Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez says he wants to build the best college football program in the country, which seems rather lofty, but he’s well on his way to making his first season a rousing success.
A four-hour game at Arizona Stadium came down to the final play on Saturday afternoon, with USC quarterback Matt Barkley heaving a Hail Mail to the right corner of the end zone. The Wildcats converged to knock down the pass, and the team rushed off the sideline to celebrate a 39-36 victory over the 10th-ranked Trojans at Arizona Stadium.
It ended a wild game that featured 1,206 yards of offense, 27 penalties, two receivers with more than 250 yards, a comeback from 15-point deficit … and that final play in which Rodriguez said he was holding his breath.
When he exhaled, Arizona was 5-3 overall and 2-3 in a suddenly up-for-grabs Pac-12 South. With wins over ranked Oklahoma State and USC, and an offense that can move the ball against anybody, the rebuilding process is well ahead of schedule and the rest of the season holds intriguing possibilities.
“I do think it makes us more relevant,” Rodriguez said of the win.
“It should. It doesn’t make us a top 10 team; we’ve lost three games. But it hopefully gives our guys confidence. Hopefully, it makes recruits sit up and notice.”
Arizona started well, taking a 10-0 lead, before being buried by a bevy of big plays from USC sophomore Marqise Lee, who set a Pac-12 record with 345 receiving yards. By the middle of the third quarter, the Trojans were up 28-13, the atmosphere at the stadium was dead and the UA offense was out of rhythm.
“We don’t put our heads down,” said linebacker Jake Fischer. “We get angry and even more hungry. We played a pretty damn good game in the second half.”
The Wildcats defense had back-to-back stops to keep the score manageable, and Arizona followed a 10-yard touchdown run by quarterback Matt Scott by recovering a fumble at the USC 37, the Trojans’ fifth turnover of the game.
Arizona was back in business with a 9-yard touchdown pass to Dan Buckner to pull within 28-26.
Sophomore receiver Austin Hill fueled the go-ahead score with a 60-yard catch to the USC 24 on third-and-22, part of his 259 receiving yards, the second-biggest day in school history.
The Wildcats eventually pushed the lead to 39-28 when a wobbly Scott, who had taken a hit to the head a few plays earlier and thrown up on the field, threaded a 7-yard pass to David Richards.
“Matt Scott is a stud,” Rodriguez said.
“I know the trainers when they looked at him said, ‘We don’t know if he’s all there.’ I said, ‘He looked pretty good on that throw.’ Holy cow. He threw it to the right guy and made a heck of a throw.”
When USC scored less than a minute later — set up by a 72-yard kick return by Lee, of course — Arizona didn’t waver. With backup B.J. Denker now in for Scott, Arizona had to find way to get at least a couple of first downs with 4:40 left. That way was Ka’Deem Carey.
“They knew we were going to run the ball,” said center Addison Bachman. “They were coming full steam and we had to push back. We did what we had to.”
Carey rushed seven consecutive times, picked up two first downs and left USC at its 13 with 55 seconds left. Too far to go, not enough time.
The Wildcats, who have adopted the phrase “Gotta eat” as a motivation mantra, had just devoured the big cheese in the Pac-12 South.
Arizona’s schedule eases down the stretch. The final four games are winnable, or, at worst, tossups — at UCLA, vs. Colorado, at Utah, vs. Arizona State. Just getting to six wins and becoming bowl eligible seemed like a worthy goal, but the Cats can dream of chowing down on bigger goals.
Just consider: If UA wins out and USC loses once more (very possibly next Saturday against Oregon), the Cats would win the Pac-12 South.
“We’re hungry,” Carey said. “We gotta eat. We’ve got to fill up stomachs.”