EUGENE, Ore. — Rich Rodriguez briefly entered the Arizona Wildcats’ locker room before stepping back out. He crossed his arms and paced about, gathering his thoughts before re-entering to address his team.
Arizona had just lost to Oregon by a score of 48-28 on a chilly Saturday at Autzen Stadium. The Wildcats also lost their cool at times, and that’s what disturbed Rodriguez the most.
He summarized his message as follows:
“I want them to be disappointed. We’ve got the biggest game of the year coming up this week. We’ll try to learn from our mistakes.”
The annual Territorial Cup against Arizona State is what lies ahead. The mistakes here were plentiful and, as Rodriguez pointed out, abnormal for this UA team.
The Wildcats let their emotions get the best of them in the first half, they didn’t execute offensively and their defense couldn’t hold up – again – against a downhill running attack. It added up to Arizona’s most lopsided loss of the season.
The UA’s second loss in the past three games dropped it to 7-4, 5-3 in the Pac-12. The Ducks, with Justin Herbert back at quarterback, improved to 6-5, 3-5, and became bowl eligible.
“The first half we were competing, but we were just totally, uncharacteristically undisciplined,” Rodriguez said. “There were (uncalled) holding penalties, and guys get frustrated. But holy cow. The undisciplined part of it, from techniques to penalties, we just can’t afford to do those things.
“They had some (penalties) too when the game was close. We can’t. We can’t have those things.”
Rodriguez had an inkling the game would be chippy, and he was right. Oregon was coming off a bye and fighting for a bowl berth. Arizona players expressed frustration during the week about UA commits who ended up at Oregon.
It led to an unusual amount of smack talk, some scuffles in the first half and multiple unsportsmanlike-conduct penalties. Arizona entered Saturday averaging 5.1 penalties per game. The Wildcats had five in the first half and eight overall, tying for their third-highest total this season. The Ducks got flagged 12 times.
“Sometimes when you’re young or whatever, you think that’s the way you show your intensity. But it’s not,” Rodriguez said. “So we did a poor job coaching them on that.”
The players blamed themselves.
“I think we had more personal fouls than we had all year,” said linebacker Colin Schooler, who had a team-high 12 tackles. “That’s not us. I didn’t like that.”
Said fellow linebacker Tony Fields II: “We’re really not like that. That really wasn’t us. We let them get in our head.”
No infraction was more egregious than the one senior safety Dane Cruikshank committed early in the second quarter.
With Arizona down 14-7, Cruikshank intercepted Herbert at the UA 32-yard line. A wall formed, and Cruikshank appeared to score a touchdown. But as he approached the end zone, Cruikshank held the ball up. Then he waved at a nearby Oregon player at the 4.
The officials rightfully flagged Cruikshank for taunting. By rule, the touchdown didn’t count. Arizona still got the ball, but at the 19 after a 15-yard penalty.
Rodriguez flew into a rage when Cruikshank reached the sideline. After Arizona scored, Rodriguez stomped to where the defensive players were sitting and got in Cruikshank’s face again.
“Totally ridiculous,” Rodriguez said of Cruikshank’s foul. “We should never do it. It should never, ever, ever, ever happen. It’s a lesson learned.”
Even quarterback Khalil Tate got involved in the shenanigans. After a 2-yard run late in the first quarter, Tate appeared to step on Oregon defensive lineman Henry Mondeaux.
“I don’t think it was intentional,” Mondeaux said. “He was a classy guy on the field. It got a reaction out of us. Nothing against him. He’s a great athlete, great player.”
Earlier in the drive, an Oregon player shoved Tate while he was down. The Ducks got called for a personal foul. Tate was assessed an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty after the exchange with Mondeaux and others.
“There was a lot of undisciplined play,” Tate said. “We’ve just gotta keep our cool and make better decisions.”
This was easily Tate’s least effective performance since taking over at quarterback and taking the Pac-12 by storm.
Tate had rushed for at least 137 yards in each of the preceding six games – five of which Arizona won. He also had at least one run in each of those games covering 54 or more yards.
Oregon limited Tate to 32 yards on 14 carries. He completed 18 of 35 passes for 159 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. His Heisman Trophy campaign likely came to an end.
“They had some success slowing him down,” Rodriguez said. “We didn’t block it well, we didn’t read it well. They did a good job.
“The frustrating part is, we’ll probably watch the film (and see) they were playing the exact way we thought they would play. They played it better than us.”
The Ducks limited the Wildcats to 171 rushing yards – less than half their season average. Arizona entered Saturday averaging 347.7 rushing yards per game, third most in the nation.
Oregon rushed for 353 yards, becoming the third team this season to run for 300 or more against Arizona. Royce Freeman led the way with 135 yards and four touchdowns.
“I just don’t think we showed up to play,” Schooler said. “It seemed like from the very first snap to the last one they were kind of getting a push on us.”
It didn’t help that Arizona lost Justin Belknap, Dereck Boles and Luca Bruno – its three starting defensive linemen – to injuries during the game.
Despite all those issues, the Wildcats trailed by just a touchdown entering the fourth quarter. The Ducks outscored them 13-0 in the final period. It was the first time Arizona failed to score in the fourth quarter this year.
The UA has one more chance to finish this season the right way.
“We’ll definitely use this game as a learning experience,” Schooler said. “We’re going to be on the road again next week. We’ve just gotta keep our poise and do our thing.”