Greg Hansen: Cats are hanging on to beat the odds

2012-11-19T00:00:00Z 2012-11-20T09:39:52Z Greg Hansen: Cats are hanging on to beat the oddsGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
November 19, 2012 12:00 am  • 

Rich Rodriguez's only concession to the elements Saturday night was a navy blue windbreaker and matching workout pants. No gloves, no raincoat and no excuses.

That has been his football hymn at Arizona. If the ball's in the rough, you gotta play it as it lies.

Saturday night, for the first time, RichRod let it slip that his first UA football team has gone where few thought it might: to a bowl game, to seven victories (possibly eight or even nine) and to a destination that few in college football, and especially Arizona, experience.

To the Land Of Beating The Odds.

As he left his team's happy locker room a few ticks before midnight at Utah's Rice-Eccles Stadium, Rodriguez was asked the type of question at which he rarely bites after UA's 34-24 win: If the football gods had told you in August your team would win seven games, would you have bought it?

"Nope,'' he said. "But I never put a number on it.

"I knew from Day 1 that I really liked the attitude of these guys. But I also thought a lot of things had to go right - to stay really healthy, which we didn't - and to get a couple of close ones at the end.''

On paper, the Wildcats should be 4-7 or 5-6 and not 7-4. They were seriously outmanned by Oklahoma State and USC, but beat them anyway. And not only beat them, but gained a cumulative 1,205 yards and scored 98 against the Cowboys and Trojans.

And if you use your imagination, maybe reverse two plays, Arizona woulda, coulda, shoulda beat heavyweights Stanford and Oregon State. They were, as Rodriguez laments, "close ones at the end'' that went the other way.

Almost every college football team can construct a scenario in which two or three games swing on a single fourth quarter play. RichRod doesn't have to play that game because his depth, size and experience-challenged team has gone beyond realistic expectations.

On paper, Utah should have won Saturday's game even though the Utes aren't very good.

Kyle Whittingham has had eight seasons to recruit, implement his mentality and establish his system. Fans don't always appreciate or understand what it takes, and what it means, to have a stable foundation.

This Arizona team has none of those things, and on Saturday it didn't have the home field, which was, if nothing else, Utah's biggest edge.

Ultimately, Arizona beat Utah at the Utes' game.

Utah's strength is its rushing defense. A lot of teams, a lot of insecure coaches, would've been influenced by the Utes' defense and changed its schematic approach at Rice-Eccles Stadium. No Pac-12 team had rushed for more than 171 yards against the Utes; Oregon State was limited to 52 and USC managed just 129.

Bur Rodriguez, whose signature is his team's running game, especially tailback Ka'Deem Carey and a well-coached offensive line rebuilt by Robert Anae, rushed for 320 yards in Salt Lake City.

That's amazing.

Utah's franchise player is future NFL first-round draft pick Star Lotulelei. He is the Pac-12's most feared defensive player, a lineman who occupies two blockers. On Saturday, Lotulelei did not pressure UA quarterback Matt Scott and he did not deter Carey, or even come close to shutting him down even though Lotulelei always lined up on the side of the ball where Carey was positioned.

Carey gained 204 yards; he was probably 80 percent healthy.

It was an important message, coaching staff vs. coaching staff. Rodriguez isn't going to try to win with tricks. Utah was left to do that, resorting to flea-flickers, fake punts and fake field-goal attempts against, statistically, the worst defense in UA history.

It was a lot like Colorado's coaching staff choosing to kick an early field goal on a fourth-and-goal play at Arizona's 1-yard line a week earlier.

Sometimes you've gotta believe in your team and not run scared. Isn't that what RichRod has done all year? He's not going to concede much, if anything.

UA centers and guards Kyle Quinn, Trace Biskin and Shane Zink were those who kept Lotulelei at bay.

"We may not be able to push him off the ball," RichRod said after the game. "But we did get a (helmet) on him.''

Said Matt Scott: "Oh, man, those guys were doing it for us all night. We were able to keep our tempo up. They were out there executing, creating holes for me, Ka'Deem and (Daniel Jenkins)."

RichRod said the Wildcats "were just hanging on'' and "made just enough plays'' to beat Utah.

Some of those semi-obscure Wildcats who played extensively, like Vince Miles and Blake Brady, forced into action by Saturday's defensive injuries, have helped to establish the identity of this UA team as one that Makes Just Enough Plays.

"It's seven wins, which is better than six," said Rodriguez.

And, if he's fortunate, if this Cinderella team continues to 'just hang on," Rodriguez will be able to keep counting this week and again next month.

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

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