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Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez should have taken the risk in final minute

Rich Rodriguez

Rich Rodriguez might stand alone after not taking a more aggressive approach in the final minute of regulation. Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

Let the second guessing begin. The Arizona Wildcats had the ball at their 18-yard line with 41 seconds left in a tie game at Stanford.

UA coach Rich Rodriguez had stomped on the gas pedal all day.

He went for it on fourth-and-10 from the Stanford 40 in the second quarter, leading to an Arizona field goal.

He went for it on fourth-and-1 at the Stanford 15 in the third quarter, leading to a touchdown.

He was ready to go for it a possession later on fourth-and-1 from the Cardinal 44, but right tackle Fabbians Ebbele was penalized for a false start. The Cats punted, unable to extend their 27-21 lead at the time.

But with the game tied and 41 seconds left, Rodriguez made a more conservative choice. Arizona had two timeouts left. The Cats might not have a lot of confidence in kicker John Bonano, but there was time to at least try to get into field goal position.

Arizona was the underdog on the road and had just squandered a 14-point lead in the final nine minutes. Playing for overtime meant Stanford would have all the momentum in the extra period. As it played out, the Cardinal intercepted Matt Scott in overtime and scored on two plays to win 54-48.

With 41 seconds left, the Cats simply didn’t try to win, even if the odds weren’t great. Scott handed off to Ka’Deem Carey for a 1-yard gain, and Arizona let the clock run out after another running play. The odds of scoring with those plays are nil.

Rodriguez explained his decision, saying he didn’t like the team’s field position, starting at the 18.

“Didn’t like where we were at,” Rodriguez said in his postgame press conference. “They were dropping everybody (in coverage). Don’t want to make a mistake down there.”

Here’s something that didn’t help: Stanford didn’t kick the ball into the end zone for a touchback for the first time all game. If it had, Arizona would have had the ball at the 25-yard line with 45 seconds left. Maybe that would have made a difference, maybe not.

Instead, Daniel Jenkins managed only a 13-yard return. There’s a reason why Rodriguez has been calling his kick return unit — made up of walk-ons and freshmen because of a lack of depth — “awful” in the past week.

Even in a game with 180 plays, 1,234 yards and seven second-half lead changes, that last-minute decision is easy to fixate on. The play-for-overtime strategy didn’t work, so Rodriguez doesn’t look smart. His on-field calculus was that the chance of reward wasn’t worth the risk. Your decision-making might vary.

Considering that I think Arizona was going to be at a disadvantage in overtime, I would have preferred to roll the dice right there at the end of regulation. Stanford didn’t have a timeout left, so UA could have opted to run out the clock on third down, even if it threw a couple of incomplete passes.

Rodriguez’s decision wasn’t nearly as defeatist as one Mike Stoops made a year ago against Stanford, when he opted to punt on fourth-and-19 at the Cardinal 40 early in the fourth quarter, trailing by 20 points.

That was truly a “we have nothing to lose” moment, but Stoops still elected to throw in the towel.

This call had more nuance to it, more to consider.

Rodriguez has shown to be an aggressive coach. I like that. It has served Arizona well. He should have channeled a bold philosophy one more time in the final minute.

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