BERKELEY, Calif. –
The last time Rich Rodriguez was angry enough to spike his headset, a two-bouncer on the soggy turf at Seattle’s Husky Stadium, he changed quarterbacks.
Out went B.J. Denker. In went freshman lefty Javelle Allen. Down went Arizona’s 2013 expectations. How far down? Just shy of a free-fall.
On Saturday, 35 days later,
RichRod again uprooted his headset, charging onto the turf at Cal’s Memorial Stadium, beseeching his team to maintain its poise. He stopped a few yards short of the huddle.
“End it!” he shouted, plainly heard by those within earshot of Arizona’s bench. “Keep your damn head!”
Denker looked at his coach and nodded, as if to say “I got it.”
Seven weeks after his team dissolved in the Seattle rain, RichRod was upset because the Wildcats weren’t properly killing the clock. If that’s not progress, what is?
Arizona beat Cal 33-28, taking a knee on the game’s final three plays, failing to bite when the Bears got a bit chippy, desperate to get one more chance. Sometimes in college football you’ve only got to be enough to let the other guy beat himself.
Sometimes progress can be measured in what most makes your coach’s blood boil. On Saturday it might have been a 17-yard, first-down run by Ka’Deem Carey with 56 seconds remaining.
“I was screaming for him to get down,” RichRod said later, smiling.
Arizona beat Cal because Denker didn’t make The Big Mistake the way he did in Seattle. The Wildcats beat the Bears because Cal freshman quarterback Jared Goff threw two crippling interceptions late in the game, a probable swing of 14 points.
The reaction to those mistakes, interceptions by Jonathan McKnight and Jourdon Grandon, magnify the difference between a 6-2, everything-is-still-possible Arizona team and a 1-8, season-in-the-dumpster Cal squad.
“I threw two interceptions late,” said Goff. “We need to eliminate the little mistakes.”
His teammate, receiver Kenny Lawler said: “We just need to eliminate the little mistakes, and we’ll be good.”
RichRod had an entirely different description. “They were huge,” he said outside his team’s dressing room. “Just huge.”
McKnight so treasured his interception, with Arizona squeezing a 26-21 lead late in the third quarter, that he sprinted to the bench without giving the ball to the referees. He gave the ball to a team manager for safe-keeping.
Since that day in Seattle, when Denker’s fourth-quarter pass was pirated by Washington’s Marcus Peters in a 31-13 loss, Denker has been superb. He has thrown just one interception in his last 144 passes.
No wonder Cal’s first-year coach Sonny Dykes, a former Arizona offensive coordinator who survived quarterback Nick Foles’ break-in mileage in 2009, sat on a folding chair outside of Cal’s locker room Saturday and sounded somewhat resigned.
“We’ll look at the film and see a couple of times how close we were,” he said. “College football is a funny game. A couple of near-interceptions went through our hands, and their guys made a couple of plays.”
In a coach’s code, that’s short for “RichRod isn’t calling for Javelle Allen any longer.”
As Denker left the turf Saturday, interviewed by a Pac-12 Networks reporter, his voice was drowned out by Cal’s marching band, which chose that moment to play the school’s alma mater. But Denker’s performances since Sept. 28 in Seattle speak loudly enough.
He has found a way to manage games, learning as he goes in his first year as a college starter. His lack of rookie mistakes has put Arizona in a position to play UCLA on Saturday night, homecoming at Arizona Stadium, on a national stage (ESPN).
“We’ve got a lot of big games coming up,” RichRod said.
Arizona doesn’t often win two consecutive conference road games. Some of it is because the schedule-maker rarely assigns you that type of difficulty. But even if it’s Colorado and Cal you beat, two FBS bottom-feeders, you don’t minimize it.
You celebrate it.
Arizona has lost as a favorite at Memorial Stadium so often the last 30 years, in one unimaginable scenario upon another, blowing the Rose Bowl clincher here in 1993 and the nation’s No. 3 ranking in 1983, that long-standing Wildcat fans know not to relax.
The Wildcats won with their B game on Saturday, maybe their C game, and that has almost never happened at Memorial Stadium, or anywhere on the Pac-12 road.
“We made just enough plays,” said RichRod, whose team missed the soul of its defense, injured linebacker Jake Fischer, and was further limited because Denker and Carey, both knocked around and bruised up a week earlier at Colorado, didn’t appear to have an extra gear.
Carey walked gingerly into a post-game interview area, his right ankle wrapped in ice. Denker acknowledged that he didn’t plan to run the ball anything close to the 19 carries he had at Colorado; but in the end, it was necessary for him to run 15 times.
It was his 11th run, a 14-yard touchdown run with seven seconds remaining in the third quarter, that was the margin the Wildcats needed to win.
That’s how close it was. One run. One final knee. One bad throw by the Bears.
One quarterback assuring his coach “I got it.”