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Resilient Wildcats set for key game against UCLA

Rich Rodriguez

Rich Rodriguez will be coaching his first game in the Rose Bowl tonight. Photo by Matt Kartozian-US PRESSWIRE

By the end of Saturday night, the Arizona Wildcats could be the team to beat in the Pac-12 South.

Will it be a November to remember?

No. 24 Arizona takes on 25th-ranked UCLA at 7:30 p.m. from the Rose Bowl, by which time the Oregon-USC game should be wrapping up. A USC loss, coupled with an Arizona win, gives the Cats control of their destiny in the division race.

Sure, there’s a long way to go, but those are still enticing and exciting stakes in the first season of coach Rich Rodriguez.

He was blessed to inherit senior quarterback Matt Scott, who has made this offense hum above levels the Rodriguez knew during his heyday at West Virginia, but there is more than that at work here.

The Wildcats were eager listeners and learners as the coaches put in new schemes on both sides of the ball in the spring, bought into a tougher conditioning program with an emphasis on running and have shown a feistiness whenever things start to go wrong during a game.

“I first saw it sometime in the spring,” Rodriguez said of his team’s resiliency.

“We had a new coaching staff and were teaching a new system, and we just tested them a little bit mentally to see whether they would respond or go in a shell. We were hard on them about all the things you’re supposed to teach and develop to see how they react.

“I saw that early in the spring that these guys do want to get better and they’re trying to take to the coaching and system. I saw that in the spring and see that now in the fall.”

There has been no panic in the Cats.

When Arizona fell behind Oklahoma State within the first eight minutes of the game, the Wildcats responded with 30 consecutive points. When Arizona was behind 28-13 to USC midway through the third quarter, the Cats kept grinding and were finally able to pounce on the Trojans’ mistakes, going on a 26-0 run.

With the unexpected success this season, Rodriguez and the team heard a lot of questions with the same theme this week — How do you keep the team focused; how do you keep this from going to the players’ heads?

Rodriguez usually says the same thing: “We have ways of keeping them humble in practice.” Like all good coaches, he harps on the process more than the results.

“If you make a mistake, he’s going to be on you,” said receiver Dan Buckner. “If you do something right, he’s going to praise you.

“He has an equal medium, and I think that is what the great head coaches have. They pat you on the back, but they don’t just continue to pat you on the back. They give you your little love and then they get back to it. Short memory.”

Arizona (5-3 overall, 2-3 Pac-12) would like to have a long memory against UCLA (6-2, 3-2). The Wildcats have won five in a row vs. the Bruins, but not much of that applies as both teams have first-year coaches and new schemes.

One of these teams will be moving on late tonight with eyes on the Pac-12 South title.

As Rodriguez said on the day he was hired, “Why not Arizona?”

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