Arizona Wildcats quarterback Matt Scott ascended to the conductor’s platform in the southeast corner of Arizona Stadium, ready to direct the school’s marching band.
In this new postgame winning tradition, he and the rest of the Wildcats belted out “Bear Down, Arizona,” singing along with the band and students and fans. Scott punctuated the lyrics with fist pumps, reveling in the team’s 59-38 victory over 18th-ranked Oklahoma State.
What better way to symbolize that Saturday night was out with the old and in with the new.
The old Arizona lost, meekly, to Oklahoma State in each of the past two years and had dropped six consecutive games, also meekly, to ranked teams.
The new Arizona of coach Rich Rodriguez took the fight to the Cowboys, pounced on numerous OSU mistakes — including four turnovers and a ridiculous 167 yards in penalties — and scored the school’s most points ever against a ranked team, spanning 138 games.
“From the opening kickoff, I could sense our guys wanting to battle,” Rodriguez said.
“We might be a little smaller, maybe not as fast or whatever, but if a kid is a competitor, you always have a shot.”
Rodriguez is crafting a gutty, gritty outfit, one that didn’t panic after falling behind 14-0 following the Cowboys’ first two possessions. At that point it seemed as if the matchup would be following the same script as the meetings in 2010 and 2011.
“Every time a team goes up 14-0 it makes us concerned, but we went out there and played,” Scott said.
Arizona played to the tune of 30 consecutive points before Oklahoma State delivered a couple of third-quarter body blows and climbed within 30-28.
Arizona responded with a five-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. The Cowboys countered with a field goal.
Then came the play of the game — cornerback Jonathan McKnight’s 48-yard interception return for a touchdown with 10:24 to play. A two-point conversion gave the Cats a 45-31 lead. Breathing room.
Arizona can only hope that college football fans on the East Coast were still awake and that they got the Pac-12 Network, because the Wildcats say they deserve to be noticed.
“I feel it makes us relevant,” Scott said of the victory. “A lot of people out think we’re not relevant at all. We beat a ranked team. We beat a good team.”
Arizona’s no-huddle, read-option offense ran 90 plays, with Scott accounting for 375 of Arizona’s 501 total yards. The Cats scored on all eight of their red-zone possessions, including five touchdowns.
They did not commit a turnover. They were penalized only four times. The defense, as it did a week earlier against Toledo, “hung in there.”
The Wildcats stopped Oklahoma State on six consecutive possessions at one point, but the Cowboys no-huddle spread offense is as relentless as any and accumulated 636 yards of offense, the fifth-most ever allowed by Arizona.
“Did you see how big they were up front?” Rodriguez said. “I mean, they were eating peanuts off our guys’ heads. It was scary. In warm-ups, I quit looking over there because I was losing confidence.”
Confidence isn’t an issue now for the Wildcats, who have found a core of competitors to lead the team into this new era.
Former walk-on safety Jared Tevis looks like a guy who should be playing intramural flag football, but he hits hard (cue the Chuck Cecil comparisons) and has a nose for the ball, intercepting a tipped pass and snatching another INT off a bobbled catch.
Jake Fischer, Arizona’s 215-pound middle linebacker, had a team-high 14 tackles and recovered a fumble.
Nobody has questioned running back Ka’Deem Carey’s toughness, and he persisted through 26 carries and some tough sledding, scoring three touchdowns on the ground and another through the air.
Scott? He passed for 320 yards, ran for 55 and further earned his coach’s admiration.
“He’s as good a competitor as I’ve been around,” Rodriguez said.
So, heck, maybe these Wildcats have a shot at something good in RichRod’s first season.
It was only reasonable to make the Oklahoma State game as a loss in any preseason prediction, so Arizona is “plus-one” on the season. The Cats should move to 3-0 next week at home against lower-division South Carolina State.
After that, Arizona would need only three Pac-12 victories to become bowl eligible.
No one should think that is going to be easy. Consider the UA’s first six league games:
At Oregon, home to Oregon State (which beat Wisconsin on Saturday), at Stanford, home for Washington and USC, then at UCLA (which beat Nebraska on Saturday).
Rodriguez spent all of fall camp stamping down expectations. Now what?
“This is a nice win. We’re going to enjoy this for 24 hours and I’ll see how the guys handle it,” he said. “If I have to, I’ll humble them again in Tuesday’s practice.”
Relevancy will be earned week to week.
But now we really can’t wait to see what’s next.