South champs: Wildcats edge rival Sun Devils to claim division title

TUCSON, Ariz. — The Scooby Wright and Rich Rodriguez mystery machine continues to roll.

Why not add mystical and magical in describing Arizona’s improbable ride to 10-2 and a Pac-12 South championship, after the Wildcats defeated Arizona State 42-35 Friday in a sold-out Arizona Stadium for arguably the biggest win in school history?

No. 11 Arizona faces No. 2 Oregon next Friday in Santa Clara, Calif., for the Pac-12 title. Arizona handed the Ducks their only loss, 31-24, in Eugene in October.

"It’s going to be exciting," said Rodriguez, who never has faced an opponent twice in a season. "It’ll be a very tough task but our confidence (will be high) because we played them well the last two times."

Winning has become the new normal for Arizona under Rodriguez, who has won 26 games and lost 12 in three years.

"If I didn’t think it could happen, I never would have (come) here," Rodriguez said. "I’ve been fortunate to be at successful programs (so) I thought we could win here and win big here. But we had to have some big things happen."

Voila! They have.

And no bigger than everything falling exactly how it needed to Friday. Arizona needed a Stanford win over UCLA — and got the upset. Meanwhile, the Wildcats had to find a way to get by ASU, a team that just three weeks ago was in the national championship picture.

No. 11 Arizona, No. 13 ASU 35

"You gotta have a little luck, a little fortune," Rodriguez said. "When we beat Oregon last year it allowed Stanford to win the Pac-12 North. Coach (David) Shaw deserves a big shout-out for giving us an assist. We appreciate that."

Arizona also had huge assists from others. The Wildcats before last season completed a $72 million facility on the north end of their stadium, have a new winning attitude on the field and melded a host of players who found synergy.

The list is long but no different than who showed up on Friday in what turned into a back-and-forth matchup until the end.

Quarterback Anu Solomon, playing on a bum ankle and listed as questionable all week, threw two touchdowns. His coach and teammates used words like "gutty" and "impressive" to describe the calm and composed quarterback.

"He’s a great leader for being a young redshirt freshman," Rodriguez said.

There also was true freshman Nick Wilson, who rushed for 178 yards and a career-high three touchdowns.

Throw in the All-American effort of sophomore linebacker Wright, plus opportunistic safety Tra’Mayne Bondurant, and Arizona had the makings of something big.

"He’s worked his way back into being the type of player we knew he could be," Rodriguez said of Bondurant, who had 11 tackles.

Rodriguez called Wright one of the best football players in the country. Wright finished with a game-high 13 tackles, including two sacks.

"Two-star Scooby rose to the occasion again," Rodriguez said of his lightly recruited star.

All was the rivalry game in a nutshell. It also was the season in review with gritty and gutty performances in what has turned into a high-wire act from a group of unheralded players.

"We don’t talk about it because you lose your focus," Rodriguez said of a conference title.

He used the comparison of eating an elephant to winning the title, doing it "one bite at a time. That’s what we are doing. We’re eating it one bite at a time. We took a big chunk out of it today."

Wilson's 3 TDs carry Wildcats

It’s been a 10-course meal as Arizona has won 10 games for the first time since 1998 when it went 12-1 and finished No. 4 in the country.

"People outside of us should be amazed," said senior Jourdan Grandon, who had a fourth-quarter interception. "But we knew what we (were) going to do before the season. We knew we had a great offense. We knew our defense was filled with seniors. We knew we had a shot to make a run at things."

That was Greg Byrne’s hope when he hired Rodriguez a year removed from the coach’s dismissal at Michigan. Byrne had a vision. And Rodriguez had a business-like, get-it-done approach.

"The reason why this is happening is because (the players) bought in from Day One what coach Rodriguez and the staff brought to the table," Byrne said. "The hard work that everybody has done, especially what the coaches have done over the last three years to put us in this position, is remarkable. I couldn’t be prouder."

Rodriguez earned a $200,000 bonus for reaching the conference title game and a $150,000 bonus for winning 10 games.

He said he didn’t know the first was coming, via the UCLA loss, until shortly after the game. When he heard, he was able to "bounce even further in the air."

Senior Mickey Baucus said he heard UCLA was trailing Stanford with about five minutes left in the game through a "little birdie."

That’s when he got real nervous because the Wildcats and their defense still were dealing with ASU’s attack, which pushed to the very end. But Arizona exorcised the demons — err, Sun Devils — after losing to its rival the previous two years. 

"You don’t know how many times I’ve thought about this week," Rodriguez said. "You try not to put more pressure in the rivalry game, but there is … that’s all you hear from the fans."

Arizona fans left Arizona Stadium happy and many rushed the field after the win, congratulating their team not only for a good game but also a remarkable season.

"It’s incredible from what we’ve come from," Baucus said. "We were all just going nuts. It’s a dream come true. You know when I committed here five years ago, I thought we could build something at this level and we have. And now we’ve got a great shot to win at the next level."

Another week brings on another mystery to be solved.

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