TUCSON, Ariz. - Arizona's plodding offense had been an albatross to coach Mike Stoops' attempts to turn around the Wildcats' long-suffering football program - until he made Willie Tuitama his quarterback.
The 18-year-old from Stockton, Calif., has ignited the Wildcats to consecutive Pac-10 victories, the latest a shocking 52-14 rout of previously unbeaten and seventh-ranked UCLA on Saturday night.
"Obviously, the change - a quarterback change - has changed what we're doing," Stoops said. "He's going to be a tremendous, tremendous football player."
On Arizona's first play Saturday, the 6-foot-3, 218-pound quarterback threw 51 yards to a wide-open Mike Bell, setting up fellow freshman Mike Thomas' 17-yard touchdown run on an end-around play.
The next possession, Tuitama checked off a play from the line of scrimmage, then threw a 7-yard TD pass to Brad Wood.
Still in the first quarter, Tuitama connected with Thomas on a 48-yard TD play. In all, Arizona scored on its first four possessions. Tuitama started the game 7-for-7 and wound up 14-for-24 for 204 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
"What can you say about him?" Wildcats safety Darrell Brooks said. "Willie is taking charge out there. He doesn't act like a freshman."
His passing threat and confident leadership helped open holes for Arizona's suddenly devastating running game. Arizona finished with 315 yards on the ground, and 519 yards overall.
"It's been wild," Tuitama said.
Stoops called Tuitama "a great one" when he landed him on signing day. At St. Mary's High School in Stockton, Tuitama threw for 2,734 yards and 32 touchdowns, with only seven interceptions. St. Mary's finished the season 13-1, beating Nevada Union 50-45 for the California Division I sectional championship. Various prep recruiting services rated him in the top 10 to 16 among high school quarterbacks in the country.
But returning starter Richard Kovalcheck held on to the starting job in fall camp, with Stoops intending to redshirt Tuitama for the season. That changed after a mistake-filled 20-16 home loss to Stanford on Oct. 15. The Wildcats ranked 96th in Division I-A in offense, and Stoops had seen enough.
Tuitama came off the bench early against Oregon the following week, completing 18 of 34 passes for 182 yards and two touchdowns in a 28-21 loss. His first college start came Oct. 29 at Oregon State, where he threw for 335 yards in a 29-27 victory that ended a five-game skid.
"He's way beyond his years," Stoops said afterward. "He has a great feel for the game."
Then came the UCLA romp, and Stoops knew he had a dynamic quarterback to build his team around.
"Willie again was spectacular running our offense," Stoops said. "He gives us a dimension we haven't had in quite a while. I'm really pleased with the direction he's headed."
Arizona (2-6, 2-4 Pac-10) won't make a bowl, but with Washington and archrival Arizona State remaining, a four-game winning streak and big momentum heading into next year is a distinct possibility.
Thousands stormed the field, and the new quarterback said his back and neck hurt from fans pounding him in appreciation.
Through his emergence, Tuitama has remained as cool talking about his play as he seems on the field.
"I just had to wait for my time to come," he said. "And then they called on me, and I was ready to play."
For more coverage of the Arizona Wildcats, check out GOAZCats.com.