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Hard to believe: Arizona Wildcats at seven wins (and counting)

Rich Rodriguez

Rich Rodriguez can cheer up now. His first Arizona team is guaranteed of a winning record. Photo by Russ Isabella-US PRESSWIRE

Seven wins. I wouldn’t have believed it.

Seven wins for the Arizona Wildcats. With one regular-season game to go.

I would not have believed, even with the benefit of inheriting senior quarterback Matt Scott, that Rich Rodriguez’s first Arizona offense would statistically match or exceed his best teams at West Virginia, which were several years in the making.

I would not have believed his first Arizona team would beat Oklahoma State and USC, and also knock off Washington — which defeated Stanford and Oregon State, by the way — by 35 points.

I would not have believed that seven wins, with one game to go, could be accomplished with an increasingly banged-up defense that began the season thin, small and slow. Rodriguez never hid his concern for that side of the ball, quipping in July, “We make up for our lack of size with our lack of speed.”

There were parts of Saturday’s 34-24 win at Utah in which Arizona was using five defenders who arrived in Tucson as walk-ons. What team has to do that? Yep, five. Count ‘em: defensive tackle Tevin Hood, linebacker Sir Thomas Jackson and all three safeties — Jared Tevis, Blake Brady and Vince Miles.

If you knew the name of any of those guys before the season, other than local kid Tevis, then athletic director Greg Byrne should give you two tickets to Friday night’s game against Arizona State.

On Saturday, Arizona lost two starters in the first half, as safety Tra’Mayne Bondurant and defensive end Reggie Gilbert left the game with unspecified injuries.

“It’s scary,” Rodriguez said on his postgame radio show on 1290-AM (KCUB).

“Just our defensive staff is hanging on. I’m really proud of the kids. We know we have some work to do over there. It just seemed like it was snowballing on us, injury-wise. We hung in there and just made enough plays to win the game.”

Arizona can’t win all the plays, but it can do enough to win the crucial situations. The Cats stopped the Utes on 4 of 5 fourth-down conversions, including on the first two possessions. On Utah’s second drive, Miles and true freshman linebacker Dakota Conwell combined to throw running back John White IV for a loss of 1 on fourth-and-1 from the 4.

Early in the fourth quarter, reserve running back Kylan Butler, playing on special teams, thwarted a fake punt with a tackle at the Utah 41. Arizona quickly marched for the go-ahead touchdown, 31-24.

Utah put it all on the line two possessions later, going for it on fourth-and-4 from its 27 with about 3:36 left. Tevis and linebacker Marquis Flowers closed on receiver Kenneth Scott to bring him down after a gain of 3 1/2 yards.

Arizona added a field goal for security … and that was it. Seven wins.

“I was really proud of our guys,” Rodriguez said.

“They had great focus all week. They were really into the game today. I was really concerned because of Utah’s strength and Senior Day and all that, but we ran the football well and I thought our defense did a nice job of making stops when they had to. We were just hanging on.”

Could be, but Arizona has done more than just hang on for much of the season.

They faded in the second half at Oregon, collapsed late at Stanford — how good would a win over the Cardinal look right now? — and bombed at UCLA. If that’s the only “bad” football Arizona has played this season, then fans should consider themselves lucky.

Seven wins?

Yeah, seven wins — and that’s without the benefit of playing Cal and Washington State, two of the three worst teams in the league. Sub out Stanford and put the Bears on UA’s schedule, and the Cats could very well be 8-3 today, not 7-4.

We knew the season would be intriguing and exciting — the Cats are averaging 521.82 yards (which would be a school record for a season) and 37.6 points per game — but not necessarily successful.

In the preseason, I wrote, now much to my chagrin, that six wins would be a very fine accomplishment and, “Seven victories means winning everything that is winnable … OK, it could happen. Anything beyond that, and you’re living in a world with purple unicorns.”

Well, Arizona has one game left in the regular season to get to eight wins. If not for UCLA’s Jim Mora, Rodriguez, who took over a program that went 4-8 last season, might be the Coach of the Year in the Pac-12.

I will be on the lookout for purple unicorns this week.


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