A week ago, most were hesitant to pick the Arizona Wildcats to defeat No. 18 Oklahoma State in Tucson.
After all, the defense was supposed to yield huge numbers to the high-flying Cowboys offense; the UA – despite its knack for moving the ball – struggled to convert yards into touchdowns against Toledo a week earlier; and as a result, it was uncertain how long the team would take to effectively execute the schemes of new head coach Rich Rodriguez and his staff, having practiced them for merely a few months.
And yet, ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit chose Arizona to win during Saturday’s College Gameday telecast, a proclamation which – despite being built on some rationale – must have been scoffed by many UA supporters, as the ever-fickle Wildcat Nation was missing a few thousand faces at kickoff that night, for a showdown with a top-20 opponent, no less.
Many must have expected a blowout, and in the end, that notion proved accurate.
Last week, yours truly wrote of a tentative optimism surrounding Arizona, assuming senior quarterback Matt Scott and the offense would realize greater success with a game under their belts and a week to learn from their mistakes, and that the defense would have the opportunity to make some big plays, taking advantage of OSU’s freshman play-caller, Wes Lunt.
‘Herbie’ saw things the same way; though picking the upset was much braver than this writer’s prediction of a 42-33 Oklahoma State victory. Still, it’s safe to say that essentially no one thought Arizona had a team that could win big on Saturday night.
Then the Wildcats went out and knocked the Cowboys from their saddles, shocking the squad from Stillwater, 59-38. And with that, the atmosphere around Arizona Football was dramatically altered.
Seven days ago, there was hope. Now, there is confidence.
Coaches and writers nationwide took notice of the rout in the Old Pueblo, and the Cats now find themselves ranked in both the Associated Press and USA Today polls (No. 24 and No. 25, respectively). They host lower-division South Carolina State on Saturday, and should have little difficulty dispatching the Bulldogs of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, likely by a large margin.
Should they do so, it would set up a suddenly highly-anticipated showdown to start Pac-12 play next week, when the Cats travel to Eugene to face the fourth-ranked Oregon Ducks.
Of course, there’s danger in overlooking any opponent, but based on the two-game sample we’ve seen from Arizona thus far, it’s hard to imagine they won’t have their heads in the right place on Saturday night in Arizona Stadium. The reasons behind this statement should be obvious to anyone who has watched even a few of the Wildcats’ eight quarters played in 2012.
First off, Rodriguez’s team has already shown incredible resilience. After placekicker John Bonano yanked his game-winning field goal try wide left against Toledo, the offense bounced back and scored the game-winning touchdown a few plays later, in overtime.
The next week, when the Cats fell behind OSU 14-0 in the blink of an eye, they fired back with 30 straight points of their own (including Bonano’s perfect three-for-three on field goal attempts). Then, when the Cowboys rallied to cut the UA lead to 30-28, Scott marched his troops 75 yards on five plays, and the Cats stormed back to a nine-point lead.
Finally, when the offense stalled out in the fourth quarter and opened the door for the ‘Pokes’ to regain the advantage, UA safety Tra’Mayne Bondurant rushed through the OSU defensive line, bound for Lunt, who hurriedly flung a pass toward the far sideline. Redshirt sophomore cornerback Jonathan McKnight broke on the ball, snagging and returning it 48 yards for the score, thereby sealing the upset and sending the crowd into shocked pandemonium.
That type of toughness is the result of a team that is well-prepared, confident, and well-conditioned. The latter was evident on Saturday, as the Wildcats kept their collective foot on the gas, eventually scoring two more touchdowns in the final six minutes to bury the weary Cowboys. And in terms of preparation, the Cats are hitting hard, their tackling has been primarily sound, and although the defense has forfeited nearly 1,000 total yards in two games, they’ve remained opportunistic, collecting five turnovers, each of which has had a huge hand in the UA’s two victories.
Not only is it surprising to see this type of play from a program recovering from a rapid downfall under its previous coach; what the Cats have exhibited in these two early games are things that Arizona fans hadn’t often seen during Mike Stoops’ seven-and-a-half year tenure.
The consistent, hard tackling. The persistence in the face of adversity. The ability to take control when victory is ripe for the picking. Rodriguez, with a new team in a new town, has found a way to build a roster full of players that somehow look nothing like those of the past decade, though he is less than a year removed from the old regime.
Stoops’ teams didn’t often rally from early or big deficits. They didn’t throw caution to the wind and seize games when their opponents were on their heels. And, even in their best seasons, Stoops’ clubs never quite seemed to achieve their full potential, which is likely why the current fan base has taken a blasé, wait-and-see approach toward the program.
But Rodriguez appears to have it figured out, and he’s about to win his third game in three tries, a mark the prior staff took an entire season to reach. While there’s a lot of football yet to be played, none of the above can be ignored, and suffice it to say, the whole thing has been a particularly pleasant surprise.
Because of aforementioned reasons, it’s safe to assume the UA will maintain its focus and roll big on Saturday night. Scott and his budding superstar counterpart, running back Ka’Deem Carey, should enjoy the second half from the sidelines, watching the second and third units garner valuable playing time in preparation for a nationally-televised, prime time clash with Oregon a week from now; a game that seemed a guaranteed loss just a week ago.
It’s amazing how quickly things can change.
The 10 games ahead will no doubt bring substantial challenges, but it’s already clear that the new Wildcats have declared an early arrival, under the guidance of the type of leader the program hasn’t seen in a long time; perhaps never before.
It’s OK to be giddy, Tucson; it’s really happening.
Wildcats 52, Bulldogs 16. Stick with us, Herbie.