Arizona Wildcats quarterback B.J. Denker, when he was in high school and junior college, could never quite extinguish the nagging voice in his head.
“I would have to talk to myself — ‘Hey, you’re going to be fine. You’re good enough to make this play. You’re good enough to make this throw,’” he told me last month.
“Now, it’s not much of an issue.”
Now, it’s really not an issue.
When he said that, Arizona had yet to play Washington, the 31-13 low point of the season that reinvigorated the non-believers in Denker’s ability to play Pac-12 football.
Three games later — including a performance in Saturday’s 44-20 win at Colorado that was one for the record books — the conversation has twirled from “This guy should never take another snap at Arizona” to “Oh my God, what would we do if Denker got hurt?”
Confidence building with each of the three games since the loss in Seattle, Denker — not recruited by any college out of high school — passed for 265 yards and ran for 192 against the Buffaloes. His 457 total yards ranks as the sixth-best single game in school history.
This is what coach Rich Rodriguez’s offense is designed to do. Make the defense choose what to stop. Then do the opposite.
Denker, a senior, was fully the counterweight to Colorado’s eagerness to not get embarrassed again by running back Ka’Deem Carey, who ran for a Pac-12 record 366 yards against the Buffs last season. And in trying to erect that wall — only modestly successful — Denker orchestrated the jail break.
He had five rushes of more than 10 yards. He completed six passes of at least 20 yards, successfully working over the top of a packed-in Colorado defense.
“What’s happened is that everyone is loading the box. Colorado did that from the start,” Rodriguez said on his postgame interview on 1290 AM (KCUB).
“From the opening series, they were putting the safeties lower and lower and lower. So we knew there were going to be some opportunities, and we had to hit those.”
As Carey put it, Colorado picked their poison.
“And they picked wrong,” Carey told reporters after the game.
Can’t blame the Buffs for trying. They made Carey work for his 119 yards on 23 carries, before he exited the game after his fourth touchdown early in the fourth quarter. The Cats were up 41-20 at the time and he had banged up an elbow a bit; otherwise he likely would have played on a bit and gotten closer to his national-leading average of 160.2 yards per game.
“I love watching my teammates have a good game,” he said. “Wide receivers had a good game, and they were catching everything. It was a great overall performance by Arizona today; I loved it.”
The Cats weren’t humming through most of the first half but put together two touchdown drives before halftime to take a 24-13 lead. The second of those drives consisted of a 30-yard run by Carey and a 44-yard pass to Nate Phillips. Total time: 27 seconds.
Arizona (5-2 overall, 2-2 Pac-12) scored on four of its first five possessions of the second half and rolled to 670 yards of offense.
“I was proud of the guys with the way they just hung in there,” Rodriguez said. “We didn’t play our best but we hung in there. The key probably was some of the big plays we got offensively, particularly some of the passes.”
Denker, who completed 21 of 32 passes, also ran 15 times.
His 192 yards, according to the UA, is believed to be the most ever by an Arizona quarterback. I believe. According to old media guides, no quarterback has ever been listed with 193 rushing yards or more in school history.
“I read what the defense was giving us,” Denker said on 1290-AM.
“They were trying to take Ka’Deem away, so it left me open for some big plays down the middle and in between the tackles. I tried to take advantage and run as fast as I could.”
Denker had runs of 54 and 46 yards against the Buffs. At 74.1 yards per game, he’s now the leading rusher among Pac-12 quarterbacks, leapfrogging Oregon’s Marcus Mariota.
Defenses won’t be backing away from Carey any time soon, but Denker is proving to be increasingly poisonous, putting balance into Arizona’s read-option attack. He’ll read the defense and pull back the handoff from Carey, if that’s what he needs to do.
“B.J. had a lot of pulls because they were crashing down so hard on Ka’Deem, or they were playing a certain front that basically takes Ka’Deem away but gives the quarterback a little more room,” Rodriguez said.
“The way they were playing us, we just had to keep running the system.”
Arizona is going to run into better teams, better defenses, but Cal next Saturday might not be one of them. With a win in Berkeley, the Wildcats will be bowl-eligible.
Beyond that game, it should be an interesting final month for Arizona and its confident quarterback.
“Confidence is the key to success, especially at the quarterback position,” Denker said. “I feel like we’re confident everywhere on offense and we’re clicking.”