The Arizona Wildcats upset Oregon for the second year in a row Thursday night, and coach Rich Rodriguez was exultant after the game.
“I don’t know if anybody picked us. … Not on the road. Lightning doesn’t strike twice. In fact, [the end of] our video we showed our guys last night actually showed a guy getting hit by lighting twice in 30 seconds. … Our guys got a little chuckle out of that.”
This was a battle of two of the most successful spread offense coaches; Rodriguez helped create the tempo, read-option run-based spread offense that he shared with Chip Kelly back in 1999. I asked him if running the spread offense gave him insight in how to defend against one.
“I think it helps both. And it’s not so much the spread, I think it’s the tempo. They go fast, and we go fast. So I think practicing against each other probably helps both [our offense and defense], from a conditioning standpoint and from an execution standpoint.”
Marcus Mariota had a good game, but Arizona sacked him four times and neutralized him as a runner, holding the speedy quarterback to only six net yards on seven carries (several of which were called runs). Did they have a spy on Mariota? Rodriguez said no.
“I’ll tell you what we did, is we reacted well. When we rushed three … our linebackers reacted well, and we did a good job of covering down field. They’ve got some fast wide outs. But I thought our guys disengaged from blocks better than we had all year. And that was the key of getting him down. Because I told our guys … I don’t think, once he gets going, we got anybody fast enough to catch him. So we gotta get to him before he gets going.”
Despite the pressure of this nationally televised game, freshmen on both teams made key plays: RB Royce Freeman and WR Devon Allen for Oregon, and RB Nick Wilson and QB Anu Solomon for the Wildcats. Solomon not only matched Mariota — the Heisman trophy frontrunner — in passing, he caught one of his own passes (after a defensive end batted it) and punted from the shotgun down to the one-yard line, on a fake 4th-down attempt.
Rodriguez was impressed. “Yeah, he’s unflappable.” I asked Solomon if he got nervous, given the high-stakes game and national TV audience. “It wasn’t nervous, it was just more anxious and frustration.” He was referring to the first half, when Oregon’s defense held the Wildcats to three points. “It was really tough.” But he was not cowed by Autzen’s infamously rabid crowd. “I was kind of let down, I thought this stadium would be louder, to be honest.”
The second half was a different story, as Arizona scored 21 points in the third quarter alone, and added the game winner with 2:54 left in the fourth.
“They’re a great defense. We saw some things they were doing coming into the locker room, and we took advantage.”
One thing in particular was the Ducks’ switch to man defense. Arizona repeatedly ran through the slot, on called run plays, quarterback scrambles, and even one bubble screen where the WR cut back in from the sideline. Ekpre-Olomu blamed that for some of Solomon’s big scrambles; one went for 19 yards. “Once we went to man coverage, the quarterback started running around.”
Another key play came in the third quarter as Oregon tightened up its run defense. Solomon found RB Terris Jones-Grigsby on a wheel route for 54 yards down to Oregon’s three. He said it was a called play.
“Basically they were playing man, and they didn’t see Terris, so he was standing right there. He made a big gain.”
Oregon’s only first half score also came at the hands of a freshman, in this case Freeman. He took a pitch from Mariota, who then ran to the five-yard line, caught a pass from Freeman, and bulled his way into the end zone. Freeman was pretty unflappable himself.
“That was pretty interesting. We practiced it in practice. Usually I lob it to him, but I went out and I just threw a dart. Marcus made a good catch, and he wanted a touchdown so he fought for the extra yards.”
In the end, Oregon hurt themselves with too many penalties to win. In the third period, the Ducks appeared to have held on a goal line stand from the two-yard line, but a pass interference penalty on a 3rd-and-five incomplete gave Arizona a new set of downs. They quickly scored on a 2-yard run to take back the lead at 17-14.
Then, on Arizona’s drive for the winning touchdown, the Ducks had held Arizona to a 4th-and-17 until a taunting penalty gave the Wildcats a first-and-goal at the nine. The Ducks kept them from scoring on six straight plays, but two more penalties meant that Arizona had eight plays at their disposal, and they scored on the 7th.
Senior linebacker Derrick Malone summed it up.
“We kind of beat ourselves with the penalties … but I give all credit to Arizona. Their quarterback got hot when he needed to, and they made the plays they needed to.”
Now, Malone says, the Ducks need to ignore playoff possibilities, digest the pain and lessons gleaned from this game, and move on.
“When we start looking at UCLA, we’ve got to disregard [this loss] cause it’s in the past. We can’t let one loss beat us twice.”
Feature photo by Kevin Cline