The goal posts collapsed on cue, just as they are designed to do when fans rush the field, when the Arizona Wildcats pull off an upset that resonates as one of the stunners of the college football season.
Arizona, coming off a home loss to Washington State, grabbed fifth-ranked Oregon by the throat on the first play of the game and didn’t let go, winning 42-16 as a three-touchdown underdog at Arizona Stadium on Saturday.
Just like that, the Cats flipped the emotions, wrote their own script for how everyone will remember this season.
“When you step into this facility, you see upsets on the wall,” running back Ka’Deem Carey said in the interview room in the new Lowell-Stevens Football Facility.
“We ain’t have any this year, so I’m looking around like, ‘We have to leave this season with an upset. Let’s make history.’
“We’re going to have a picture up. And it’s going to be a big upset, and hopefully I’m out there smiling on top.”
It’s big. One of the biggest.
Arizona beat No. 2 Oregon 34-24 in Tucson in 2007, but that was when Ducks quarterback Dennis Dixon went down early with a knee injury. There is no injury as an excuse this time. Saturday’s game likely ranks as the best win at Arizona Stadium since the Cats knocked off top-ranked Washington 16-3 in 1992.
“This is a crazy win for our program, for our coaching staff, for our seniors, for our players,” said quarterback B.J. Denker. “I mean, everything went right today.”
Arizona eliminated Oregon (9-2, 6-2) from the Rose Bowl chase. Stanford has won the North Division.
“I have never been blown out like this before in my life,” lamented Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota.
Carey, a junior, ran a staggering 48 times for 206 yards, ending the day with 3,913 yards to set an Arizona career rushing record. Denker was 19 of 22 for 178 yards, his accuracy helping Arizona convert its first seven third-down opportunities.
The Wildcats won the turnover battle 3-0 and forced a fumble, although recovered by the Ducks, that led to a fourth-down stop. Oregon had five red-zone chances and came up with a scant 16 points. This is rare air. Since the start of the 2007 season, Oregon has been held under 20 points only eight times. Now, nine.
“We tackled really well against a team that is really explosive,” Rodriguez said. “They got a lot of yards … but our guys really rallied well to the ball. We just kept plugging along.”
Arizona made almost every key play in a key situation, which is job No. 1 in the underdog playbook, eradicating Oregon’s slight edge in total yards (506 to 482).
The most important play was the first one from scrimmage.
Oregon took the opening kickoff 40 yards to the Arizona 45. Uh-oh, right? Then Mariota, who had not been intercepted in more than a year — a Pac-12 record 343 attempts in a row — threw a quick pass to Bralon Addison along the sideline.
As the ball went off Addison’s hands, cornerback Shaquille Richardson, falling out of bounds, scooped the ball with one hand and pitched it back to linebacker Scooby Wright, who snatched the ball while his left foot was an inch away from being out of bounds.
Of such plays, upsets are born.
“That was one of the keys,” Rodriguez said.
“We had actually talked and actually worked back in August about batting the ball back in-bounds, whether it’s a fumble or an interception. Shaq did it to perfection. It was a clinic on how to make that play. That set the tone.”
Said Richardson: “I saw him tip it up. I tried to grab it with one hand, took a picture of it, looked for some red, and just threw it to the red jerseys.”
Arizona then scored on a 45-yard drive, capped by the first of Carey’s four touchdown runs — one in each quarter — and the Ducks were on their heels, which is where they stayed. The Cats went up 14-0, 21-3 and then 28-9 with 18 seconds left in the first half.
The Cats had held on fourth down at their 41 and then drove for the late-half touchdown, one of those wins in critical situations.
“It was huge,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said of not converting on fourth down.
Arizona worked its short passing game and its Ka’Deem-till-he-drops strategy, keeping the Ducks just off balance enough to churn out 29 first downs and five scoring drives of at least nine plays.
Carey seemed just as fresh in the fourth quarter as he did in the first, despite the epic workload, which was a school record for rushes.
“That’s crazy. I can’t believe I took that many carries,” he said.
“Whatever it takes to get this W. The front line, thank God to them, they were making holes, so the 48 didn’t really feel like 48.”
Fittingly, soon after Arizona went up 7-0, the sun started peeking through a gray sky that had drenched Tucson with Oregon-like rain for more than 24 hours. With their play, The Wildcats chased away the clouds that had gathered since losing to the Cougars.
After dancing in the locking room, Arizona will celebrate during the 24 hours Rodriguez allots before having to look ahead to the next game — and it’s a doozy, at Arizona State.
“Last week I was miserable for 24 hours,” Rodriguez said. “This one, I will be happy for 24 hours.”
And the memory will bring smiles for years.
Related: Arizona-Oregon game blog