When all is said and done for Arizona this season, this might not be considered a particularly great team — we will know more in a month or so — but at least this far, it’s a team having a pretty good year.
The Wildcats, in the second year of the Rich Rodriguez era, once again became bowl eligible Saturday with a hard-fought 33-28 win over California in Berkeley, Calif., giving them back-to-back Pac-12 road victories.
“It gives us a chance,” said Rodriguez, whose team moved to 6-2 overall and 3-2 in the Pac-12, a game back of Arizona State in the Pac-12 South. “Like I told the team, it (wasn’t) pretty, but we’re not going to worry about being pretty. We want to be resilient.
“I’m proud of the seniors because they can play one more game (a bowl). But they’d like to play two,” he said, referring to the Pac-12 championship game. “Who knows what will happen? We have a huge challenge in front of us.”
The challenge immediately ahead of Arizona is UCLA, which visits Tucson next week for homecoming. If the Wildcats continue to win, they will remain in contention for the South title, but they will need at least some help; USC would have to lose in the next month, for one.
But Arizona gave itself a chance Saturday at Memorial Stadium, extending its winning streak to three games. And the Wildcats did it with an all-around effort: running, passing, special teams and defense.
Rodriguez used the word “resilient” a couple of times in his postgame radio show. Specifically, that’s what Arizona was after giving up a touchdown on California’s first possession.
“A lot of times a team will panic, but our defense didn’t,” Rodriguez said. “They came out and did a good job of settling down.”
And as the defense settled down, the offense came right back and gave the Wildcats a need they’d never relinquish, although there were some scary moments late.
“We hit just enough passes to loosen things up,” Rodriguez said. “And, I thought B.J. Denker was on the mark for mostly the whole game.”
He was, hitting 28 of 38 passes for a modest 187 yards and one touchdown pass. More impressively, he had three running touchdowns, giving him a team-high 11 for the season, to go along with 44 yards on 15 carries.
“The defense really loaded up against Ka’Deem (Carey),” Denker said. “They didn’t want him to have the ball, so I knew I was going to have to carry it some and take some shots.
“Yeah, I’m a little banged up, but they geared towards stopping Ka’Deem and I was able to take advantage. Even on plays where I had to hand it to Ka’Deem, I didn’t want to because they were so focused on him.”
Carey rushed for 152 yards on 32 carries and moved into the school’s No. 3 spot in career rushing yards with 3,426, passing Art Luppino. Carey has rushed for more than 100 yards in 11 consecutive games and 15 of the 16.
The two backfield mates did get a bit banged up, Rodriguez said on his postgame radio show. Apparently, Carey had a hard time cutting on his right foot, although it didn’t seem to stop him from coming up with some big plays. One of those was the game-clinching 17-yard run for a first down with just over a minute left to keep the clock running.
Rodriguez said that while his offensive line got pushed around a bit, Carey got every yard he could.
“If there is anything there, Ka’Deem gets it,” Rodriguez said. “He made some big plays, and the big run to get the first down in the end was the key.”
Denker, who has had a couple of huge weeks, was sore all week, so Rodriguez attempted to limit his carries “because we didn’t want him to get beat up.” While he did get hit a few times, he was effective and efficient, finishing with no turnovers.
“If we would have gotten a turnover today, we would have lost,” Rodriguez said. “We took care of the ball and made some good decisions in the passing game. Our young guys made some good catches, and Terrance Miller made the play of the day with his long catch.”
The catch was a big one, no doubt.
On the first possession of the second half, Miller caught a short pass, broke a couple of tackles and went 60 yards to set up a 1-yard Denker touchdown run. That score extended Arizona’s lead to 26-14, and it appeared that the Wildcats might pull away.
That was until Cal receiver Kenny Lawler made one of his two acrobatic catches to keep his team in it. Lawler, a freshman, reached out with one arm for a pass thrown behind him and hauled it in with one hand, while falling down, for a ridiculous 3-yard touchdown. Lawler scored three of the Bears’ four TDs.
But Arizona had just enough.
“It definitely hurt,” Cal quarterback Jared Goff said of the loss, which dropped his team to 1-8 overall and 0-6 in the conference. “It was in our grasp and we didn’t really grab it. We need to eliminate the little mistakes. It shows, with the team we have, we can’t make those little mistakes if we’re going to win a game. I can’t throw interceptions. It can’t happen.
“We had a chance to really reach out, grab it and get a nice win against Arizona, and we didn’t take advantage of it.”
The Arizona defense was a big part of that.
First, cornerback Jonathan McKnight picked off a pass late in the third quarter, halting a Cal drive and setting up a Denker 14-yard touchdown run, his third of the game. Then, with Arizona now up 33-21, Jourdon Grandon intercepted Goff in the end zone to end another drive.
“We’re getting better,” Rodriguez said. “We knew we were going to be challenged. They throw the ball all over the map. And they made some great catches … our guys did a good job of recognizing their route packages.”
NOTES: Arizona senior linebacker Jake Fischer did not play because of a knee injury, missing a start for the first time in his career. He had played in 46 consecutive games. In his absence, freshman linebacker Scooby Wright played well, finishing with a team-leading 11 tackles. “He’s been a great player all year,” Rodriguez said. “Scooby was taking that role of Jake and did a really nice job.”