Small schools close gap in big way; ask RichRod

2013-09-03T00:00:00Z 2013-11-11T14:29:14Z Small schools close gap in big way; ask RichRodGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

No matter how many times North Dakota State beats a bully like Kansas State, or Eastern Washington gains 625 yards and plants a knockout punch on Oregon State’s kisser, the Upset of All Upsets in modern college football remains Appalachian State’s stupefying 2007 victory at Michigan.

It goes a step beyond Boise State’s gimmick-laden, 2007 Fiesta Bowl surprise over Oklahoma because, well, the Broncos were ranked No. 9 entering that game.

Appalachian State won 34-32 at the Big House, a place, unlike Cheers, that nobody knew its name.

Given the source, the Mountaineers were either from Division II, III or IV, or maybe an NAIA team, whatever that means.

Sept. 1, 2007 became a significant day in Arizona football history because it meant Michigan coach Lloyd Carr would surely be fired. Once you sort through all of the football forensics, you can draw two conclusions:

One, Michigan’s personnel had diminished so thoroughly that the coach who replaced Carr would have difficulty surviving.

Two, on that same day, West Virginia crushed Western Michigan 62-24, giving Rich Rodriguez a 23-3 streak, making him the most coveted coach in college football. Three months later Alabama asked him to coach the Crimson Tide.

He declined.

It would’ve been unthinkable, unimaginable, that by 2012 RichRod would be coaching at Arizona (and that it could afford to pay him).

Picture the juxtaposition on a rare unscheduled Saturday, as Rodriguez flipped through the cable browser, raising an eyebrow as seven would-be giants, semi-giants and gigantic favorites lost to FCS teams.

“I still call them Division I-AA teams,” RichRod said Monday.

If this is the new order in college football, with Butlers and Gonzagas and VCUs chomping up the once-peaceful September landscape, chaos will reign. Don’t you just love it?

The first hint something was amiss came in the prelude of the Pac-12 Networks broadcast of the Oregon State-Eastern Washington game.

That’s when analyst Anthony Herron said that EWU quarterback Vernon Adams “is the type of player RichRod would love to have in Arizona’s backfield.”

Vernon Adams?

He is a 6-foot sophomore whose only other recruiting offer was from Portland State.

By game’s end, Adams had passed for 448 yards, taking the Beavers apart 49-46. Imagine an Arizona with Vern Adams. VA-room.

About six hours later, someone named Jimmy Garoppolo led an Eastern Illinois offense to 533 yards and a 40-19 stunner over a San Diego State team that won nine games a year ago.

Here’s a safe bet: 95 percent of the 42,978 who watched that game in San Diego didn’t know if the Aztecs were playing Eastern, Northern, Western or Southern Illinois.

“They’re scary,” said RichRod, who probably appreciates the unpredictable nature of college football more than most. “The distribution of good players going different places is more now than there has ever been.

“It’s a little different deal than it was 10 or 15 years ago.”

It’s not just players. Not even close.

By whatever name (it is now the Football Championship Sub-division, not Division II or I-AA), the smaller schools have bigger ambitions and more accomplished coaches.

Before Sonny Dykes inherited Willie Tuitama, acquired Nick Foles and changed the dynamics of offense at Arizona, the most prolific offensive coordinator in UA history was Dino Babers.

Remember?

In 1998 and 1999, Babers choreographed an Arizona offense that set records for yards and points; his were the first Wildcat teams to gain over 5,000 yards and score more than 400 points in a season.

But then Babers lost his job (and his reputation) when Dick Tomey was persuaded to leave. Babers had to rebuild his résumé bit by bit, fired again in a failed regime at Texas A&M, fired when UCLA’s Karl Dorrell was canned, finally taking an at-risk role as a receivers coach at Baylor when coaching in Waco, Texas, was almost the end of the line.

And then Robert Griffin III showed up at Baylor and Dino Babers was a football genius again. Baylor won its final four games of 2011 by scores of 45-38, 66-42, 48-24 and 67-56.

Babers turned Griffin’s success into the head coaching job at Eastern Illinois. What Ohio Valley Conference school wouldn’t have hired him?

And, oh, by the way, in another lifetime, he was the play-scheming brain behind Arizona’s 12-1 team of 1998.

Fifteen years later, on the same field he helped to coach Arizona to a landmark Holiday Bowl victory over Nebraska, in his hometown, Babers finally arrived.

Bring on Appalachian State.

Contact sports columnist Greg Hansen at ghansen@azstarnet.com or 573-4362. On Twitter @ghansen711.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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