties of the spread offense is the ability to spread the ball around to different weapons down the field and Tuitama has been very effective at doing so.
Four Wildcats receivers have caught at least 10 passes so far this season, including diminutive pass catcher Mike Turner, who has hauled in a team-high 19 balls for 241 yards and three scores.
"(Willie) has got a lot of confidence in his arm, no question about that," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "I think that with the experience (that he's gotten) comes a feeling of comfort in the pocket. You may be a little bit antsy when you first start out and then you start feeling the timing and what that pocket feels like, but you can tell that he feels pretty good back there."
If the Dykes names sounds familiar, Bears' fans might remember the 2004 Holiday Bowl, where the Red Raiders torched the Cal defense to the tune of 597 yards and six touchdowns in a 45-31 Texas Tech victory. Although Dykes was not in charge of calling the plays that night, the veteran coach holds an acute measure of what the spread offense is all about given his lengthy coaching stint under head man Mike Leach as part of the Red Raiders coaching staff.
"(Arizona) just started to use the spread this season and it's something we haven't seen from them," Bears senior safety Thomas DeCoud said. "It's something we are going to have to adjust to. But from a strategic standpoint, we know what it feels like to go against the spread and how it tries to stretches you out. We've seen it for awhile now (in practice), so we have a much better sense of what's going on out there."
If there is one draw back to Arizona's spread attack this season, it's been the Wildcats inability to put points on the board when they get into the red zone. Arizona ranks last in the Pac-10 in red zone offense, having converted only 58.3 percent of their tries. In comparison, the USC offense – which is tops in the conference – have nailed 92.9 percent of its attempts inside the 20-yard line.
Part of what attributes to the Wildcats struggle offensively is the lack of a true running game – which is one of the major drawbacks of a spread offense at times. Arizona features a two-back set, which includes leading rusher Xavier Smith and senior Chris Jennings. Combined, the two have gained 193 yards on the ground this season without a single rushing touchdown.
Chris Nguon is the lead football writer for BearTerritory. He's well known for his recruiting coverage in the star-studded Oakland Athletic League, plus his numerous contributions with The Daily Californian, UC-Berkeley's only independent, student-run newspaper. Nguon is also a correspondent with the Oakland Tribune, and will cover Cal football in the fall of 2007.