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December 22, 2014

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Arizona’s top-ranked defense faces tough task

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Justin M. Bowen

BYU and Arizona meet and have dinner at the Freemont Experience in Las Vegas Thursday. BYU and Arizona will meet in the Las Vegas Bowl Saturday at Sam Boyd Stadium.

Click to enlarge photo

BYU and Arizona meet and have dinner at the Freemont Experience in Las Vegas Thursday. BYU and Arizona will meet in the Las Vegas Bowl Saturday at Sam Boyd Stadium.

Click to enlarge photo

BYU and Arizona meet and have dinner at the Freemont Experience in Las Vegas Thursday. BYU and Arizona will meet in the Las Vegas Bowl Saturday at Sam Boyd Stadium.

Expanded coverage

Without the arctic chill of a snowstorm gracing practice Thursday, Arizona football coach Mike Stoops created his own distractions to test his players' mental focus by lining UNLV's Rebel Park with large speakers.

A mix of rap, pop and country music mixed with the constant din of airplanes leaving McCarran International Airport helped create a loud enough atmosphere for the Wildcats to work on their communication skills in noisy settings like Saturday's Pioneer Las Vegas Bowl.

"We had a great day today," Stoops said. "The kids have really done a nice job here. I really like the way our kids have come to practice really focused. We haven't had any issues that I know of, so everything is going as planned."

That linchpin of Stoops' plan for Saturday's showdown with No. 16 BYU is his defense.

The Wildcats' defense is ranked 20th in the nation thanks largely to their 16th ranked pass defense, which is led by senior free safety Nate Ness.

Ness is second on the team with 70 tackles and he also has also hauled in two interceptions this season.

Ness will have to keep his eye on BYU junior receiver Austin Collie, who leads the nation in receiving yards (1,419) and receiving yards per game (118.3). Collie is also fourth in the nation with nearly eight receptions per game.

"Watching (Collie) on film, he really pulls away from corners," Ness said. "He's a very explosive receiver… We have good coaches with good schemes and everyone just tries to do their own job and their own assignment, so we know what we have to do on Saturday."

But shutting down Collie is only part of Arizona's challenge on Saturday. The Cougars boast the nations' No. 7 passing offense and the 17th total offense.

Commanding that offensive assault is junior quarterback Max Hall, who has completed 300-of-431 passes for 3,629 yards and 34 touchdowns.

Joining Hall in the backfield is bruising rusher Harvey Unga. The 6-foot-0, 239-pound sophomore rushed for 1,082 yards and 10 touchdowns on 223 carries.

"I think (the Cougars) are diverse and very well coached, said Arizona defensive coordinator Mark Stoops. "They are good players. They are skilled. They know what they are doing. They have a good plan all the time. But ultimately I believe we will have a good plan as well. It ultimately comes down to who makes plays and who tackles the best. Games always seem to come down to fundamentals."

Sweet SWAG

The Arizona football players each received their Las Vegas Bowl gift packages after practice Thursday and the highlight were the free Nintendo Wii gaming systems.

Along with the prized Wii console, each player will take home a commemorative watch and some Las Vegas Bowl apparel.

"I love it," Ness said about his stack of swag. "I don't even have to buy anyone anything for Christmas. I'll sell the Wii to the highest bidder, but I'm keeping the watch for myself though."

The economics of success

Mike Stoops signed a contract extension in 2006 that will last until 2010, but if the Wildcats can pull out a victory Saturday, Stoops has hinted that he will try to renegotiate his contract to include a lengthier extension.

If Stoops' quarterback, Willie Tuitama were the athletic director, Stoops would be a very rich man.

"He should definitely get an extension," Tuitama said. "Coach Stoops is one of the best coaches I've ever had, the way he cares about the players. He wants us to graduate and do all the right things off the football field, which is something a lot of people don't see…He does so many things for us and for (Tucson). He's really turned around this program."

The Fremont Feast

Arizona and BYU players dined together Thursday night underneath the neon glow of the Fremont Street Experience.

The football squads enjoyed a catered meal by the Outback Steakhouse while a DJ entertained the crowd gathered around security barriers surrounding the dining area.

The foot looked hot, but the players did not seem thrilled about eating outside in the near-freezing temperatures.

Steve Silver can be reached at 948-7822 or [email protected].

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