Long before kickoff Saturday night at Arizona Stadium, fireworks were visible on the horizon. There was a gala wedding at Ventana Canyon and in the middle of the celebration stood Lute Olson.
Earlier in the day, Lute’s grandson, Andrew Snyder, was married to Lindsay Godbout, and you’re probably wondering what this has to do with a football game 12 miles away.
Here’s what: At the 1985-86 Pac-10 basketball media day at the Los Angeles Airport Marriott, Olson was informed that Arizona had been picked to finish eighth in the Pac-10 media poll. Almost none of the voters knew about Arizona freshman Sean Elliott nor suspected Steve Kerr was in the process of becoming a Final Four point guard.
When it was Olson’s turn at the podium he defiantly said “we’re not going to finish eighth.”
The Wildcats of ’85-86 won the Pac-10 championship.
That day 32 years ago is about the only worthy comparison I can make to what is happening with Arizona’s football team. At the Pac-12 football media event three months ago, Arizona received fewer votes than every team in the league. The Wildcats weren’t just picked to finish last, they were deep-sixed.
On paper, Arizona was selected to finish sixth in the South division, but it was more like being picked 12th.
It would be a much better story if Rich Rodriguez had stepped forward to say “we’re not going to finish last.” He didn’t. He bit his lip, as he often does when things don’t go well for his football program.
It doesn’t matter. It’s a make-good story you run upon every two or three decades in college football, and it’s happening now for RichRod the way it happened for Lute Olson in 1985.
Quarterback Khalil Tate has become RichRod’s Sean Elliott, and when the Wildcats completed their 49-28 demolition of Oregon State on Saturday night, you almost wondered why someone didn’t shoot off fireworks at Arizona Stadium.
The Wildcats weren’t getting married, but they are engaged in one of the most fascinating seasons in school history.
Arizona is 7-3. It is the best story going in Pac-12 football, better than Mike Leach’s Air Raid at Washington State, and superior to the almost compulsory Pac-12 South championship annexed Saturday by USC.
The Wildcats have become so potent offensively that RichRod actually took mercy on the 1-9 Beavers in the final minute of the first half. Arizona led 28-0 and had outgained the Beavers 384-82. With 50 seconds to play and two timeouts remaining, RichRod chose to kill the clock rather than attempt to pour it on.
Incredibly, Arizona could’ve won had RichRod chosen to give Tate the second half off and give his starters some R&R before the year’s defining two-game road trip, to Oregon and Arizona State.
If someone had stepped forward at the league’s football media day in July and declared Arizona would be 7-3 on Nov. 12 with a reasonably good chance to finish 9-3 — if that person had suggested that Arizona’s second-string quarterback would become the league’s most exciting player — commissioner Larry Scott might have ordered a drug test or a psychological evaluation.
“Take this man away,” he might’ve said. “What he is saying is preposterous.”
Ka-Thrill Tate’s odometer went over 200 yards again Saturday night. In three quarters, Tate gained 206 yards on 16 carries, including a Usain Bolt-type touchdown burst of 71 yards, which has become a weekly part of his act.
Except it’s not an act at all.
In his six weeks this year and in a few brief appearances as Arizona’s quarterback last season, Tate has gained 1,530 rushing yards. Only two quarterbacks in league history — Oregon’s Marcus Mariota with 2,237 yards and Washington’s Jake Locker, with 1,939 yards — have run for more yards in a career. And it took them at least three years to do it.
Tate could threaten Mariota’s total at the UA’s bowl game next month, which, in July, seemed about as realistic as San Diego Padres winning the World Series.
When Arizona bottomed out a year ago, finishing 1-8 in the South, nothing hurt worse than being swept by Oregon State and Washington State. It was embarrassing.
The Cougars and Beavers combined to beat Arizona by a combined 111-24, outgaining the Wildcats 1,089-636. When you get swept that thoroughly by the Pac-12’s two smallest schools, those with the fewest resources, it suggests a house-cleaning.
Pay off the coach. Change systems. Set your football clocks to 2020, which seemed to be the most likely scenario for Arizona to field another division contender.
And then everything changed. This year Arizona swept OSU and WSU and scored 107 points. It gained 1,077 yards.
I’m not making this up.
If Arizona is able to sweep the Ducks and Sun Devils, RichRod will surely be the Pac-12 Coach of the Year. Tate would likely be the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year. A split of those games may be all that is necessary.
But once you’ve come this far, once you’ve set off the fireworks, why not sweep?
Who’s going to believe it, anyway?