Rich Rodriguez was a young assistant when venerable Florida State coach Bobby Bowden taught him a lesson about rebuilding.
First, he said, you lose big. Then you lose small. Then you win small. And, finally, you win big.
For one night, the Arizona Wildcats’ first-year head coach could be forgiven for skipping a few steps.
Matt Scott made the play of his life, the Wildcats’ beleaguered defense held in overtime and the UA avoided another disaster on the way to a 24-17 win over Toledo at Arizona Stadium.
The Wildcats were fortunate to escape Rodriguez’s first game intact.
The team had two touchdowns called back because of penalties.
Place kicker John Bonano missed a pair of chip-shot field goals, including one — a 25-yard attempt — that would have won the game at the end of regulation. The team committed too many penalties, and missed countless opportunities to put the Rockets away early.
Things seemed bleakest in overtime when, starting with the ball, the Wildcats ran two consecutive plays for no gain. Facing third-and-10 from Toledo’s 25, Scott rolled to his right and, desperate, waved to his receivers to come with him. The Wildcats’ quarterback was inches away from the sideline when he found Terrence Miller over the middle. The Cats’ hulking receiver caught it alone in the end zone. Bonano’s point-after attempt was good, and the Wildcats led.
Then, the team’s beleaguered defense won the game — with a little help. Toledo’s offense was called for a false start, then took a delay of game penalty. Facing third-and-20 from the Wildcats’ 24, the Rockets quarterback Austin Dantin threw two incomplete passes, the last one skidding off the grass and through the back of the end zone. A giddy UA team sprinted to the southeast corner of the end zone and, in a new tradition, sang “Bear Down, Arizona” with the band.
Scott was splendid in his first start since Oct. 31, 2010, completing 30 of 46 passes for 387 yards and two touchdowns. Sophomore running back Ka’Deem Carey, the team’s biggest projected playmaker, gained a career-high 147 yards on 20 carries.
Arizona was trailing 14-10 in the third quarter when Carey, a former Canyon del Oro High School star, took a draw play up the middle for a 73-yard touchdown. The career-long run showed, if only briefly, that the UA may have the bell-cow back needed to run Rodriguez’s high-octane offense.
Staked to a lead, the Wildcats then went for the throat.
Bonano recovered his own onside kick, giving the Wildcats the ball in Rockets territory, but the UA was forced to punt.
Wildcats linebacker Jake Fischer forced a fumble as UT quarterback Terrance Owens scrambled on the Rockets’ next drive; two-way player Taimi Tutogi, in on defense, recovered the ball at the UT 32. For a second, it looked as if the turnover would be a game-changer: Richard Morrison took a reverse 32 yards for an apparent score on the Wildcats’ first play from scrimmage. But Tutogi — the same player who recovered a fumble earlier — was called for an illegal block to the back.
The Wildcats were forced to attempt a field goal, which Bonano missed.
The sequence was emblematic of an ugly night. The Wildcats were penalized seven times for 56 yards, and dogged by a handful of miscues on both sides of the ball. Receiver Richard Morrison dropped a touchdown pass in the end zone and fumbled the ball away in the first half; Scott also overthrew him on a play that, had it hit, would have been a sure score.
The Rodriguez era started promisingly enough, but fizzled just before halftime. David Fluellen punched in a 1-yard touchdown run with 6 minutes remaining in the second quarter, giving visiting Toledo a 14-10 lead at the break.
The Rockets scored two touchdowns in the second quarter after being held scoreless in the first period. Arizona drove in the final seconds of the half, but — out of timeouts and hurt by a clock-running short pass — was forced to settle for an incomplete pass to end the half.
The teams, both of which run no-huddle offenses, combined for 559 first-half yards. Scott threw for 275 yards, completing 17 of 24 passes.
Rodriguez, hired Nov. 22 to as Mike Stoops' full-time replacement, won his first-ever opener as a head coach. He had previously lost his debuts at Salem (W.Va.) College, Glenville (W.Va.) State College, West Virginia and Michigan.