Joey Holland reporting for FishDuck.com from the Arizona Press Conference at Levi Stadium following the Pac-12 Championship Game.
“Wasn’t a good night. Next?”
A succinct opening statement from Rich Rodriguez after his Arizona Wildcats fell 51-13 to Oregon in Friday night’s Pac-12 Championship Game.
Arizona defensive end Dan Pettinato shared his coach’s curtness. “They just played better than us tonight,” said the senior defensive end after the game.
Because Arizona had defeated Oregon in two straight showdowns prior to the conference championship game, holding the Ducks offense to a combined 40 points during those outings, the big question entering Friday night seemed to be whether or not Marcus Mariota would find a way to put up points against Arizona.
As it turned out, Mariota was great. In fact, he was fantastic, adding 5 total touchdowns, 346 total yards, and an exclamation point to his Heisman resume. However, it was something else that really made Oregon’s win over Arizona so uneven from the very beginning.
With all the attention surrounding Oregon’s injuries along the offensive line during Oregon’s loss to Arizona previously this season, many forgot that defensive end Arik Armstead had missed almost the entire game as well after leaving with an early injury.
“They’re a very athletic team … it’s not just the skill guys,” said Rodriguez. “They’re very, very athletic all across the board.”
Rodgriguez likely had Armstead and fellow defensive end DeForest Buckner in mind. The tandem led the way on the front seven, holding running backs Nick Wilson and Terris Jones-Grigsby to a combined 41 rushing yards.
“From my vantage point, it was a lack of execution and them playing a little better than us,” said Rodriguez. “It seemed like it was a different, almost different reason every time. You know this play didn’t work or that play didn’t work.”
The coverage downfield was also spectacular as the Ducks allowed just 113 passing yards on the night, with only 34 coming from freshman quarterback Anu Solomon in the first half. After their opening offensive possession, the Wildcats did not record another first down until the second half. In fact, Rich Rodriguez pulled Solomon after the break, sending in Jesse Scroggins III.
Rodriguez was quick to defend his quarterback, though, noting that he had been playing through an injury.
“Anu’s been battling through the injury for a month. I’m proud of the way he’s competed.”
Solomon simply added, “I just didn’t execute.”
It looked like things may improve when Scroggins hit a wide open Cayleb Jones for a 69-yard touchdown due to a blown coverage. However, it turned out that Erick Dargan’s interception on the next drive was a better indicator of things to come because the Ducks never took their webbed feet off the gas.
Arizona was held to 224 total yards on the night, and even the explosive Jerrard Randall couldn’t generate much offense against Oregon’s dominant defense when he was put in for Scroggins later in the third quarter.
Up until a certain point toward the end of the first half, the Arizona defense did not allow the Oregon offense to move with as much ease and fluidity as it usually does. The problem was, it was put in a perpetually tough spot in terms of field position by the offense due to Oregon’s defensive dominance — and some Johnathan Loyd punt returns.
“[The defense] was playing, battling, competing, playing a lot of plays,” said Rodriguez. “The offense couldn’t get any first downs on offense … When you’re having to go out that many times… with that offense, they’re going to get theirs.”
Of Oregon’s first nine possessions, the Wildcats held the Ducks to only two touchdowns and three field goals, impressive when you consider both the strength of Oregon’s offense and where most of those drives started on the field.
Still, those possessions add up, especially without the offense being able to stay in the field, and the floodgates opened in the second half when Oregon posted touchdowns on each of its first three drives after the break. The Ducks ended with 627 yards of total offense.
“I think Oregon’s a very, very good football team,” said Rodriguez. “The winner of our league each year is going to be, I think, a contender to be one of the best in the country. Oregon is the best in our league this year, and I think they have a chance to prove they’re the best in the country.”
Despite the loss, Arizona has nothing to be ashamed of. There is no doubt that the Wildcats will be looking ahead to their bowl game after winning arguably the toughest division in college football, and giving it their best shot in the conference championship game.
Top Photo by Kevin Cline