Arizona's win at Oregon exemplifies Rich Rodriguez's Pac-12 resurgence
At Arizona’s final team meeting before its game at Oregon on Thursday night, coach Rich Rodriguez screened a video of a man getting struck by lightning twice to hammer home the point that, contrary to cliché, such a thing is possible. Forgive that the video has been Snopesed into a pile of dust. It was a motivational tactic.
“I don’t like to talk about what happens in our team meetings, but if you heard that then it might have happened,” Arizona associate head coach Calvin Magee joked on Friday. “Our video department does a great job with these videos.”
Well, lightning struck for the second time on Thursday night and it resonated well beyond Eugene, Ore., or Tucson, Ariz. It was felt up and down the West Coast, as Pac-12 country braces for a shake-up in its current balance of power. It was felt in Tallahassee, Fla., as Florida State fans readied I-told-you-sos faster than you can inhale a Guthrie’s chicken finger. It was felt in Ann Arbor, Mich., where a fan base enduring one of the worst weeks in program history watched the Wolverines former leader take down the No. 2 team in the nation more than 2,300 miles away.
“With everything else going on it was hard not to just find the dark humor in it,” MGoBlog writer Ace Anbender said. “I don’t think there’s much resentment as there is resignation; of course this would happen after everything that went down this week because this year -- the past two or three years, really -- the fans have come to expect the worst at every turn. I used to find the fan base unrealistically optimistic. That hasn’t been the case for a while.”
Spare the revisionist history about why Rodriguez and Michigan weren’t a good match. We’ve had years to debate that topic already, and conversations will continue in Michigan circles for years to come. The bottom line is Rodriguez isn’t in Ann Arbor anymore. He’s at Arizona, and he’s thriving.
"You look at his track record at West Virginia and he had a lot of success over an extended period of time,” Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne said on Friday. “When we were making our decision with him I really felt that what he was as a coach was a reflection of what took place at West Virginia rather than what had happened the previous three years.”
|Aug. 29||UNLV||W, 58-13|
|Sept. 4||at UTSA||W, 26-23|
|Sept. 13||Nevada||W, 35-28|
|Sept. 20||California||W, 49-45|
|Oct. 2||at Oregon||W, 31-24|
|Oct. 25||at Washington State||?|
|Nov. 1||at UCLA||?|
|Nov. 22||at Utah||?|
|Nov. 28||Arizona State||?|
Last December’s 42-19 AdvoCare V100 Bowl win over Boston College marked the Wildcats’ first back-to-back bowl wins since the 1997-98 seasons. Their 5-0 start this fall is the team’s first since its 12-1 campaign under former coach Dick Tomey in ‘98. Arizona is 2-0 in the Pac-12 and set to be ranked in the AP Poll for the first time since the week prior to the Oregon game in 2012, which it lost 49-0.
“I think Arizona is the perfect fit for him right now,” Daniel Berk of the Arizona Daily Star said of Rodriguez. “He was looking after Michigan to get back in and coach at a high-level program. I don’t think he wanted to coach in a mid-level conference. In Arizona, he found a program and a school that was willing to give him the resources he needed.”
Rodriguez is getting it done with a redshirt freshman quarterback full of potential. Anu Solomon has 1,741 passing yards and a 14-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio through five games. The former Bishop Gorman (Nev.) High standout will occasionally try to force throws into tight windows when he would be better off checking down, but his confidence is clear. He isn't a burner, but he can slip out of tackles and make plays with his legs when required.
Rodriguez came into the season looking to replace quarterback B.J. Denker, and he opted to put his offense in the hands of Solomon. The decision could have resulted in disaster. Instead, Solomon is quickly learning on the job. The other major question mark for this year’s Wildcats was the absence of tailback Ka’Deem Carey, who amassed 1,885 rushing yards, 173 receiving yards and 20 total touchdowns in 2013. Yet that’s where the two-headed attack of senior Terris Jones-Grigsby (267 yards, three touchdowns) and freshman Nick Wilson (574 yards rushing, six scores) has come into play.
“Prior to Ka’Deem that had always been our method,” Magee said. “To have two guys ready to go. It was kind of unique having Ka’Deem and Ka’Deem only carrying the load. It’s good to be back to having two guys who can share it and stay fresh. It’s a fun thing right now.”
Having reliable backs to shoulder the load and take pressure of Solomon is making a difference, and Rodriguez seems to trust both of them. On a crucial third-and-20 from Oregon's 33-yard line midway through the fourth quarter, Rodriguez dialed up a draw play for Jones-Grigsby. The offensive line held their blocks perfectly, and the 5-foot-7, 195-pounder barreled for 24 yards and a first down. That led to the go-ahead touchdown to put the Wildcats up 31-24.
It’s too early to declare Arizona a Pac-12 favorite. But if the rest of the league doesn’t start wising up to the Wildcats, it might be too late. From day one Rodriguez talked about getting Arizona to its first-ever Rose Bowl. In year three that type of talk no longer seems far-fetched.