Arizona Wildcats: “Lightning Strikes Twice”

Wildcats Win

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.

Coach Richard Rodriguez

Kevin Cline

Coach Richard Rodriguez

“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.

QB Anu Solomon ran rampant

Kevin Cline

QB Anu Solomon ran rampant.

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.”

Coach Helfrich attempts to educate

Kevin Cline

Coach Helfrich attempts to educate.

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

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Mark Saltveit

Mark Saltveit

Mark Saltveit's newest book is "Controlled Chaos: Chip Kelly's Football Revolution" (Diversion Books, NY) has been recently released. He is the author of "The Tao of Chip Kelly" (2013) and writes on science, religion, wordplay and political scandals. He is also a standup comedian and the world palindrome champion.

  • BigBallzChipper

    Man that was tough to watch. Tip my hat to AZ they played a great game, and we didn’t on either side of the ball. Huge HUGE blown assignments and 3rd downs killed us. Forgetting to take care of the middle…. on a 3rd and 20 wow… I have never seen us play like that before.

    • Mark Saltveit

      Unfortunately, it was all too common on Chip Kelly’s Philadelphia team last year too. Haven’t figured out if it’s a scheme issue; probably slow middle linebackers. Demeco Ryans has been great for the Eagles but he’s aging and just can’t keep up with the speedy guys.

  • themilman

    Is it over?

    Probably, the Ducks have too much inexperience on the O line to protect MM (12 sacks in last 2 games), too much inexperience in the linebackers to tackle (32 missed against AZ), and coaching has been questionable (running up the middle over and over again against AZ and Pellum’s defense just straight ignoring the running back coming out of the backfield).

    So there’s that.

    But UCLA ain’t perfect, USC lost to Boston College. Stanford lost to USC. Etc.

    So, do we control our own destiny? No. Even if we win out (including PAC-12 championship against probably USC) we’re just in the Top 10 pool of choices for the selection committee.

    But, what if……………….

    Alabama loses twice, they play #11 Ole Miss, #6 Texas A&M, #15 LSU, #12 Miss ST., and #5 Auburn, then potentially in an SEC playoff (in other words 6 teams in Top 15)

    Auburn loses twice, they play #15 LSU, #12 Miss St, #11 Ole Miss, #6 Texas A&M, #13` Georgia, and #3 Alabama, then potentially in an SEC playoff (in other words 7 teams in Top 15)

    Texas A&M loses twice, they play #12 Miss St., #11 Ole Miss, #3 Alabama, #5 Auburn, #24 Missouri, #15 LSU, then potentially in an SEC playoff (in other words 7 teams in Top 15)

    Notre Dame loses to Florida State (and potentially USC).

    That would leave Florida State undefeated, Notre Dame with at least one loss, Oklahoma undefeated, and Alabama, Auburn, and Texas A&M with two loses.

    So if Oregon wins out, and wins the PAC 12 championship, it will be 12-1, with wins over Top 15 ranked UCLA, Stanford, and USC. It’s only loss to AZ, who will be ranked after this week (but they still have to play USC, UCLA, and ASU, so let’s assume they finish the season somewhere in the Top 25 but 1-2 losses.)

    Let’s also assume Oregon plays better as the season goes on, not just winning but beginning to dominate, lead from start to finish, thus showing they’ve improved, overcome injuries.

    Then the selection committee might decide to take FSU, Oklahoma, SEC Champions, and, yes, the Ducks.

    It’s possible. Improbable? Highly, but not out of the realm of possibility. As it stands, I think the Ducks will probably end up 8-4 and I think that 8-10 wins is what we should expect for the next 2-4 years.

    • maddog48

      Sorry, but I can’t go along with the notion that it was inexperience on defense that was the problem last night. Where is the inexperience with the linebackers? We have three returning starters and experienced player behind them from last season. It wasn’t just the linebackers who were missing tackles. How about Ifo getting run over for a touchdown. There are serious issues with the defense including the defensive backs. Yes, too many penalties and missed tackles. That is a coaching issue. Quite frankly, I am not convinced that the choice of Pellum as defensive coordinator was a sound one.